More than any other sparkling wine, Champagne is associated with prestige.
The spring season and the Christmas holiday period signal interest in this great style of wine. Sparkling wines and Champagne are very misunderstood. Lower priced wines tend to be thin and tart to taste – like alcoholic soda water. There are also many fruity examples available now – in the moscato style. Moscato does have an important place – as a clean slightly sweet palate freshener after a meal in warmer weather for example. However there are quite a few thin tasting sickly sweet examples around.
The key to good sparkling wine is to taste creamy yet dry at the same time – quite a tricky concept!
Australia is an excellent producer of sparkling wines and there is some great value to be found. Examples are Brown Brothers Pinot Chardonnay ($22), Hardy Sir James Vintage ($27), Delamere Cuvee ($39), Logan Weemala Brut ($24), Chandon Brut ($20) and Grant Burge Pinot Noir Chardonnay ($22).
Champagne is the famous region in France. Although prestigious and expensive there are good examples at lower prices from lesser known producers. Often the lesser priced wine is from a Grower. Although the growers supply the big producers (“called “Houses”), they also release wine with their own label. The wines are cheaper than the Houses but not as refined in taste. An example is Larmandier-Bernier ($70). There are French wines that are not Champagne – Marquis de la Tour ($17) and Louis Bouillot ($26). The latter are not as complex and creamy as Champagne but quite good value.
Sparkling wine actually starts off as a still “base wine” – a non-fizzy wine. It is made from a first fermentation much the same as normal table wine. Various base wines are blended, the blended wine is bottled with a little sugar and yeast, and a second fermentation occurs inside the bottle. The gas produced then cannot escape and it makes the wine fizzy.
The yeasts run out of sugar and die off. They create sediment at the bottom of the bottle called lees. If the sparkling wine is then aged for a long period with the lees present, the wine takes on richness and complexity.
Champagne laws require a minimum of two years of such ageing. Many producers take longer. In Australia premium wines may have 2 – 4 years of ageing on lees. Eventually the bottles are tipped up and shaken so that the lees rests against the cork – a process called riddling. The neck of the bottle is then dunked into a freezing liquid causing the wine in the neck of the bottle to freeze. If the seal is then removed, the internal pressure causes the frozen plug of wine to fly out, taking with it the trapped sediment, leaving a clear fizzy wine behind.