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Sparkles and bubbles and holiday cheer

Janice JonesFood & Wine

Tis the season of celebrations, and one of the great accoutrements to a celebration is champagne. People all over the world will be enjoying champagne and sparkling wines this time of year, more than at any other time. True champagne comes from the Champagne region of northern France where vineyards are rated for quality on a 100-point system, and specific laws regulate how the champagne is made.

All other sparkling wines you may come across are not legally allowed to use the term champagne on the label. These sparkling wines may be made in the traditional method or mthode champenoise and taste exactly how a great champagne should taste, and may be everything you would want in a champagne, but if the Champagne region of France is not where it hails from, it must be designated as sparkling wine.Many wine makers, however, are ignoring this French law and are now labeling their California, Australia, or other country-of-origin sparkling wine as champagne. Understanding what makes a sparkling wine champagne is interesting, but not as important as what flavors and characteristics that wine will present. Champagnes and sparkling wines all possess certain aroma and flavor profiles that should assist you in selecting a bottle or two for your holiday celebrations. The following is a short list of those flavors most associated with these celebratory wines, and a good wine merchant will be able to direct you to a bottle that has just the right flavors and aromas for you.Honey, toffee, caramel, cream soda, vanilla, or coconut aromas and flavors may jump out to you. Or you may prefer yeasty bread dough, toasted bread, butter, or roasted nuts. Ginger, quince, spices or rose petals may fill your senses, or minerals, mushrooms, earth or stones may be prevalent. Citrus flavors of lemon, grapefruit, tangerines or oranges, or the flavors of apples, pineapples or pears may jump out at you. A good champagne or sparkler should exhibit a delicious mingling of some of these flavors and aromas, accompanied by fine bubbles.

What makes these wines bubble is the result of a secondary fermentation process which traps natural carbon dioxide gas in the bottle. Size matters when it comes to champagne bubbles, the smaller the bubbles the finer the wine. What makes smaller bubbles is the length of time the wine ages and the temperature the wine was kept at to age, the cooler the temperature the smaller the bubble. A good champagne will have lots of small bubbles that last a long time in the glass, lesser quality wines will be the opposite of this and the wine will go flat in the glass quite quickly. The bubbles create the mouth feel and texture which accompanies the mingled flavors and aromas that create the wonderful enjoyment of sipping a good champagne or sparkling wine.Traditional method champagnes and sparkling wines are produced from one of three grape varieties, either chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes.

Champagne labels will indicate the style of the wine with the following designations: NV, or non-vintage, is a lighter-style wine made by the blending of wines from several vintages. Vintage is only produced in good grape-growing years, and will be a more flavorful and richer than NV. Deluxe cuves are generally all vintage wines, that are considered the best, and demand a premium price for these champagnes. There are also the designations of which type of vineyard was used in producing the wine. Grand cru indicates wine made from grapes grown in the very best vineyards. Premier cru is made from grapes grown in a vineyard that is rated a step down from the grand cru, blanc de blancs are wines made from only white grapes, while blanc de noirs are white wines produced from black grapes. The level of sweetness is also indicated on the label.Brut is a dry style, ultra brut will be drier, and extra dry is drier than brut, but less dry than ultra brut. Sec is slightly sweet, demi-sec is sweet, and doux is very sweet.Sparkling wines will be labeled in the same manner, and made from the same type grapes as champagnes.

California, Washington and New York produce some very good sparkling wines, as do New Zealand and Australia. Some interesting ones are also appearing on the shelves from Chile, Argentina and South Africa.Spains sparklers are called cavas: they are reasonably priced mthode champenoise style wines, using different grape varieties than the French counterpart. Cavas tend to be citrus and earthy in flavors and aromas. Italy produces three types of sparkling wines: prossecco, asti-spumante and moscato dasti. Prosecco is made mainly from prosecco grapes blended with pinot bianco and pinot grigio grapes. These sparklers are not made in the champagne method, and are generally light and slightly sweet with a slight amount of bubbles. Asti-spumante is a semi-sweet sparkler made from moscato grapes, and have the flavors and aromas of ripe peaches and apricots, with an underlying mustiness, and are sweet. Moscato dasti is made in small batches, and is a lightly sweet, light in alcohol, with a slight fizz. This is the traditional drink at Christmas in Piedmont.Try itWhether you choose a champagne or sparkling wine for your celebration, dont buy the cheapest and read the labels for the type of wine. Shop the wine shops and stores for the champagne or sparkling wine this season. Not all well-known and high-priced bottles will be the best. From France, Charles Eller 96 Brut Seduction just earned a 95 from wine Spectator magazine and you should find it for well under $100. For those who wish to splurge, Krug 1995, for about $225, is a good choice. California sparklers to sample for under $30 include Gloria Ferrer brut, Schramsberg blanc de noir, and Domaine Chandon brut.Janice Jones is a Truckee resident and wine consultant. Reach her at sierrafinewines@yahoo.com.


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