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Champagne Primer

'Tis the season for bubbly! For many of us, though, this is one of the most daunting areas of the wine section. To help make your choice easier, we've assembled some basic information and ideas. Additionally, our store team members will gladly help you make a selection perfectly suited to your tastes. Champagne or Sparkling Wine? Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled "Champagne." Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain, Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy and Sekt in Germany. Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers. For What Price? Yes, champagne can be expensive. Is it worth the extra money over sparkling wines from other countries? Some say, "yes" and others "no." Yet, there's really no right or wrong answer here — it's truly a personal choice. If you want to explore a bit, simply ask one of our wine team members for their recommendations. Many of these sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and may be a better value. What Makes Champagne Bubbly? Unless there is specific terminology on the bottle, all champagne and most domestic sparklers are comprised of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the less often used varietal Pinot Meunier. The bubbles are created through a process called "secondary fermentation," which means they make regular wine first and then re-ferment it with yeast left in the bottle (which is filtered out later). This is why you'll often get a fresh baked bread aroma from bubbly. Most bubblies are non-vintage or "NV," meaning they are created from a blend of wine vintages. How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.
  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with "Extra Dry," which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apertif or after dinner. They're more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don't see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.
Wishing you and yours a joyous New Year. Cheers!

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Joe Becerra says …

Great information about bubbly. We traveled the Champagne region this past fall for one week. We learned to love the minerality in Champagne. You don't get that in most other sparkling wines. My list of bargain sparkling wine is here in case you are interested. bit.ly/gp8A88

John Schooler says …

You didn't mention that it is perfectly legal for US winemakers to use the term champagne and many have and do. This is because the limitation to use the term only on those wines produced in the champagne region of France was contained in the Treaty of Versailles (at the end of WW1) and the US never signed that treaty while all the European countries did. It is good to see that most American producers have chosen to use the "sparkling" designation as a courtesy, but it is not mandated and some wineries, especially poor quality vat producers still resort to using the term champagne...

minda says …

as Bubbles SIlls sang;Chacun a Son Gout