One of the pressures of the holidays or private special occasions stems from those events that require us to “bring something.” There is always concern as to what’s appropriate for the event, its theme, the food being served, the various tastes of the attendees. I find it easiest to simply skip all that and bring something that somehow rises above such concerns and is always appropriate: Champagne or some other sparkling wine. At the very least, you are providing a quick toast to the holidays, the guest of honor or the evening.
A little background history goes a long way to building our confidence in picking a sparkling wine, so I’ll spend a little time there. Anyone who wants to get right to some recommendations can toggle down and skip this part, but I find these tidbits of info also give you something to talk about that enhances the enjoyment of the drinkers.
Champagne is a place north of Burgundy and east of Paris where winemakers struggled to grow the same grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are so successful in Burgundy’s slightly warmer climate. There were several problems associated with the short growing season of Champagne that made fine wine an elusive goal. First, the grapes struggled to ripen before impending frost dictated picking; second, the cold weather would often chill the cellars to a degree that the yeasts became dormant during fermentation, prematurely stopping the process. The wines were bottled, but when warm weather returned in spring the yeasts would reawaken and begin fermentation again. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of fermentation and can generate up to ninety psi of pressure on the closed container it is in. It became commonplace for a sealed bottle of poor quality to either pop its primitive cork or explode. One bottle exploding could cause enough vibration to set off a chain reaction and cellar masters might suddenly be fleeing flying glass and geysers of bubbly.
Moet and Chandon, owners of the Dom Perignon label claim that a Benedictine monk named Pierre Perignon invented the process of Champagne making in the early 1700’s. Wine historians paint a different portrait, insisting that he actually did not like the bubbles and directed much of his effort toward ways to prevent them. The improvements Dom Perignon is credited with include the use of better Spanish cork, the wire cage that holds it in place, and a stronger bottle style that was imported from England at the time, the combination of which greatly enhanced the odds of holding the sparkling wine safely. By the time of his death in 1715, that effervescent style was part of the industry of Champagne but still played a relatively minor role, comprising only about ten percent of the region’s output, and still made primarily by accident.
It was in 1723 when a bottle of Champagne was used to toast as Louis XVI ascended to the French throne at age thirteen that royalty began a fascination with the bubbles, and the industry of Champagne became dedicated to this sparkling product. Today that second fermentation is encouraged in the bottle by introducing fresh yeast and fruit sugar for it to consume. The grapes used are still Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a clone called Pinot Meunier, which ripens a little earlier than the Noir and is common in the coldest sections. Dom Perignon is also credited with the use of this blend from up to six vintages to create superior wine, and traditional Champagne contains a blend of these three. Most Champagne will simply state the name of the house on the label, along with an indication of dryness, with Brut being the driest followed by Extra Sec or Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux (sweet). A Blanc de Blanc is made entirely from Chardonnay; a Blanc de Noir from just the two red grapes. Rosé Champagne may be made from a little extra skin contact and a greater portion of Pinot Noir or by adding a little red wine at the time the blend is made.
I find that the Blanc De Noir or Rose style are actually the best for mixed groups. They tend to be not quite as dry as others, offering slightly rounder fruit, and the fact that they can be considered 100% Pinot Noir and its clone Meuniere gives guests a different taste of the hottest grape around today. There are numerous California or Oregon products at affordable prices out there in this style, but expect to pay about $20 or more for a good one, Domaine Chandon’s Blance de Noir, made in California by Moet & Chandon, for example, runs in that range.
The best price value may be in Spanish Cava, and many decent ones are available for $15 and under. My only critique of this style is that the grapes they use are very delicate and the yeasty flavors from that second fermentation in the bottle tend to show through.
Some people love those yeasty flavors, but I actually prefer the equally delicate flavors of Prosecco, which is the name of both a grape and the village where it is made in northeastern Italy. Prosecco is made in a method called “Charmat,” which means it’s second fermentation takes place in larger vats rather than individual bottles. The yeasty flavors are much more subtle, replaced with a freshness that is very pretty. The only drawback to this method is that they don’t last as long as those fermented in the bottle, so drink your Prosecco while it’s young and fresh. Prosecco can be had anywhere from $10-20 and drink perfectly well. It also has the gift of generating less formality and more fun that Champagne.
My feeling is that if you want to impress bring Blanc de Noir and show a little knowledge; if you want to just have fun, bring Prosecco and relax with it. If you want to step it up a bit, purchase a fruit puree, peach is traditional, and add a shot of it to the Prosecco and make Bellinis. There’s a good chance they will be new and enjoyable for everyone present.