Dec 28, 2012
There a several ways to intentionally carbonate wine, but the finest sparklers — combining bubbly weightlessness with rich flavors — are from “méthode traditionelle,” as the French say, where the prized fermentation is in each bottle.
“Champagne” can be used only on French sparklers from that famous region in north-central France, though American-made sparkling wine can legally use the descriptor. A U.S. synonym (also common in other countries) is Méthode Champenoise, though, again, this phrase is not allowed on non-Champagne sparkling wines from France!
Instead, since the late 1980s, the French have settled on “Crémant” for such wines. On a French label, it denotes a wine from traditional methods made somewhere besides Champagne.
Increasingly popular is Italian Prosecco — not only the name of the grape but also a style, representing northeast Italy’s version of the world’s most commonly made sparkling wine. Not unlike commercial beer, the second fermentation is seeded in a big tank — far less labor-intensive than in each bottle — before the liquid is pumped into bottles. Many inexpensive California sparklers use this method (indicated by “Charmat Bulk Process” somewhere on the label).
I know of no Maryland wineries using the bulk method, but Ray Brasfield at Cygnus Winery produces credible Méthode Champenoise from Carroll County-grown grapes.
Fine sparkling wine takes a lot of space, considerable capital, and acquired skill. Each bottle, once inoculated with the sugary “charge” that causes the wine to re-ferment, must be stored upside-down on a special rack and rotated over many months, so that any sediment ends up in the bottle’s neck. Then, with a certain wrist-flick, each bottle is opened momentarily to blow out sediment, before being fitted with a wired cork to trap the bubbles inside.
If it sounds tricky, then you’ll understand why I tell tasting room visitors that I’ll have to wait till my next life to do sparklers.
Small Biz Buzz Best Buys — Frexeinet (Spain) claims to be the world’s most popular sparkling wine brand, and their black-bottle Cordon Negro Brut, with its persistent, citrusy flavors, is a standard-bearer in Spanish Cava (which by Spanish law must be made using traditional methods). $10. A delicious, full-bodied wine imbued still with the giddy lightness of “real Champagne” is Charles Duret Crémant de Burgogne (Burgundy, France), made from the same Chardonnay/Pinot Nor/Pinot Meunier grapes as Champagne but grown down the road in Burgundy. $18. And finally, in a break from the mind-numbing value-consciousness of this column that only the fiscal cliff can inspire, toast the new year with Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru (Champagne, France) — my vote for the world’s greatest wine. I invite you to close your eyes as the sensation of impossibly tender, crushed raspberries paddles across your palate, leaving such intense satisfaction in its wake that you may think you’re drinking great Pinot Noir rather than a white sparkling wine. This monumental artisanal creation is not easy to find in stores, but “grower Champagne” specialist Mitchell Pressman at Chesapeake Wine Co. in Baltimore stocks it. $125.