Despite being in the throes of winter, I find nothing cheers me up more than a crisp glass of bubbly and, with all that is going on in the world around us, I doubt anyone is going to find good cheer and celebratory vibes unwelcome which is the genesis being this week’s topic of sparkling wine (with Champagne at its core). Crisply refreshing and owning a near-perfect pairing ability with a vast quantity of foods, this genre of wine has been pigeonholed as a celebratory beverage and continues to fall short of gaining any real traction among the mainstream kosher-drinking crowd.
You Can Quote Me on That
Centuries of celebrity quotes trumpeting Champagne as a wine to be consumed early and often including from Winston Churchill (“Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right”) and Napoleon Bonaparte ( “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself”; a quote plagiarized and bastardized by Churchill himself into “In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it”) have not succeeded in convincing the wine-guzzling masses to incorporate it into their regular repertoire. Beyond our usual desire to educate and inform, I hope that this newsletter will convince at least some of you to reach for sparkling wine the next time you are looking for a refreshing and versatile wine.
While the British actually “invented” sparkling wine in the 17th century, they failed to make it their own, partly as a result of their inability to grow quality grapes during their inferior dark and dreary English summers. It wasn’t until 30 odd-years later that Champagne was born, after a French monk named Dom Pérignon fiddled with the process and helped create the luxurious wine by refining a number of the process (while an avid winemaker and oenophile, he wasn’t actually the “inventor” of Champagne, per se – for more on the history of Champagne try this link).
The Fine Print
Despite prevalent usage around the globe as a descriptor for any wine with bubbles, legally Champagne may only refer sparkling wine grown in the chalky soil of France’s cool-climate Champagne Appellation D’origine Contrôlée (AOC), which yields grapes with considerable acidity contributing to Champagne’s food compatibility. In order to be labeled as Champagne, the wine must also be produced in accordance with a stringent set of rules comprising the traditional méthode champenoise (the traditional method of making Champagne described below). Located approximately 90 miles east of Paris, the region covers approximately 84,000 acres of prime wine-growing soil spread among 319 villages (referred to as Crus). Approximately 90% of this land is owned and farmed by nearly 15,000 independent growers with the remainder owned by the approximately 110 Champagne “Houses” and collectively yielding over 300 million bottles of Champagne a year. While the tradition of independent growers selling their crop to the houses continues for the most part, recent years have seen a proliferation of growers producing retaining all or part of their crop to produce, bottle and market Champagne under their own names with nearly 5,000 growers trying their hands these days at this process. These wines are commonly referred to as grower Champagne and are prized for their quality and uniqueness among oenophiles around the world. Unfortunately there are no kosher grower Champagne wines available today (and given the methodology of producing kosher French wine, I doubt there is any such grower Champagne in our near future either).
While there are a number of methodologies for creating sparkling wines (a topic for another newsletter), méthode champenoise is generally deemed the best, with many famed wine-growing regions around the world producing wines in this method including Spain (Cava), Italy (spumante or prosecco (depending on the region it is from)) and South Africa (Cap Classique). That said, there are numerous excellent options for the discerning customer, spread across the entire range of geography, price and methodologies. Partially due to low-levels of interest in the genre, the kosher wine market is still playing catch up with the general marketplace, although California is making some nice versions with Hagafen being a long(er)-time player in the market and Covenant recently releasing a sparkling wine of their own. That said, some of the best kosher sparkling wine available comes from Israel. The Golan heights Winery has been the market leader in this regard for over a decade, with their Blanc de Blancs under the Yarden leader ranking top five sparklers every year, accompanied by the none-too-shabby Brut Rose and the insanely well-priced Gamla (Gilgal in the US) Brut comprising the best slate of kosher sparkling wines around. Other high-end players are entering the market, with Matar releasing a new sparkling wine (which I haven’t tasted yet) and Castel having three different versions in the works (all tasted last year, but it will be a while before they are ready for market).
Leave it to the Lawyers…
One thing to note is that, in addition to trademarking the name “Champagne” (and after substantial lobbying), Champagne growers obtained protection in 1994 for the production method as well and non-Champagne wines made in this traditional method may now only be labeled as haven been made in the méthode traditionale (although unlike with Champagne, to date this is rarely enforced outside the European Union).
The Scientific Nuts and Bolts
So what exactly does this trademarked wine-making methodology entail? For starters, it is a complex, intricate, expensive and multi-step process (which lends itself to the limited number of kosher wine producers trying their hand at it). Utilizing Champagne’s three primary grape varietals – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the wine first undergoes a fermentation process similar to that of other quality still wines (typically in stainless steel tanks). Once this fermentation process has been completed, the still wine is bottled together with yeast and sugar (a syrup referred to as liqueur de triage) and then sealed, triggering a second fermentation in the bottle that yields the effervescence (a/k/a bubbles) for which the wine is known. The CO2 produced also serves to protect the wine from oxidation, thus contributing to Champagne’s long aging ability. Once the secondary fermentation is completed, the lees drop to the bottom of the bottle where they infuse the wine with additional depth and complexity. After the wine has sufficiently “aged on its lees” (referred to as aging sur lie), the cap is removed and the trapped gases push out the accumulated lees (at this point the bottles are typically capped with a bottle top similar to those used for beer bottles, with the elaborate cork, wire and foil only being added at the end of the process). The bottle is recapped and placed in a special rack, tilted downwards at a 45% angle and slowly rotated over time until the lees (a more glamorous descriptor than “dead yeast cells”) settle in the neck of the bottle (a process referred to as “riddling”). While some of the more prestigious Champagne houses continue to use the old-fashioned (and extremely laborious) practice of riddling by hand for their high-end offerings (over a period of 6-8 weeks, every few days each bottle requires a light tap and a slight turn), the majority of wines made in this manner (whether in Champagne or elsewhere) are riddled utilizing an automated process.
Following the riddling process, the wine located in the bottle’s neck is flash frozen, the lees are removed (a process referred to as disgorgement) and the bottle is then topped up with a syrup known as liqueur d’expédition (to compensate for the total lack of residual sugar as a result of the secondary fermentation) in a process known as dosage. Many Champagne houses claim a proprietary syrup with ingredients other than the traditional water and sugar, while the exact ratios are well guarded regardless ad used over a period of decades (excluding kosher versions – scroll down this link for a brief write up on Drappier). Following this process, the bottle is corked, sealed with a wire netting to prevent the corks escape and covered in the festive colored foil we see in the wine store. The amount of sugar in the added syrup will determine the level of the Champagne’s sweetness which is categorized based on dryness as follows: the sweetest level is doux, proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), brut (almost completely dry and the most common) and a small percentage of Champagne which is sold without any added sugar and categorized as extra brut, brut nature or brut zero.
The Art of the Matter
Most Champagne is made from a blend of grapes produced in many different vintages (typically between 30-60 different wines comprise every non-vintage Champagne!). While the majority of wine in any given non-vintage Champagne is derived from different grape varietals of the current vintage year from a number of different regions, a certain portion from past years utilized to ensure a consistent style (even a small amount of aged Champagne has an outsized impact and can add substantial depth, richness and complexity to the overall blend). This blending also enables the winemaker to compensate for mediocre vintages and inconsistent climate. The most important marketing aspect for the Champagne houses (also the winemaker’s biggest challenge) is to ensure a consistent “House Blend” year after year and blending is likely the most important aspect of Champagne – the soul of Champagne. When preparing the blend, the winemaker needs to consider not what the wine tastes like right now but rather what the resulting wine will taste like after second fermentation and many years of aging on the lees. In exceptional vintage years a vintage is declared and the best wine from that year will be marketed as vintage Champagne requiring a minimum of three years bottle aging on its lees under the AOC rules (non-vintage Champagne requires a minimum of 18 months) and guaranteeing a substantially higher price. That said, most premium Champagne is aged a minimum of six to eight years. While there is no vintage kosher Champagne on the market, there is at least one in the works, so stay tuned!
All Shapes and Sizes
Besides vintage and non-vintage, there are other differing styles including cuvee de prestige (typically the flagship wine of a Champagne house and usually the most well-known of its wines), Blanc de Noirs (which refers to a white wine made from dark grapes, usually Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), Blanc de Blanc (a white wine from white grapes only (typically Chardonnay, the best of which are sourced from the chalky slopes of the Côte des Blancs) and Rosé Champagne (nearly every major Champagne house worth its salt is producing at least one Rosé version). Produced by a different method than still Rosé, most Rosé Champagne is made by adding around 15% of still red wine to the otherwise white wine. Marketed as even more romantic and sexier than “regular” Champagne and coupled with a (controlled) scarcity, the prices of Rosé Champagne usually exceed those of their white brethren. Unfortunately, other than the delightful color, the added cost rarely yields anything qualitative in the wine with the “regular” versions nearly always being much better wines.
Late to the Party
One additional type of sparkling wine is Late Disgorged. Given the preserving impact of the lees, a winery typically disgorges the wine periodically, each time limiting the quantities to those that can be sold in the short-term (as with most wines, leaving sparkling wine on the shelf to collect dust degrades the wine and can have a damaging impact on the winery’s reputation), leading to multiple disgorgement dates for the wine. The actual disgorgement date of each bottling has historically been among a Champagne house’s most guarded secret, with the disgorgement date embossed on each bottle in a secret numeric code. However, this practice is changing with more transparency available online to decode these dates and certain grower and other Champagne producers, including the disgorgement date on the label. While wines disgorged further from the initial bottling are effectively “late disgorged” (relative to those that hit the market first) that is not the concept. Rather, wines labeled as such are usually disgorged long after the wine has been released, sold and cleared out of the market, typically many years following the initial release. As Madam Bollinger was the first to develop the concept with the release in 1961 of the late disgorged 1952 vintage, RD (an acronym late disgorged in French- récemment dégorgé) is actually a trademark of Bollinger (leading many to associate the concept solely with the Bollinger Champagne house. However, late disgorged and dégorgement tardif mean the same thing and are used interchangeably.
A Word of Caution
Conceptually, the reason for late disgorgement is that the longer aging time on the lees contributes additionally complexity and more pronounced flavors in the wine which can result in a richer and more luxurious style for the wine. Despite the preservation of the lees, these wines mature differently that post-disgorgement (where that breath of oxygen they received during the disgorgement process contributes to a different aging process). Generally speaking when tasting a late-disgorged wine side by side with its initial release, one should expect greater complexity from the late disgorged version coupled with a fresher feeling. Some winemakers feel that there are different stages in the evolution of Champagne and the late disgorgement is a way to have the consumer enjoy the different stages in the best way possible. The wine is sometimes actually different as well, since the wineries often reduce the sugar level in the dosage for the late disgorged wines. Given the added capital expense endured by the winery, such bottles are usually much more expensive than the initial releases (sometimes double or tripling the price), so they also provide wineries with a boost to their bottom line. A word of warning though; the advanced age does not mean increased aging ability – to the contrary. Late disgorged wines are best consumed within a short period after release – most experts recommend within a few years of release, with all kosher versions to date falling off the proverbial cliff within 12 months. Remember, regardless of what marketing and retailers will tell you, late disgorged is not intended as a better” wine, simply a different wine that reflects a different stage of evolution.
Pop or Slice
Keeping with the wine’s celebratory personality, opening a bottle of Champagne is always accompanied with celebratory fanfare, if only as a result of the delightful popping cork. However, for true entertainment and flair nothing beats sabrage which refers to the method of opening a Champagne bottle with a saber (check out some of the cool videos of sabering on YouTube). While seemingly dangerous and complicated, sabering merely requires sliding a saber with slight force along the bottle. Coupled with the increased pressure inside the bottle, the force of the saber hitting the lip of the Champagne bottle breaks the glass and separates the lip from the rest of the bottle. While a saber may be somewhat tough to come by, many slightly sharp or very thin objects will suffice – I have seen someone do it in person with an iPad.
Included below are tasting notes for recommended Champagne and other sparkling wines from around the world – pop a bottle or two and chase the pandemic blues away!
Baron Rothschild, Champagne, NV: A lovely nose of yeast, rich citrus, chalk minerals, tart stone fruit, quince, pith and some tropical notes are backed on the medium bodied palate with decent acidity and a slightly larger mousse with plenty of bold citrus, rich stone fruit, pears, a hint of herbacousness and more minerals. A somewhat short finish, the wine is nice and pleasing but a little overpriced for what it provides, especially when compared to the Drappier.
Champagne Drappier, Brut Nature, Zero Dosage, Pinot Noir, NV: When this was first released it earned a slot on my best Wines of 2018 list. However, as discussed above, the wine goes south rather quickly, so make sure to check the disgorgement date before buying. The wine is 100% Pinot Noir which was picked as late as possible to ensure the highest levels of natural sugar, the wine underwent full malolactic fermentation in stainless steel vats and then spent two years sur lie resulting in a vibrant and fresh-tasting wine. The Zero Dosage moniker reflects the fact that, unlike most Champagne wines, no dosage (sugar, often mixed with wine) was added to the bottle prior to the Champagne’s second fermentation in the bottle. The result is a vibrant and fresh wine that is beautifully seductive and elegant with a tight mousse and rich notes of tart green apple, yellow citrus, fresh-baked brioche and a delightful overlay of warm spices. More subtle yeasty notes than Drappier’s Carte D’Or, the medium bodied wine is complex and rich with flinty minerals, great acidity and a lingering finish that make it a welcome addition to any meal or occasion, but make sure to consume within 12 months of the disgorgement date or you are likely to be disappointed [mevushal].
Champagne Drappier, Carte d’Or, Brut, NV: Made from a blend of 80-90% Chardonnay, 5-15% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier (all traditional Champagne grapes, if not in this exact combination), the wine has a delightful nose of citrus, yeasty and toasty brioche, some pear, green apples and stone fruits with hints of flinty minerals and lip-smacking citrus notes. Much of the same follows on the medium-bodied palate with more yeasty notes, toasted hazelnuts, tart green apples, chalky minerals and good tight and focused bubbles that keep the flavors going on your palate including quince, rock, red grapefruit and citrus pith, and this wine was actually enjoyable the next day (under a Champagne stopper) [mevushal].
Champagne Heritage, Brut, Cuvée Leon / Lucien, Premier Cru, Bokobsa Sieva NV: Tasted side by side the similarities were evident, but I was surprised to learn that the two different bottlings were of the exact same wine and disheartened to learn that the reason was that each had an hashgacha that wouldn’t agree to be on the same bottle as the other… Yeah. So, onto the wine itself which was pleasurable. Good yeasty notes of toasted brioche, stone fruit, pears, quince and lemons along with chalk minerals and good balancing acidity on the medium bodied palate. Tight mousse with hints of herbal notes and more yeasty notes along with toasted hazelnuts. Not for long term cellaring but enjoyable now [produced by Bokobsa but likely only available in Europe].
Janisson & Fils, Champagne, Grand Cru, Brut, NV: A relative newcomer on the market, the wine is lovely with loads of citrus, green apples and quince on the bright nose, backed by toasted bread, yeasty notes, a hint of zesty citrus and spice that livens things up. The medium-bodied palate has a rich and focused mousse and elegant structure with more bright citrus, baked apple, almonds, some slightly bitter citrus pith, all backed by lovely acidity and a zestiness that runs through and provides nuance, complexity and a crisp refreshingness that tantalizes and pleases through the long lingering finish. 12% AbV. Drink now through 2022, maybe longer.
Laurent Perrier Champagne, Brut, NV: As indicated in the article, I enjoy the Brut version more than its sexier Rosé counterpart. Plenty of toasted brioche and warm nuts on the nose to go with a subdued array of green apples, citrus, peach and pear notes. With a rich and complex palate so typical of true Champagne (and usually lacking in most other sparkling wines) and loaded with yeasty bread, hints of tropical fruit, zesty citrus notes including lemon and rich grapefruit; all held together by tightly focused and tiny bubbles that continue to tantalize after the wine is gone, this is a great bottle of wine and worthy of both special occasions and a random Monday evening with someone special.
Laurent Perrier Champagne, Cuvee Rosé, NV: Among the bigger Champagne “names” on the kosher market, the wine has long held an elevated status among the more mainstream kosher consumers, while more experience Champagne drinkers acknowledge the qualitative superiority of the “regular” version. Sourced from 100% Pinot Noir fruit in the same saignée methodology as still rosé wine, the nose presents much like a traditional rosé with luscious notes of strawberry, tart raspberry and citrus accompanied by a tinge of herbal notes and just a hint of yeast indicating its genre. The medium bodied palate has a decently focused mousse backed by good acidity and tannins that serve as a good backbone for the fruit and spice. Drink now (and pay attention to the disgorgement notes as the label/brand has been around for a long time and given the price point, often lingers in lessor wine shops (where it loses its luster over time).
“Rest” of Europe
Elvi Wines Cava, Brut, NV: A longtime favorite of mine and a great option when you are looking for a good sparkling wine for under $20 (the wine has been mevushal on and off for a few years already with the current version being non-mevushal, so be sure to check). Crisply dry with plenty of acidity and a tight mousse, the wine is a blend of Spanish grapes including Pansa Blanca (a/k/a Xarello) with plenty of bright red fruit, lemon pith, grapefruit, floral and toast on a light to medium bodied palate with yeasty brioche, tart green apple and plenty of lip-smacking citrus. Any easy drinking, great with anything, refreshing sparkling wine. Cava as it was meant to be. Well worth stocking up on and having on hand for anytime the fancy strikes.
Koenig, Cremant d’Alsace, Brut, NV: Another well-priced quaffer that provides good value in a well-made package. Pear and yellow apple on the nose, backed by light yeasty notes, white flowers and a hint of summer stone fruit with a pleasing light bitterness keeping things lively. The light bodied palate has decently controlled bubbles with loads of citrus coming through on the mid-palate, joining the fruit and toasty notes. Good acidity keeps things lively, although this is a short-term consumption play and isn’t intended for any sort of cellaring, so enjoy over the next 12 months.
Hagafen, Rose, Brut, 2017: Despite being in the sparkling game for a while and a decent portfolio of a number of different options, Hagafen’s portfolio of sparkling wines seems to fly below the radar. Other than a few missteps here and there, they can be counted having a number of quality options across their labels, with this brut Rose no exception. Rich with lovely near-sweet red summer fruits and a hint of tart cranberry adding complexity, the wine serves up a delicious mix of fruit and citrus backed by good acidity with nuances of minerals, citrus pith and toasty brioche complementing the package and yielding a delicious wine, albeit lacking in complexity. As with most Rose options (sparkling or otherwise), best consumed through 2021, maybe a bit longer.
Herzog, Selection, Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, Brut, NV: Despite the lower price tag (and presumed qualitative status), I found this humble sparkler more enjoyable and better made than its more expensive and newly introduced Momentus in Herzog’s Lineage line. Similar to Elvi’s Cava, this is a well-priced, simple and pleasurable wine intended for enjoyable consumption with or without food and unintended for any sort of cellaring. A bright and friendly nose showcases yellow apples, sweet pear, white blooming flowers and toasted yeasty fresh-baked bread all backed by a nicely controlled mousse, good acidity and streaked through with citrus pith, some toasted notes and more delicious citrus notes. Drink over the next 12 months or so.
Dalton, Pet-Nat, 2019: One of my favorite underrated wineries, Dalton doesn’t seem to get the love is deserves as it continues to serve up well-made, well-priced and interesting wines across a broad spectrum of prices and genres. Whether the revised ancient winemaking methodology is a passing fad or here to stay remains to be seen, but Dalton’s version of pét-nat showcases quality winemaking and innovative creativity, while also improving over their initial 2018 version (that wasn’t bad to begin with but has an interesting story on how the label changed before it was imported (2018 label on the right and the US 2019 label on the left)). A blend of blend of 90% Semillon and 10% Muscat, the wine is fun, approachable and pleasing while providing a new wine-drinking experience. Tart apples and summer stone fruit along with herbal nuance, slate mineral and a whiff of spice are backed by decent acidity and a small mousse that pleases. Drink over the next 9-12 months.
Golan Heights Winery, Gilgal (Gamla in Israel), Brut, NV: By this point it may feel repetitive when I praise a wine for being well-priced, but despite everything written above about the many worthy candidates, this is the undisputable QPR kosher sparkler of them all. As mentioned above, the Golan Heights Winery’s sparkling portfolio is top notch, with nearly every offering shooting straight to the top of the rankings and this wine is no different. Insanely well-priced, the wine showcases the same quality winemaking of its higher-priced siblings. Made in the traditional méthode champenoise, the wine is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With a delightfully structured mousse, this medium-bodied sparkler presents with plenty of yeasty brioche, green apples and pears, freshly-grated lemon zest, toasted hazelnuts and hints of warm herbs built around a core of bracing acidity that provides a long and seemingly-endless finish. An über-YH Best Buy to be enjoyed through 2022, maybe longer.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blancs, 2014: Achron, Achron, Chaviv (unsuccessfully translated as last, but not least) certainly applies to this wine, likely my favorite of the bunch and the one I enjoy more often than any other sparkling wine. While this is partially due to its continued attractive pricing (easily a YH Best Buy), its more due to its incredible quality and sheer deliciousness. Representing everything a sparkling wine should be, the wine hits it out of the park nearly every year and has only had 1.5 missteps from its initial release back in 1998. If I needed to sum up this wine in one word it would be an easy task (even for me) – delicious. Grapefruit, lime, apple, melon and hints of pineapple abound in this delicious wine which is bone dry and loaded with crisp acidity. Toasted yeasty brioche and sharp, long-lasting bubbles make this wine a delight and an awesome match with almost any dish you care to throw its way. Subtle, elegant and refined while providing oodles of pleasure with bright lemon, pears, tart apple, red and white grapefruit, citrus pith, flinty minerals and notes of fresh-peeled ginger and other warm spices complement each other in near-perfect harmony. Great acidity and a tightly controlled mousse ensure the wine maintains focus as you work your way through the bottle (far too quickly). Stock up while you can since, at less than $30 a bottle, it won’t be around for long but should cellar comfortably (and evolve) through 2030.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Brut Rose, 2014: While the genre’s reputation as lessor wines than their clear brethren is well deserved, in this case the Rose version is up to snuff. A lovely nose redolent of sweet summer fruit is enhanced by toasty sourdough, yeasty notes, judicious citrus, some herbal nuance, slate minerals and a whiff of Crème Fraîche. The medium bodied palate has an elegant and tight mousse that benefit from a minute or so in the glass, following which you are rewarded with summer red fruits, more citrus including red grapefruit, a slight note of roasted herbs on a toasty background backed by bracing acidity that keeps the wine fresh and vibrant.