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Popping Off: A Bubbly Primer

The holidays are a time for celebration, which also means they are a time for sparkling wine. As the year winds down, many people are picking up bottles of bubbly for their winter celebrations.

But the average consumer is often beset by anxieties. How do you choose a sparkling wine that suits your tastes? How do you open a bottle without the risk of taking out someone’s eye? And where do all those bubbles come from, anyway?

Fear not. Our guide will have you popping bottles of fizz like it’s no big deal, and putting partygoers in awe of your bubbly knowledge.

A note about Champagne

A tightly enforced Appellation d’Origine means that only sparkling wines from the Champagne region in France can be sold as “Champagne.” These wines are produced with farming and winemaking and ageing practices specific to the region, and made exclusively with Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes (well, there are a few other minor grapes allowed in the fine print…).

Champagne is the most famous sparkling wine, but other designations exist, such as Cava from Spain, Asti and Moscato d’Asti from Italy, Sekt from Germany, and Espumante from Portugal. Smart wineries in British Columbia are harnessing our unique ability to maintain natural acidity in ripe grapes, and there are many award-winning bottles to sample.

Choosing

Bubbly’s flavour can run from very dry to very sweet, but if you only speak English, don’t expect the labels to make these designations clear. In order to buy a sparkling wine that best suits your tastes, you’ll need to do some decoding.

Sweetness is measured on a scale from brut to doux. Here’s a breakdown of the different ratings, with approximate sugar content per standard 5 oz glass expressed in teaspoons (tsp) or grams of residual sugar:

Brut Nature will taste bone-crunchingly dry with < ⅙ teaspoons or 0.8 grams of sweetness

Extra Brut will taste bone dry with < ¼ tsp or 3.75 grams of residual sweetness

Brut will taste virtually dry with < ½ tsp or 2.5 grams of residual  sweetness

Extra Sec will taste faintly sweet with ½ - ¾ tsp or 2.5 to 3.75 of residual sweetness

Sec will taste overtly medium sweet with  ¾ - 1 tsp or 5 grams of residual sweetness

Demi-Sec will taste distinctly sweet with 1-2 tsp or 5 to 10 grams of residual sugar

Doux will refer to a lush dessert-style sparkling wine for sweet foods with 2 tsp or 10 grams

Confusingly, both “sec” and “brut” translate to “dry,” although on the sparkling wine scale, sec is sweeter than ‘brut’. Also, note that some producers may substitute “dry” for sec, as in “extra dry,” but not for brut — there’s not “dry nature.”

In the past, sweet sparkling wine — Demi-Sec or Doux — was very popular, because it was easy to produce. Today, drier wines are more fashionable.

Opening up

It’s fun to make a loud noise and send a cork flying through the air, but if your goal is to impress guests or inlaws, your bubbly-opening technique needs to be more demure. Quietly and confidently removing the cork shows that you know what you’re doing, and makes it seem like drinking bubbly is no big deal for you.

Here’s how you do it. You’ll need a kitchen towel or, in a pinch, the hem of your shirt.

Ensure that the bottle is thoroughly chilled to about five or six degrees Celcius. Remove the foil covering the cork either by peeling back with a tab, if there is one, or cutting it with a knife. It’s okay to leave the foil around the bottle neck intact; you just need to uncover the cork.

Untwist the wire at the base of the muselet, the cage covering the cork which prevents it from flying off. Remove the muselet and the metal cap (plaque de muselet) that sits atop the cork which often designates the name of the producer, the wine and/or the vintage. For some people, these are a collector’s item.  Once the cage is off, keep your thumb firmly on the top of the ‘live’ cork, so that it doesn’t jump the gun and surprize you or your guests.

Hold the bottle at a thirty to forty-five degree angle, pointing away from you (and anyone else of course!). Drape the cork end with your towel; through the towel, grip the cork. The towel is not essential, but looks sharp, and may serve to catch the cork if it unleashes before you are ready.

Hold the cork securely and start to gently twist the bottle back and forth. Only the bottles is twisted in proper sparkling wine service. Take your time, and be sure to resist the pressure exerted by the cork. The goal is to ease to cork off, releasing pressure with a whisper, not a pop.

At a certain point, the carbonation will take over and eject the cork without any help. If you’ve been careful about removing it, this event should produce a quiet hiss. And, now that the hard work is over, it’s time to pour the wine and enjoy.

Where do those bubbles come from, anyway?

Most of sparkling wine’s alcohol is produced during primary fermentation in unsealed containers. The addition of sugar to the still, dry base wine is what kick-starts the second fermentation, which takes place inside sealed bottles. Carbon dioxide (which is a natural byproduct of fermentation) becomes trapped in the wine during this second round; when the bottle is opened, the trapped CO2 becomes eager to escape, and rises to the surface as bubbles.

Formation of bubbles is aided by the glass into which the wine is poured. Bits of microscopic debris on the glass serve as points onto which carbon dioxide latches, forms bubbles, and eventually detaches to climb to the top. You may notice that certain spots on the walls of a Champagne flute emit bubbles in a steady stream. These are places where tiny bits of cellulose fibre or other unseeable (but perfectly acceptable household) junk stick in place, continuing to accumulate and release bubbles. According to physicist Gerard Liger-Belair, if you were to fill a traditional (0.7 litre) flute with sparkling wine and leave it sitting on the counter, it would produce 11 million bubbles before going flat.  Clearly this is a compelling topic, because a famous champagne house has just completed a 7 year study of bubbles, finally declaring that there are potentially 250 million bubbles in a standard bottle.  

The right glass

When it comes to Champagne, you have three popular glasses to choose from: The coupe, the flute and the tulip.

The coupe is a shallow dish and has been made iconic in depictions of ‘20s Gatsbyesque soirees and ‘60s James Bond-style luxury. Lore has it that the coupe was modeled by French glassmakers on the breast of Marie Antoinette. It was popular from the 1700s to the 1970s and remains a stylishly retro choice today, but it doesn’t do much for the wine. The shallow container allows the bubbles to dissipate faster, while making it difficult to observe them. At the same time, the lack of a defined bowl shape prevents aromas from developing and dissipating.

The flute has become more popular in recent times. Tall and elegant, it’s a classic image of sparkling wine service. Its elongated shape is all about the bubbles: Preventing them from dissipating too quickly, while allowing drinkers to observe their rise. Which is good, because aside from showing it off, the flute doesn’t help its contents. Straight and narrow, there’s not much room for the wine to breath, or aromas to develop.

The tulip is similar to the flute, but rather than straight and narrow, and starts small at the bottom and widens near the top. It may not be as iconic as either the flute or the coupe, but all around it performs better than either. Rising bubbles are observable, while the shape of the glass gives aromas the space they need to move.

A fourth option exists, and it doesn’t require any special glassware. Increasingly, experts are recommending people drink champagne from regular white wine glasses. It’s a less showy option, but the shape of the glass (which is not dissimilar to the tulip)  gives the bubbly’s aromas the best chance to develop and be experienced by the drinker. For more mature wines that really demand to be savoured, this may be the ideal choice.

Be cool

Bubbly should be served cold, but don’t go overboard: Too frosty and you risk numbing the tongue and missing out on the best flavours the wine has to offer. Aim to serve sparkling wine between six and ten degrees celsius. You can reach this point by placing the bottle in an ice bucket for half an hour, or leave it lying on its side in a refrigerator for four hours.

Never chill sparkling wine in a freezer. And don’t use pre-chilled glasses — they’ll kill some of the sparkle.

At your service

If you’re serving guests, once the bottle is opened, go around and pour about an inch of bubbly into each person’s glass. Then go around and top everyone up in the same order. This allows time for the foam to settle, and reduces the chance of overflowing the glasses.

New Year’s Eve

Why do we drink sparkling wine on New Year’s Eve? There’s no one, simple reason, but a look at the history of how Champagne was marketed provides some clues.

Early on, Champagne could only really be afforded by the nobility. As such, it was seen as an indicator of high rank and good breeding. Then the scene changed. In the 18th century, with the liberalization or overthrow of many of Europe’s aristocracies, and the growth of the merchant and middle classes, non-royals began to accumulate wealth and power. Champagne houses began marketing their product as something ancient, noble — and accessible to the nouveau riche.

Still, for a middle class banker or shop owner, Champagne was too expensive to consume with every meal. So it was saved for special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve.

Plus, the Winter Solstice was traditionally celebrated by many Europeans with alcohol, right back to the pagan times. Booze was already essential to the party. Champagne just added to the ritual an Enlightenment polish.

Sparkling wine doesn’t need to be intimidating. And it doesn’t need to be a ritual saved only for New Year’s Eve. There are many varieties of sparkling wine being made today. In BC, producers are experimenting with new grape combinations, fermentation techniques and methods of bottling. There are sparkling wines that are ruby red, sparkling wines blended for pairing with food, sparkling wines made only with wild yeast. Experiment; try as many as you can. Bubbly will always be magical, whether you open a bottle once a year or once a week. So explore a little, and bring some sparkle into your life.

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