All That Sparkles Is Not Champagne

Posted by: samy November 10, 2011 No Comments
Courtney (L) and Erin at Domain Chandon in California

As glittering decorations, twinkling lights and snow-and-ice displays roll out for the holidays, sparkling wines also add warm, fuzzy — and, of course, fizzy — feelings to the season.

For the holiday season the LCBO will introduce 60 new sparkling wines, and December’s champagne sales will make up nearly a third of the LCBO’s annual champagne sales.

Spectacular names like Krug and Cristal will line store shelves, their elegant bottles and beautiful packaging promising a new year full of better things to come.

But partying like a rock star doesn’t come cheap and most of the big-ticket bubbles are above the $200-per-bottle mark.

The following is a quick pre-season primer on what’s out there for all bubbly budgets.


Ayala ’02 Vintage Champagne

Few wines fascinate us as much as these famous French bubbles.   Winston Churchill fought for it, Marilyn Monroe reportedly bathed in it, and hip hop stars have rapped poetic about it.

The romantic story of champagne is that somewhere around 1700, the brilliant monk Dom Perignon, toiling away in his chateau in chilly northern France discovered bubbles in his wine, and shouted to his colleagues, “Come quick, I am tasting the stars!”  But the reality is the famous monk tried desperately to get the bubbles out of his wine — as did most winemakers in the area — because bubbly wine was considered faulty.

What Dom and his friends didn’t know, was that science & geography was against them.  Champagne is a cool region in northern France — about 150 kilometers northeast of Paris.  Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are the main grapes of Champagne.  As one of the chilliest growing regions in the world, wines that were made in the fall would rest over the winter, as the temperature-sensitive yeasts that are used to turn the sugar in the grape juice into wine would immobilize in the cold weather.

But in the spring, when it warmed up again, the yeasts would reactivate and begin a second fermentation – and start to bubble.

Bottles of Champagne & Sparkling wine from around the world

Fast forward 300 years or so, and the same technique, although much more controlled, sophisticated — and purposeful — is still happening today.  Called the Traditional Method, grape juice is first fermented in tanks or barrels, then bottled with more yeast, plus some sugar to go through the second fermentation to  give it the bubbles.  After a minimum of 15 months of aging, the yeasts are filtered out, some more wine and sugar tops up the bottles, and a nice, bubbly champagne is the result.

The amount of sugar that’s added will determine if the champagne will be brut (dry) or sec (sweet) champagne.

Winemakers will create both a nonvintage champagne, which is the house style, and a vintage champagne, which is made only in exceptional years.

Nonvintage is a bit of a misnomer as its really a blend of several vintages.  Each year a little bit of champagne is held back, and blended with the next year and the next, and so on, so so winemakers can produce a consistent, “house style” champagne each year.

In very exceptional years,  winemaker can make a vintage style — and the taste and profile can be a complete departure from the winemaker’s nonvintage champagne.  With the year stamped on the label, vintage champagnes are often more money, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s better.  Many will prefer a nonvintage as it’s consistent year and after year and consumers know what to expect.

Wines to look for: Veuve Cliquot, Nicholas Feuillatte, Dom Perignon


Courtney enjoying a midnight Prosecco in Rome

The wildly popular sparkling wine out of Italy — and for good reason.  It’s economical ($20 is considered expensive), food friendly, and delicious.

It’s made in the north-eastern Italian growing region of the Veneto — with the best coming from Conegliano Valdobbiadene.  Usually made with 100% prosecco grapes, occasionally pinot grigio or pinot bianco are blended in.

Prosecco is made with the cost & time efficient Charmat Method, which sees second fermentation (which creates the bubbles) in large, pressurized tanks, as opposed to individual bottles, making it far faster, easier and less labour intensive than champagne.  The wine is filtered in tank and the bottles are filled with already clear, sparkling wine that’s ready to go.

Wines to look for: Bellenda San Fermo Brut Prosecco Superiore, Il Prosecco


The sparkling wine of Spain.  Cava (which means cellar in Spanish), was inspired by champagne about 200 years ago, and follows the Traditional Method of production.  It also uses the same sweetness scale of ranging from dry to sweet and will produce both vintage and nonvintage wines.

But that’s where the similarities end.  Cava is mostly produced in Catalonia — just south of the Languedoc-Roussillion in France.  It also only uses white grapes (where as champagne uses both white and red): the native varietals parellada, xarel-lo, macabeo, malvasia and chardonnay — which is increasing in importance. These produce easy drinking, citrusy, earthy wines with brilliant acidity.

Easy drinking and approachable, cavas can range in style and price, but even the most expensive still come in at a fraction of that of champagne.

Wines to look for: Segura Viudas, Freixenet

Cremant de Loire with cheese – a perfect way to spend an evening

This by no means is an exhaustive list of sparkling wines available, as just about every wine producing region in the world makes some sort of sparkling wine whether through Traditional Method, Charmat Method or even simply injecting carbon dioxide into still wine like soda pop for the most basic of sparklers.  However, we would be remiss not to mention that thanks to our climate and soils, Canada makes some world class bubbly, though depending on where you live, wines made in other provinces may not be easy to find.

Wines to look for: Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catharine Brut Rose VQA Niagara Peninsula, Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut VQA Okanagan Valley, Blue Mountain Sparkling VQA Okanagan Valley, Chateau des Charmes Brut, VQA Niagara on the Lake, Lacadie Vineyards Prestige Brut Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia

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