The Benedictine Monk Dom Perignon is reputed to have exclaimed, when drinking champagne, "It's like drinking the stars!" Champagne's magic comes as much from its bubbles as from its taste. This wine of romance and special occasions is worthy of constant acquaintance and not just for use at weddings.
In fact, it is sad that most people acquire their total knowledge of sparkling wines from what is offered at weddings. Unfortunately, because of economic realities, the sparkling wines at weddings is by necessity drunk more out of custom than for the taste. This is not necessary. See my article on party wines for recommendations on reasonably priced good sparkling wines.
But back to the subject at hand. What is a champagne? What is a sparkling wine? All wines which undergo a second fermentation (and are thus carbonated) are sparkling wines. Only sparkling wines made in Champagne, France, are properly called champagnes. (Because the United States never signed the universal wine agreement with regard to labeling, U.S. vintners sometimes call their sparkling wines champagnes.) All "champagnes" are rather expensive and one can seldom go wrong with any true champagne.
But there is great variety in the rest of the sparkling wines and this article will try to guide you through the maze to sparkling wines worthy of any occasion.
Quick Cooling of Sparkling Wines
Let's say you're rushed. You just bought your sparkling wine at the store and it is room temperature. You bought it at room temperature because the selection is better(you don't have to restrict your purchase to whatever the wine merchant decided to cool).
But you want to serve it soon. What to do?
You can cool down any white wine quickly by filling a sink with enough ice and water to cover the bottle. Don't use ice alone. The presence of the water is necessary for quick cooling. Lay the bottle in the iced water and twirl it for two to four minutes or let it stand for about ten minutes. Voila! Properly chilled sparkling wine. Put it in the refrigerator if you will be serving it later.
Sparkling wines are drunk as much for their apperances as their taste. Great appearance cannot overcome lousy taste, but why miss those heavenly stars?
The proper glass can emphasize the bubbles of any sparkling wine. The goal is a clear, totally dry glass, with tall sides which come to a point on the inside at the bottom.
White wine glasses will do in a pinch, but a champagne glass is worth the investment. I recommend you buy two Baccarat champagne glasses (expensive) for those romantic special occasions. One should also have a set of six less expensive champagne glasses for small dinners, etc.
Wipe the glasses with a dry, lint-free cloth before serving and make sure the glasses are totally dry. Water ruins the visual effect of sparkling wines. And don't chill the glasses. They will fog up and cloud the view.
But what about the typical champagne glasses you see in the movies? You know the ones. They are about three inches across the opening and about 2 inches deep. They are called Cleopatra glasses.
They are too shallow and too wide to concentrate the bubbles to best effect. And they allow the champagne to cool off too quickly. The only good thing about them is the story behind their name. It is said that their form is based on the shape of Cleopatra's breasts. It makes an interesting story, but stick with the Baccarat for romance!
Removing the Cork
Don't forget the laws of physics when removing a cork from a bottle of sparkling wine. Get a cloth towel and drap it over the neck of the bottle while you carefully remove the foil and the metal wine cage. Be aware that on rare occasions the cork will shoot out like a bullet. The cloth helps prevent injury . Watch where you "point" the bottle.
The key to elegant cork removal is to pat the bottle dry, grasp the cork with the towel (the same one you will circle the bottle with for pouring) and twist the bottle, not the cork. One can usually feel the cork coming free. With practice one can ease the cork out at the last second to time a perfectly controlled "pop"-to the delight of all watching.
Gentle twisting of the bottle will usually prevent fizz going everywhere. Although Hollywood likes the fizz to geyser out of the bottle one loses much carbonation with this trick, not to mention the mess on clothing, furniture and flooring. The show is in the glass, not in the foam.
Resealing the bottle
There is no rule that says a bottle of sparkling wine must be drunk once opened. Most sparkling wines will still have fizz for approximately twelve hours. So the bottle you open tonight will still be good tomorrow morning if you reseal it properly.
And the only way to do that is with a special champagne cork made of metal with a spring and special lip to grab the rim of the bottle. These champagne corks are available at fine wine stores everywhere.
Warning: no matter how hard you try to reseal a sparking wine with a conventional cork, by morning the carbonation will have forced it out of the bottle and you will be left with a flat wine without bubbles!
Champagne sealers cost about $7.00 and are well worth it. Remember, you are drinking a sparkling wine for the romance, not to get drunk. A champagne cork allows that romance to be experienced both at night and in the morning!
Sparkling Wines for Breakfast
Folks, there is no better way to start a lazy Saturday or Sunday than with a glass (or two) of sparkling wine. In my opinion it goes with any food you are likely to have for breakfast. It is a great accompaniment to orange juice, coffee or hot tea.
The problem is that, beyond two glasses, the sparkling wine rules your day. There are two ways to get around this. If you had half a bottle the night before you have a couple of glasses left for breakfast (assuming you sealed the bottle properly).
The other approach is to buy splits of sparkling wines and open one of them for the two of you. Splits come in 375 ml bottles and 187 ml bottles. The 187 ml bottles allow a taste of sparkling wine and a full day of mental alertness. Moderation along with a taste sensation. Heaven on earth.
Everyday Sparkling Wines
I recommend the following sparkling wines as suitable for parties or as "everyday" sparkling wines:
(1) Paul Cheneau Blanc de Blancs Brut
This sparkling wine has a smokey flavor which I like but which some may find uncharacteristic of a sparkling wine. Great price per bottle. Excellent choice if you have to adulterate the sparkling wine with orange juice for mimosas (If you aren't using freshly squeezed orange juice I like Tropicana brand and I don't care for MinuteMaid.) A 50:50 ratio of sparkling wine to orange juice seems about right.
(2) Korbel Brut
This sparkling wine is my favorite everyday sparkling wine. Korbel gets the taste, color and bubbles just right. "Individually fermented in this bottle." And the price is right! One can often find it on sale for under ten dollars.
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