07/25/07 – Sparkling wine from abroad

By Jesse on July 24, 2007


Every four or five months, it seems we do a tasting exclusively dedicated to sparkling wine, and it’s always a lot of fun.  In the past, these have focused solely on California sparkling wine, and we’ve only tasted foreign sparklers (Champagne included) when we did that particular country or region.  Now, it’s finally time to do what we Americans do best: reduce the rest of world to a collective “other” and taste sparkling wines that aren’t from the good old US of A.

Countries of interest:

France: The home of the world’s most famous sparkling wine, Champagne, named from the tiny region from which it hails.  Champagne is the origin of both the “Champagne method” and the traditional “Champagne grapes” (both described below) which have influenced sparkling wine production all around the world.  Outside of Champagne, sparkling wine made elsewhere in France (but produced using the Champagne method) is called “Cremant,” and is produced in the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Alsace.  The Loire also boasts its own excellent sparkling wine, Saumur, made with a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc.

Italy: The Italians are most proud of their Asti (sometimes called Asti Spumante, since spumante is the Italian word for “frothy”), which comes from the Piedmont region.  Asti is made from the muscat grape, but don’t confuse it with Moscato d’Asti, a similarly-named wine which is not sparkling… if you’re confused, just check for the right kind of cork, the one with the foil and wire.  Italy is also known for its Prosecco, a fruity sparkling wine made from the grapes Prosecco and Pinot Grigio.

Spain: The best sparkling wine in Spain is definitely Cava, which must be made using the traditional Champagne method.  Unlike Champagne, however, Cava is always made exclusively from white grapes.  Over 90 percent of all Cava comes from the Penedes region in north-eastern Spain.

Germany: All German sparkling wine is called Sekt.  Watch out for super-inexpensive Sekt, as it may contain grapes grown in other countries, which the laws allow.  A good sign is a label that says “Deutscher Sekt,” meaning all the grapes are from Germany.  An even better sign is a label with a vintage.  The best Sekt can be quite excellent.

Sparkling wine is also made in Austria, Argentina, South Africa , Australia, and New Zealand.  If you find it, bring it!

Four interesting things to consider when shopping:

1.  How the wine was made.  Most of the cheapo stuff you find in grocery stores is made with the contemporary “charmat process,” by which the carbon dioxide (fizz) results from fermentation in large steel tanks.  However, look on the bottle and see if you can find any that mention “methode champagnoise,” or “methode traditionelle,” which means that the wine was produced with in-bottle fermentation, the traditional Champagne method that goes back hundreds of years.  These designations will definitely appear on bottles of Champagne, and may or may not appear on sparkling wine from other countries.

2.  Vintage (year).  You might have a hard time finding a vintage on the bottle.  Sparkling wines are often a combination of two vintages — and sometimes four to six in France.  If the bottle does say the year on it, that’s rare, and usually an indicator of quality.

3.  Sweetness.  Look on the bottle for terms pertaining to the sweetness of the wine, and get whatever sounds best to you.  The sweetest level is doux (literally “sweet” in French), proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), brut (almost completely dry), and extra brut (no additional sugar added during fermentation, meaning it’s gonna be drier than a straight-edge nun during Prohibition).  So if you’re trying to decide between “brut” and “extra dry,” keep in mind that “extra dry” is actually less dry — and therefore sweeter — than brut!

4.  The type of grapes used.  Here’s where it gets fun.  If you’re buying Champagne, three grapes may be in the wine: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the latter two of which are red grapes.  This is despite the fact that most sparkling wine is (or at least looks like) white wine.  Who can forget the scene in Sideways in which Jack incurs Miles’ ire by tasting a glass of white 100%-Pinot Noir sparkling wine and saying, “but I thought Pinot grapes were red.”  The wine in question was a blanc de noirs — literally, a “white of blacks,” a white wine made from red grapes.  You may also see the phrase blanc de blancs — a white wine made entirely of white grapes.  If the label carries no designation, it’s a simple “golden,” which suggests a blend of both white and red.  If the wine is a rose (pink), that means that some red grapes were included, and the skins were left on a little longer in order to enhance flavor.  (Remember, all of this applies to Champagne, and probably won’t be used on the labels of other European wines, since they have their own grape varieties.  These terms may be used on “new world” sparkling wines, however.)

Last note: everything above only refers to white sparkling wine.  Some innovative producers are now producing red sparkling wine from grapes as diverse as Pinot Noir, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  If you find one, and you actually believe it looks interesting, buy the fucker.  Who cares.  We’ll try anything in wine club.  We’re a group of alcohol-dependent young people, remember?

Meeting is at Emily‘s place in Hollywood.  Buy a delicious sparkling wine from abroad, try to find some tasting notes, and chill that bottle well.  We look forward to seeing all of you on Wednesday night at 9:00.