December 25, 2013

On Wine: Dreams of the bubbly dancing in your head?

What’s more thrilling than a good Champagne? Nothing

By Joe Appel

There is no wine more thrilling than a good Champagne. The sensual interplay among mousse, bubbles, aromas, and that crisp snap on the tongue have a unique power to take your breath away. And that’s before you even really start tasting the wine.

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The Château de Lavernette “Granit” Brut Nature ($28) stole the heart of this writer.

Courtesy photo

Good Champagne – sparkling wine made in a particular northern region of France, from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – is gettable but maybe a little less easily than you’d think, because most widely available wines are bland. Sure, they’ll do, if what you’re looking for is something pretty in a flute-shaped glass, followed by a few muffled whispers.

Champagne is dominated by very large brands with an interest in playing it safe. If you want to drink a truly expressive nonvintage Champagne, one to make your eyes widen and your heart race, you need to work for it. And it will cost you (though not much more than generic big-house Champagne will). Some of the best available in Maine are Gimmonet, Egly-Ouriet, Aubry, Beaudoin, Vilmart & Cie, and Maillart.

Those are wines made by the people who grew the grapes, rather than at the “grand marques,” which buy grapes and then blend to a “house style.” The economics are against the smaller grower-producers, because land goes for about $1 million per acre, and the labor and machinery costs for producing Champagne are high as well.

The processes involved in making Champagne, or sparkling wine from elsewhere using Champagne’s “traditional method” of in-bottle secondary fermentation, are intense, and show it with the price tag. But in other areas where real estate is more reasonably acquired and paid for, an increasing number of producers are making fascinating, vivacious sparkling wines that present much of Champagne’s brilliance, at significantly lower prices.

The next week or so sees something like 142 percent of our annual sparkling-wine consumption. If you want to pop something fizzy and forget about it, and you don’t care about status, bring a silly prosecco to a party and move on. If you do care about status, buy the yellow-label big-boy Champagne and ignore the fact that you’re unimpressed. But if you want to find something excellent, a delicious wine with independent personality that you love so much you’ll start drinking it with all sorts of non-special meals once 2014 begins, read on.

A few background notes: “Traditional method” means that a base wine is placed in bottle with a “tirage,” an addition of yeast and sugar that induces a secondary fermentation that captures carbonation since the bottle is capped. In the “charmat” method, that secondary fermentation is induced in large tanks, after which the finished sparkling wine is bottled. Charmat is cheaper, and generally leads to less distinctive and complex flavors, with less fine bubble delineation. Most prosecco and cava is made by charmat.

Another important consideration is whether the wine utilizes “dosage,” a shot of sugar added after the “disgorgement” of the secondary fermentation’s dead yeast cells, used to balance out flavors and/or leave the final wine with a marked sweetness. Dosage-or-not is not – to me anyway – a quality issue, but rather just a question of personal taste: Do you want a bit of sweetness in your wine?

Let’s start with two so-called “brut natural” wines, so called because they do not take a dosage and are therefore supremely dry. Just because you like (or think you like) perfectly dry still wines, don’t assume you prefer brut nature sparklers. They are seriously bracing, and emphasize mineral, briny traits over any fruit-based ones. They’re closer in character to dry ciders, or maybe geuze, than to Champagne-with-sweetness.

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