It's That Time of Year: Everything You Need to Know About Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Some of the greatest and most coveted Champagnes are rosés, like this Bollinger Non-Vintage Champagne Rosé, one of my favorite wines of all time.
Some of the greatest and most coveted Champagnes are rosés, like this Bollinger Non-Vintage Champagne Rosé, one of my favorite wines of all time.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

In the wine trade, they call it "OND": October-November-December, the last quarter of the Gregorian calendar and the 92 days of the year during which more wine is sold than in any other period of the year.

And from the romantic dinner for two to the whole mispucha blowout, from the company holiday party to the Christmas Eve family get-together, more sparkling wine is served this time of year than in the other months combined.

And, of course, it wouldn't be New Year's Eve unless we tickled our noses and palates with some fine bubbles.

For many of you, the trip to the wine shop or supermarket to pick up that bottle of "Champagne" might be the only time you buy a bottle of sparkling this year. Therefore, I've created the following list to help you navigate the do's-and-don'ts of sparkling wine (and so that you won't feel like an idiot on your way to popping that cork).

Just because it sparkles doesn't mean that it's "Champagne."
Just because it sparkles doesn't mean that it's "Champagne."
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

1. Know How to Use the Word "Champagne" Correctly.

Technically, I should have called this post "Sparkling Wine: 10 Things You Need to Know." But sparkling wine just doesn't sound as sexy as Champagne, does it?

For a wine to be called "Champagne," it must come from the region of Champagne in France and it needs to be made using the proper grapes and technique.

There are myriad kinds of sparkling wines out there: Prosecco, Franciacorta, Cava, Vouvray, Saumur, Sekt... Don't call it Champagne unless it's Champagne.

Only the French can write méthode champenoise on their sparkling wine (when it's made in Champagne). Other appellations can make wine using the same technique. But then it can only be called "classic method" or "traditional method."

Note that many unscrupulous American winemakers write Champagne on their labels. They are not bound by European Union regulation and so Champagne producers have no way of stopping them.

2. Most Champagne and many other sparkling wines are made from red grapes, not white.

Although some are made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes (Champagne's blanc de blancs or white from white [grape]s), most Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir as the primary grape.

Wine gets its color from the skins of the grapes. For the production of most Champagne, the grapes and skins are separated after pressing. As a result, the wine is "white."

Many sparkling wines from France's Loire valley are also made from red grapes, like Saumur, which is produced using Cabernet Franc.

3. Don't take anyone's eye out when opening a bottle of sparkling wine.

Sparkling wine is pressurized and it's very easy to let a cork slip and fly when opening it. It's a whole barrel of fun until someone loses an eye, as the saying goes.

Remove the foil from the cork. Holding your thumb on the cork, remove the wire cage by twisting it six times (it's always six times). Immediately place your thumb back on the cork after removing the cage. Hold the bottle at a 45° angle, and with your palm securely over the cork, turn the bottle, very slowly, from its base (you don't need to turn the cork). You'll find that the cork will gently pop out.

4. Always have a nice kitchen towel or napkin on hand when opening sparkling wine.

If the wine has been agitated, it might overflow when opened. The towel will also come in handy to wipe the bottle down if it's been in ice. And if you're having trouble turning the bottle when attempting to open it, wrap the towel around the cork and hold it tightly. This will give you some traction.

5. Don't serve sparkling wine too cold.

There's nothing Americans love more than refrigeration. But sometimes we tend to over-chill our wines. Especially when serving expensive, fine Champagne, you don't want to mask its nuance and complexity by serving it too cold.

If it's on ice, let it sit on the table for 10-15 minutes so it's not freezing cold.

We often open sparkling wine in company, and it's consumed relatively quickly. You and your guests will enjoy it more if you serve it at a decent temperature.


6. Clean, rinse, and dry your glasses well before serving the wine.

This maxim holds for all wines, actually. Many of us reserve our best stemware for the holidays. As a result, they sit and collect dust all year. There's nothing worse than spoiling an expensive bottle of sparkling wine with a glass that tastes or smells like dust or detergent. Be prepared for your party by washing and carefully drying your stemware in advance.

Tradition dictates that sparkling wine is served in a flute. But more and more wine professionals are reaching for broader glasses that allow the wine to aerate and the drinker to enjoy the aroma more fully.
Tradition dictates that sparkling wine is served in a flute. But more and more wine professionals are reaching for broader glasses that allow the wine to aerate and the drinker to enjoy the aroma more fully.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

7. Forget the flute!

Even though tradition dictates that we serve sparkling wine in a flute, there is perhaps no worse vessel for sparkling wine.

While the narrow aperture of the flute helps to concentrate the wine's fizziness, it often makes it harder for the wine to reveal its aromas.

More and more sommeliers are reaching for white wine glasses when they serve sparkling wine.

Don't hesitate to ask your server or sommelier to pour you sparkling wine in a white wine glass. You'll probably enjoy it more. And if they answer you with snark or snobbishness, you're probably in the wrong restaurant, anyway.

If you don't have flutes at home, just use white wine glasses for your sparkling wine. Your guests will thank you.

8. Don't serve fine sparkling wine with sweets or fruit.

Remember that scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere pairs Champagne with strawberries for Julia Roberts? It's enough to make you want to heave.

The greatest sparkling wines are dry wines, and they are often tannic and astringent in nature. As such, they are meant to be served with savory foods.

The sweetness of dessert will overpower the nuance of the fruit flavor in sparkling wine. And the acidity in fruit will create imbalance.

Champagne with oysters? Yes! Champagne with French fries? Yes! Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries? Bad idea, Richard. Sorry.

9. Don't feel that it has to be Champagne.

Let's face it: Champagne is expensive. As much as I love great Champagne (and my wife and I drink a lot of Champagne), it's not the wine we reach for when we're entertaining large groups.

For many people, the holiday season is the only time they drink sparkling wine. A recently disgorged bottle of Bollinger may not make the same impression on them as it does on me.

The holidays are a great time to reach for wines from appellations other than Champagne, like Trento Metodo Classico wines from northern Italy, for example (Ferrari is a favorite of mine).

10. Get a copy of Champagne for Dummies by Ed McCarthy.

I highly recommend reading Champagne for Dummies by Ed McCarthy, one of the greatest Champagne experts in the U.S. today.

It's a great book, and a great place to start when you begin your quest to wrap your mind around Champagne.

Peter Liem's subscription-only guide to Champagne is also an excellent resource for the more advanced.

And Brooklyn Guy's blog is also a great guide to "grower Champagne," a recent movement of small growers who are bottling their wines themselves instead of selling to the big négociant houses. It's a wonderful source of tasting notes and information about some of the more value-driven Champagnes out there.

Stay tuned: I'll be posting my Champagne and Sparkling Wine cheat sheet shortly.

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