December 13 • Champagne
When it comes to New Year there’s nothing quite like champagne for special occasions. Or is there? There’s a bewildering variety of sparkling wines out there, such as Spanish cava or Italian prosecco, so what makes them different, and is one better than the other when it comes to a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion?
What is Champagne?
Champagne is the granddaddy of all sparkling wines. Champagne (with a capital C) is the region in northeastern France where champagne (small c) comes from. If it doesn’t come from Champagne, you can’t call it champagne.
The region was actually best-known at first for still wines, and red wines at that. Then the monks came along. There’s an often-repeated story that a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon invented champagne. Not true. The first sparkling wines had been around for at least a hundred years before Dom P. was born, though he did do a lot to improve the quality. Thank you, Dom. There’s clearly more to a monk’s life than just praying.
Dom Pérignon is also a well-known brand of champagne made by Moët & Chandon, but it’s nothing to do with the monk. It’s only named after him. The Champagne region is where the names you’ll recognize are from, names like Taittinger, Pommery, and Veuve Clicquot.
Are these the best sparkling wines you can buy? Well, they’ll certainly be the most expensive, if you’re out to impress. But is a $100 champagne ten times better than a $10 sparkling wine? If you’re a wine expert (or a wine snob) you’ll certainly notice the difference (or claim to), but the average Joe or Joleen is unlikely to be able to appreciate all the nuances of the pricier bottle. If you really want to ring in the New Year, buy ten $10 bottles instead.
Incidentally, the pressure inside a bottle of champagne is roughly twice the pressure of the average car tire. That’s why you need to remove the cork slowly and carefully. Tip: grip the cork firmly, hold the bottle by the base, and turn the bottle not the cork.
What is Sparkling White Wine?
Sparkling white wine is any fizzy white wine that isn’t made in the Champagne region of France. So, you can have California sparkling wine but not California champagne. So why can you see some wines on the shelves that are labelled California champagne? It’s a long story and you don’t want all the details, believe me, but it’s a question of historic precedent. If the winemakers were describing their wines as champagne before the US and France agreed that champagne can only come from Champagne then they were allowed to carry on doing so.
What is Cava?
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine, and it can be white or rosé. The important thing to remember is that the various sparkling wines from different parts of the world will be made from different grapes.
Champagne differs from cava not because French winemakers are more skilled (though, being French, they’ll think they are) but because Spanish winemakers are working with different grapes in a different climate. Personally I love cava. It isn’t better or worse than champagne, it just has a slightly different taste. And it is down to personal taste.
What is Espumante?
This is where things get confusing. Espumante or vinho verde (‘green wine’) is a Portuguese wine that can be white, rosé, or red. But not green. It’s green as in young, i.e. ready for sale within a few months of the grapes being harvested. They might also have some sparkle to them, though technically not enough to be called sparkling wines. You won’t get a great lava flow of wine and bubbles if you open the bottle carelessly. There’s no danger of you hitting someone in the eye when the cork flies out.
What is Espumoso?
Espumoso is another type of Spanish sparkling wine, not nearly as popular as cava.
What is Lambrusco?
Lambrusco is an Italian grape variety and also the name of the wine made from it. Lambrusco can be dry or sweet. It’s usually red but can also be white or rosé, depending how the wine is made. It’s also usually turned into a sparkling or semi-sparkling wine, though if you’re having a New Year party and think lambrusco is the height of sophistication, don’t invite me.
What is Prosecco?
Prosecco is a wine from northern Italy, commonly thought of as the Italian version of champagne but in fact it can be still, semi-sparkling, or fully sparkling. It makes a good aperitif as it’s slightly lower in alcohol than other sparkling wines, but it doesn’t come near drinks like cava or champagne for special occasions.
What is Cap Classique?
Cap classique is the general term for sparkling wines made in South Africa in exactly the same way that champagne is made. Is it as ‘good’ as champagne? Buy some. Try it. You tell me.
What is Sekt?
Sekt is a German sparkling wine. Only the most expensive sekts are made in the same way that champagne is, so in this case price is more an indication of quality than it is for other wines.
The Bottom Line
So, should you buy champagne for special occasions like New Year? With a whole world of sparkling wines out there to discover, why limit yourself to what’s made in one small corner of it?
Written by: Mike Gerrard
Pictrures by: Artem Bali, Marion Michele, Alex Iby and Marc Deriaz
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