Supposedly, the monk Dom Perignon of the Abbey of Hautvillers who is credited with creating Champagne actually was charged with removing the bubbles in still wine as the bubbles were considered a flaw and the increased pressure in the bottle caused many a bottle to burst in the wine cellar. Thank goodness he wasn’t successful in his original mission, as a chilled glass of sparkling wine, whether it’s Champagne, Cava or Prosecco is just what’s needed during those dog days of summer … or any occasion.
“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” — Dom Pérignon
True Champagne Production
Since Champagne is usually thought of as the standard against which all other sparkling wines are compared, I’ll highlight the production of Champagne. Originally created from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier, most Champagnes are now produced from varying proportions of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The initial wine created from these grapes usually isn’t palatable at all as it usually is very acidic when first fermented, then it’s bottled with additional yeast and sugar to create a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle. To remove the expended dead yeast cells, the bottle is gradually “riddled” or turned and tilted until it’s almost upside down so that the yeast settles in the neck of the bottle just under the cork. The neck is then quickly frozen in a brine solution and the cork expelled taking with it, the sediment. The bottle is then topped off it varying degrees of a sugar solution (dosage) depending on how dry the cellar master wants the finished Champagne. Previously, this method of Champagne production was termed méthode champenoise, but Champagne producers lobbied the EU to limit that terminology strictly to wines produced in Champagne. Other EU sparkling wine producers — even if using the exact production techniques — must use methode traditionnelle on their labels. Of course, since the U.S. isn’t part of the EU, many domestic sparkling wine producers still label their wine as produced in the methode champenoise. That’s why you also see boxed Chablis and Burgundy in this country which is as French as Chevrolet …
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.” — Mark Twain
Though all Cava or Spanish sparkling wine is produced in the same manner as their French cousins, the difference is in the base grapes as the primary grapes are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello. Cava is also similar to Champagne (all Champagne is from the Champagne region) as most Cava is produced in one region, the Penedès area in Catalonia (only about five percent of Cava is produced outside of this region). However, Rose Cava is only produced from red grapes; a blending of grapes isn’t allowed and Rose Cava is made in the soignée method where the pressed juice of red grapes are allowed to sit on the skins longer to give the final wine a reddish tinge. Rose Champagne often are a blend of different grapes and the reddish tinge simply comes from adding still Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
Also like Champagne, Cava is available from sweet all the way to bone dry, but because Cava doesn’t have the notoriety as Champagne, it often costs a lot less for the same quality of wine. Therefore, while I won’t use a $50 bottle of Champagne for a sparkling wine cocktail, I’m more willing to use a $25 bottle of Cava for the same purpose.
“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.” — Lily Bollinger, House of Bollinger Champagne
Italy’s tastiest and most common sparkler, Prosecco is both the name of the grape (also known as Glera) and the finished sparkling wine. However unlike Champagne or Cava, Prosecco is produced via the Charmat-Martinotti or bulk process in nine Italian provinces between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. The limited Prosecco Superiore is only produced in the Treviso province on the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Some sparkling wine producers employ the Charmat-Martinotti process to simply save money as the secondary fermentation occurs in large, stainless steel tanks instead of individual bottles, but Prosecco uses this process to preserve the fresh, vibrant qualities of Prosecco. And because this bulk process isn’t as expensive to produce, most Prosecco are very affordable, so I don’t hesitate to create cocktails such as the Bellini (Prosecco and peach puree or nectar), Negroni s’bagliato (substituting Prosecco for gin in a standard Negroni) or a French 75 (gin, Prosecco, lemon juice and simple syrup).
“I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not.” — Coco Chanel
Most of the French Champagne houses have taken root in Napa Valley including Moët & Chandon (Domaine Chandon), G.H. Mumm & Cie (Mumm Napa), Taittinger (Domaine Carneros), Louis Roederer (Roederer Estate) and Piper Heidsieck (Piper Sonoma). Even Spanish Cava producer, Freixenet has Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in Sonoma County. While better domestic sparkling wine employ the same method champenoise as in France, the aging requirements are usually a little longer in France and while the high end domestic sparklers can rival Champagne in quality, so too does the cost. So I usually purchase lower priced domestic sparklers especially when creating cocktails but still reach for equally priced Champagne instead of high end domestic sparkling wine to sip as is.
“Why do I drink Champagne for breakfast? Doesn’t everyone?” — Noel Coward
Sometimes, you want more than a simple Mimosa with sparkling wine and orange juice so how about these sparkling cocktails?
Spritz Veneziano (aka Aperol Spritz)
2 oz Prosecco
1 1/4 oz Aperol
Splash of club soda
Combine in a balloon glass and garnish with an orange wedge
Add three dashes Angostura bitters on a sugar cube
Drop into a Champagne flute then add 1/3 oz Cognac and three oz Champagne
Garnish with an orange peel and a Maraschino cherry
From Bouchon in Yountville; shake 1 oz Cynar, 1/2 oz Campari and 1/2 oz fresh orange juice then strain into a Champagne flute. Top with three oz sparkling wine.
“Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking champagne.” — Oscar Wilde
I’d like to modify what Oscar Wilde noted: “Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking sparkling wine.” — The Gochiso Gourmet
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.