White's Wines – Pop! Goes the Cork on New Year's

There’s nothing like popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s.

For good reason. Sparkling wine makes every event a bit more glamorous. That’s why it’s been the go-to beverage for celebrations for over 150 years. As New Year’s approaches, it’s important to understand the differences between sparkling wines — and figure out which ones you’re going to stock up on for the big night.

Legend would have us believe that Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk, invented Champagne in 1697. But historians now know that sparkling wines were being produced in the French Pyrenees as early as 1531. And in 1662 — six years before Perignon even started working in wine — a British scientist by the name of Christopher Merret documented that the addition of sugar to a finished wine could create a second fermentation.

Since the modern Champagne industry took form in the mid-19th century, the process of making the French sparkler has essentially remained unchanged. First, the wine is fermented until dry. It’s then bottled, and a second fermentation is launched by adding yeast and sugar. At this point, the wine bottle is temporarily capped, and the dead yeast is gradually forced to the bottle’s neck. After a period of aging, the neck is briefly frozen, and the temporary cap and surrounding sediment are removed. A small amount of wine and cane sugar is then added to top off the bottle and add a bit of sweetness. Finally, the wine is resealed with a more permanent closure.

This process, called the “traditional method,” is used to produce many sparkling wines across the world.

Champagne, of course, can only come from Champagne. Under European Union trade laws, wine can only be sold as “Champagne” if it comes from that region of France and is made in the traditional method. The primary grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.

Real Champagne is a treat, but it can be quite expensive. Even “budget” options cost upwards of $35! Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable sparklers from regions outside Champagne.

Consider Cava, a delightful sparkling wine from Spain that’s produced just like Champagne, but using native Spanish grapes. As Washington Post wine critic Dave McIntyre recently wrote, “In the bargain bubbly category, it’s hard to beat Cava… I’ve tasted many of these over the years and rarely have I found one I didn’t like.” Many top Cavas can be purchased for less than $10.

There are also plenty of Champagne imitators — sparkling wines made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier and produced in the traditional method.

In South Africa, these wines are called “Cap Classique.” Graham Beck Wines has been producing impressive sparklers since the early 1990s, and its wines are readily available across the United States for less than $15.

American imitators are often labeled as “Methode Champenoise.” For about $25, you can’t beat Roederer Estate’s Anderson Valley Brut Rosi or Argyle’s Willamette Valley Brut. For less than $15, Gruet’s Blanc de Noirs, which comes from New Mexico, is delightful.

France even has its own Champagne imitators! Sparkling wines labeled as “Cremant” are produced using the traditional method, and winemakers must follow some strict rules. Cremant de Bourgognes have long offered exceptional value.

The second method of producing sparkling wine is called the Charmant process, and it’s primarily used in Italy to produce wines like Asti and Prosecco. In this process, secondary fermentation takes place in steel tanks rather than inside each bottle. These wines aren’t as complex, but they’re not supposed to be. Proseccos should be light, fruity, and fresh. Plus, they tend to cost less than sparklers produced using the traditional method.

As you prepare for New Year’s, don’t hesitate to purchase some extra sparkling wine for 2012. We’re taught to believe that Champagne and other sparklers are for celebrating. They are. But they’re delicious every night of the week, even when there’s nothing to celebrate.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.

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