This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post
Sparkling wine is the wine of fashion and celebration. It is also symbol of success and happiness. Champagne is the ultimate expression of the art. These are the wines made exclusively within the Champagne Region of France.
In wine folklore, the blind monk Dom Perignon is often credited with discovering Champagne. He was said to come running after tasting a bubbly wine: “Come quickly! I think I am drinking stars!” Lovely story, great quote but in reality unlikely to be true. However one should never spoil a good story by the truth!
The wine gets its bubbles from a secondary fermentation which takes place in the bottle. It is more expensive and time consuming done this way, but the results produce the better sparkling wines, with smaller and more continuous bubbles.
The Champagne houses have done a wonderful job marketing their product to convey the idea that only the genuine article provides the expected luxury and quality. In fact now many countries also produce sparkling wines in the same way, which often match the quality of Champagne, even if not the perception of luxury.
Cava is the name of a Spanish sparkling wine also made the champagne way. The home of Cava is the Catalonian region of Spain near Penedes. The word ‘cava’ has become the slang for a sparkling wine in Israel. Many people ordering a ‘glass of cava’ are in fact requesting anything with bubbles!
The next level of sparkling wines, are made by the tank method, whereby the secondary fermentation takes place in a tank and they are then bottled under pressure to preserve the bubbles. Prosseco wines are made this way. They come from North-east Italy. The wines are soft, fragrant and refreshing. More uncomplicated, less complex but no less drinkable than Champagne and a great deal more inexpensive.
The most inexpensive sparkling wines are made by what I call the Coca Cola Method. This receives its bubbles by simple carbonation. The price is normally a giveaway, but also the bubbles tend to be bigger and will dissipate more quickly than with the other versions.
Lambrusco is a wine from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy. The Lambrusco seen here is normally red, frothy, slightly sparkling with cherry berry fruit, good acidity and varying amounts of sweetness. These are fun wines which remind us that wine should not be taken too seriously.
Sparkling wines have their own language. Anything made by the champagne method will have Classic Method or Traditional Method written on the label. Wines made by the tank method will have Cuve Close or Charmat on the label. Words like Pétillant or Frizzante refer to a wine that is slightly sparkling.
Blanc de Blancs is a wine made 100% from white grapes and in Champagne, the variety will be Chardonnay. Of the other descriptive terms used, the word ‘Brut’ means dry and ‘Extra Brut’ means very dry. ‘Extra Dry’ means off-dry (ie with a touch of sweetness). Demi Sec corresponds to semi dry and Doux is sweet. I never said it was not confusing!
The first traditional method wines made in Israel were made by Carmel. Flying the flag for many decades was President’s Sparkling Wine. It was initially made by the Traditional Method, and later by the Charmat process. This was Israel’s first quality sparkling wine.
However, it was not until the 1990’s that Israel took a giant step forward to producing world class sparkling wine. The Golan Heights Winery invested in all the modern equipment and know-how to make a Traditional Method sparkling wine.
At the 1996 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, Yarden Blanc de Blancs, then a non-vintage wine, won the Trophy for The Best Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine. Israeli sparkling wine had arrived.
The finest Israeli sparkling wines made by the Traditional Method, are Yarden Blanc de Blancs Vintage, Yarden Rosé, Gamla Shmura Brut, Tishbi Brut and Pelter Blanc de Blancs. With these wines, the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, no different from the real McCoy.
The Yarden Blanc de Blancs has worldwide recognition and has won trophies and awards at the highest level. The Gamla Brut is great value, but totally dry. The Tishbi Brut is slightly sweeter, but still dry. Pelter is rare and expensive, being produced in tiny quantities. The sparkling wines produced by the Charmat process, are those produced by Carmel Private Collection, Tabor 652 and Teperberg.
Finally, there are the light, low alcohol, sweet Moscato wines. They are made in the style of a Moscato d’Asti and are lightly sparkling. The best Moscatos are produced by Carmel, Dalton, Golan Heights Winery’s Hermon and Teperberg.
Sparkling wines should be served cold. Put them in your fridge two hours before you need them. For emergencies, put ice in a bucket and fill it with water. A submerged bottle will be cold in 10-15 minutes.
Be extra careful opening a sparkling wine. Don’t underestimate the pressure in a sparkling wine bottle. The cork is a dangerous missile if it flies uncontrolled in the wrong direction. The correct way is to hold the bottle at 45 degrees, not pointing at anyone. Carefully undo the wire cradle covering the cork, keeping a finger on top of the cork at all times. Then hold the cork and gently turn the bottle. The bottle should open with a sound like an erotic sigh rather than an explosive pop. Formula One drivers’ celebrating a win in the Grand Prix is not the role model to follow in this instance.
In times gone past, the coupe was the classic sparkling wine glass. It is said to have been shaped to Marie Antoinette’s breast, but is not the ideal glass for champagne. It is probably better for ice cream or cocktails.
More suitable are the longer, narrower tulip or flute glass which better concentrate the aromas and preserve the bubbles for longer. In reality, most households don’t own extra glasses for sparklers, so I am pleased to be able to confirm that the traditional white wine glass, with a smaller bowl than for red wines, slightly tapering in at the rim, is also fine for sparkling wines. Maybe it even does more justice to the fruity and toasty aromas of a quality sparkling wine than the ‘official’ champagne glass.
Pour sparkling wines as gently as possible. Tilting the glass so the wine slides down the side is the best method to avoid a spillage due to too much froth.
When to drink sparkling wines? They can more than match up to the needs of any party, wedding or celebration. They are perfect wines for Hanukah, Thanksgiving, Christmas and especially New Year’s Eve or Sylvesters! This is the classic wine to make a toast with.
Sparkling wine is most usually enjoyed as an aperitif. Most restaurants will have a Champagne, Cava or Prosecco by the glass, or maybe all three. It is a great pick-me-up wine. A glass of sparkling wine can often be a tonic after a tough day.
As for drinking with food, a sparkling wine will gladly accompany most first courses, fish, poultry and may be the most perfect partner of all for Sushi. Even at the end of a big meal where you have eaten too much, a clean, refreshing glass of sparkling wine can be an excellent way to finish the evening.
At weddings you will often receive a sparkling wine cocktail. This is normally a sweet sickly concoction designed to mask a cheap sparkling wine. There are only two cocktails I like. One is the Bucks Fizz (or Mimosa) which is Champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice. If there is a better breakfast drink, I have yet to hear of it. The second is Kir Royal which is Champagne with a touch of Crème de Cassis, added sparingly as much for color as taste.
Sparkling wine is a mood wine. If you are in a celebratory mood, or want to create an atmosphere of celebration, then pop open a bottle of sparkling wine. Whatever the occasion, and even if there is no occasion, you will feel better for it.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for both Israeli and international publications.