Pop pop, fizz fizz! what a relief it to crack open a good sparkling wine. As December rolls around, we find ourselves cautiously pulling the pressure-distorted, mushroom-like corks of our favourite bubblies for parties and celebrations, making sure we're aiming at an innocuous target, such as a wall, or that annoying guy from the next cubicle, rather than at the boss or a loved one.
Whether you're "splurging" on Champagne or budget balancing with Baby Duck, there's something about the pop—or a quiet "phifffft" if opened by a trained sommelier—that gets you in the right mood.
There's a hierarchy of sparkling wines. Let's start from the top. Champagne is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to fizz. Many people wonder why, because they find it too dry and not particularly fruity. But once you get to know this drink, it can give unparalleled pleasure. What makes Champagne special is the extensive labour that goes into it, including the myriad of vineyards the grapes come from, the blending of dozens of wines from different grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), the rating of vineyards and vintages and the long aging on the lees (yeast) which the wine undergoes for that delicious toasted-bread nose and flavour.
Although it was a fluke, like many great inventions, Champagne (it's a place and a wine) is where secondary bottle fermentation was perfected: where the fizz comes from yeast eating sugar in a corked bottle, then farting CO2 gas. Champagne comes in many styles, sizes of bottle and at many prices. Ever partied with a Jeroboam (the equivalent of four 750ml bottles) or a Methuselah (eight bottles)? How about Mr. Nebuchadnezzar? That's 20 bottles' worth of friends!
Next in line is traditional method sparkling wine, not counting Champagne (which is the original traditional method, but only wine from Champagne can be called Champagne). These can come from any wine region. France has several, including Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant de Loire. Spain has Cava. The new world regions, such as Canada, the US, Australia, South America and South Africa, now make tanker-loads of traditional method sparklers, many of which are great value, approaching and occasionally exceeding the quality of good Champagne.
Nova Scotia is getting in on that act and next year will see two new traditional method specialists open in the Gaspereau Valley: L'Acadie Vineyards and Benjamin Bridge.
One level down from these are transfer method sparklers. These are still "traditional," but after the wine is carbonated and aged, the bottles are either decanted into larger bottles or disgorged into a tank before bottling, instead of topping up and recorking an individual bottle as per the traditional method. The transfer method is common for larger-format bottles, such as the aforementioned Nebuchadnezzar, since bottles undergoing secondary fermentation need to be regularly shaken, rotated and have their storage angle changed to move the yeast sediment down to the cork.
Next comes the tank method—secondary fermentation is conducted in a...duh...tank. These tend to be less leesy and have coarser bubbles than Champagne (ask a PhD in physics why). Moscato d'Asti is a common tank method wine.
Lowest on the ladder are CO2-injected "pop" wines, like Baby Duck. These have the largest bubbles and no yeast contribution.
You now know enough to make an intelligent choice at your favourite booze store. To sound like a sommelier, on New Year's Eve the best bang for your buck is a basic Spanish cava or certain new world traditional method wines.
Now watch where you aim that cork.
Craig Pinhey is a certified beer judge, sommelier and freelance writer. Visit him at http://frogspad.ca