Champagne (and Sparkling Wines) [Older]

#73 – May 16, 2008

While traditionally consumed as part of a celebration, and celebratory occasions being the driving force behind this weeks topic aside, Champagne is an extremely versatile wine which can (and should) be drunk often and can be enjoyed with many types of food.

Champagne is also, like last week’s topic – Rosé, a wonderful brunch wine and can also be enjoyed alone, on any random Tuesday with no special reason or purpose other than a little hedonistic enjoyment. It is truly a shame to leave such a wonderful type of wine to be consumed only at celebratory events; one should feel free to open a bottle at a regular meal. Unfortunately, one of the factors hampering this is the fact that one must finish the bottle in a relatively short period of time as it cannot be closed or stored after opening. I suggest opening a bottle of Champagne at a meal with friends so that, if you followed my recommendations you got a good bottle, the bottle will be gone faster than a regular bottle of wine and thoroughly enjoyed by all – even non-wine drinkers (yes, there are such types lurking about).

Traditionally, Champagne refers to sparkling wines made from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France which is just north of Burgundy. Most Champagne is produced from one or a blend of two varieties of grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The traditional method of making Champagne is known as the Champenoise Method and involves a two stage fermentation process whereby, in the second stage, additional yeast and sugar is inserted in the bottle (Champagne is not aged in barrels – only in its own bottle) to produce the bubbles. After the additional sugar and yeast is inserted, the bottles are rotated to move the yeast ‘waste’ to the top of the bottle where it is frozen and removed, at which point the bottle is capped with the traditional cap, wire and foil we see in the stores.

The majority of the Champagne is not produced from grapes grown in a single year but rather a blend of wines from several years and referred to as non-vintage. Typically the majority of the wine is from the current year but a percentage is made of “reserve wine” from previous years. This serves to smooth out some of the vintage variations caused by the marginal growing climate in Champagne.

The dryness of Champagne varies based on the sugar level and it 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 extra brut / brut nature / brut zero (no additional sugar, sometimes ferociously dry).

The Champenoise Method has been successfully copied around the world and, while not technically Champagne, sparkling wines are produced by a number of countries around the world, many using their own special term for such sparkling wines. Spain uses Cava, Italy calls its sparkling wine spumante or prosecco (depending on the specific region it is from), and South Africa uses the term Cap Classique. While the kosher wine market produces some truly terrible sparkling wines, as you will see from my recommendations below, there are also some great possibilities out there, with the Blanc de Blanc from the Golan Heights being an excellent and well priced option that is consistently good. Please note that some of the listed wines (chiefly the French ‘true” Champagnes) are produced in both kosher and non-kosher versions.

Regardless of whether you are looking to splurge on one of the better French bottles or aiming for the reasonable “mid-market”, there are a few points to keep in mind. Most kosher versions are “n.v” – non-vintage and these have a shelf life of about 3-5 years, so when buying such a wine, avoid those dusty looking bottles that look like they haven’t been touched since the millennium.

Another thing to keep in mind is, if for some weird reason you bought a bottle of sparkling wine not listed here and were unlucky to discover a less than palatable nectar, Gamliel Kronemer (who writes a wine column for Jewish Week) suggests making Champagne Cocktails. Making Champagne Cocktails is very easy and entails only placing a sugar cube and a few dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters in the bottom of a Champagne flute, letting the glass sit for a few minutes, and then filling with the sparkling wine. The sugar cube and bitters add delightful flavors which play off each other perfectly and help to mask any number of flaws that may be found in sparkling wines. Other classic cocktails made with sparkling wines include the Mimosa (sparkling wine with orange juice), the Bellini (sparkling wine with peach puree) and the Kir Royal (sparkling wine with crème de cassis).

I have also included below a quick tutorial on how to open a Champagne bottle without harming yourself or your guests.

Shabbat Shalom and have a great week,

French Champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut, n.v.: My all-time favorite Kosher Champagne and well worth the expense (around $30 in NY). A very dry wine with loads of lime, lemons and some grapefruit tastes along with hints of the traditional toasted white bread flavors with good bubbles that last forever. As I have noted in the past, the kosher cuvee (which is mevushal to boot) is no longer being produced and I am down to my last 2 bottles of this great liquid gold, so if you find this anywhere – load up and PLEASE let me know… 🙂

Laurent Perrier, Cuvee Rose Brut, n.v.: Made by a ‘top tier’ Champagne House, this wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes and is somewhat light on the palate. Lots of the expected toasted bread flavors and aromas along with green apples and strawberries coming through. The best Rosé out there (especially as it combines Rosé AND Champagne). This is a fun (although pretty expensive fun) wine and a great wine to crack open to celebrate summer and all the great weather we hope to have here in NY over the next few months. A real treat!

Charles Heidsieck, Brut, n.v.: Notwithstanding the ‘Brut’ title, this wine is slightly sweeter than one would expect and than I like to see. Still a very good wine, especially for those who like their wine slightly on the sweet side and novice drinkers getting used to dry wines. Lots of grapefruit and lime to go with the green apple and yeast white bread aromas and flavors. An easier “softer” drinking wine than others. Good mousse (the bubbly foam or ‘head’) to go with the bubbles.

Louis de Sacy, Brut Champagne, n.v.: The Champagne House of Louis de Sacy was established in the early 17th century. While not deemed one of the Great Houses, it is a great treat! This wine is a relatively new arrival in the kosher Champagne market and a great addition if I do say so myself. Slightly expensive (as French imports tend to be especially these days), full bodied with a creamy and luxurious texture. Toasted challah and yeasty undertones are augmented nicely with aromas and flavors of lime, white peach, apricots and apple topped off by a mineraly finish. Ends with a great mousse and bubbles that tingle on and on.

Sparkling Wines

Golan Heights Winery, Blanc de Blancs, Yarden, 2000: While this Champagne type wine remains good from year to year, this vintage ever so slightly disappoints as opposed to the 1999 vintage which is still available and is well worth picking up a couple of bottles. With the traditional toasted white bread and yeasty aromas one expects from traditional Champagne, this wine has peaches, apples, limes and fresh kiwis with a satisfying backbone of yeast and hints of minerals. The mousse is not as long as one would expect/hope for but nonetheless, a good buy and enjoyable drink!

Hagafen Brut Cuvée, Napa Valley, 2001: While my favorite kosher Champagne remains the Nicolas Feuillatte and the best bang for your buck remains the Golan Heights Blanc de Blanc, as the Nicolas Feuillatte is pretty unavailable, this Hagafen release fills the void very nicely. This dark, straw colored wine is made from the somewhat traditional blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Lots of flavors come right at you including sweet butter, lemons, peaches, apricots and the toasty bread and yeasty flavors traditional to lots of sparkling wines. This wine also has a “Late Disgorged” version which is even better but harder to find.

Opening a Champagne Bottle

As to opening Champagne bottles keep in mind that Champagne and other sparkling wines require special handling because their corks are under a great deal of pressure. If not treated with care and respect, these corks can become dangerous missiles propelled through the air with surprising force. Although the popping of Champagne corks creates a festive atmosphere, it is the wrong way to open a sparkling wine because in addition to being dangerous, it harms the wine. One of the reasons that Champagne is special is the bubbles, and the popping of the cork reduces these.

To avoid this, first, peel off the foil surrounding the cork and neck of the bottle. While applying pressure to hold the cork in, carefully loosen the metal straps holding the cork. After the straps are removed, continue to press down on the cork and gently twist the bottle, not the cork. When you hear the gas begin to escape around the edges of the cork, do not let the cork escape your grip. The gentle hissing sound will be followed by a barely audible pop, this indicating that you have done the job properly. In this way the wine will not foam and suddenly gush out of the bottle and the bubbles will have been preserved.