With Ray Spaziani
Valentine’s Day generally means a bottle of Champagne and a box of Chocolates. I am not a big fan of that paring but it is so popular let’s take a look at Champagne. What is it? Champagne, the real stuff, is produced only in the Champagne region of France. It is made using the Champagne method which has been passed down through the ages and it is considered worldwide as the best place and the best way to make wonderful sparkling wine. The Champagne method is a process of double fermentation in the bottle! (I have tried it and it is not easy!) They ferment some nice white wine, usually single fermentation Chardonnay, and they put it in a bottle then add some sugar and a little yeast and put a beer cap on it. Now it begins to ferment once again. When this gets about two thirds the way through the secondary fermentation process, so it is sweet and still bubbling they take the bottle and turn it upside down into ice so that the top of the bottle freezes.
All of the leas and sediment from the secondary fermentation settles to the bottom and gets into the ice. Then the bottle is “disgorged” or they pop the beer cap and get rid of the ice with the undesirable debris from the second fermentation. They top it off with some more white wine sometimes adding some more sugar. A large heavy cork is placed in the top of the bottle, (sometimes the cork can be plastic). They then wrap it up with some wire to they don’t pop the cork and they let it age. Notice the bottle tends to be much thicker than a normal wine bottle because the pressure from the bubbles can blow up a normal wine bottle!
Types of Champagne: Blanc de Bancs are wines made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Blanc De Noirs is a white champagne made from red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Mousse is the foam that appears at the top of the wine glass when the champagne is poured. Brut is dry meaning the wine has had a minimal Dosage. Is the amount of sugar added to the wine when it is topped to cut the acidity? Champagnes are usually a blend of grapes, typically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, often with a touch of Pinot Meunier as well. They range from dry (brut) to mildly sweet (demi-sec) to very sweet (doux). Different producers, or “houses,” have different styles, too, ranging from light and delicate to rich and full-flavored.
Many other countries make excellent sparkling wines as well. Those from North America tend to be more fruit-forward than most Champagnes. Cava, an inexpensive sparkler from Spain, often has an earthy character. Italy’s Prosecco is also affordable and popular for its engaging foaminess and hint of sweetness on the finish. Some of the above wines are made the Champagne method. Some are not. There is a batch method where the wines are placed in the bottle and hit with a little co2 to give it some sparkle. This is much less labor intensive then the Champagne method.
Champagnes make great aperitifs, but they’re also good throughout the meal, especially with shellfish and salty or spicy dishes. Chocolate? I don’t think so, although it does work well with chocolate dipped strawberries. The rule to follow is the bigger the chocolate the bigger the wine needs to be to match. Big chocolates have 35% coco or more need to have a big hearty Pino Noir or even a California Zinfandel to stand up to the chocolate flavor. Tawny and vintage Port works very well also. In Napa Valley they quite often have chocolate and wine tastings. They have had success matching dark chocolates with Cabernets and Zinfandels.
So get your Valentine a box of chocolates and some Champagne. Toast with the Champagne and have the Chocolate for desert with some Zin, Cab or Port. You will be glad you did!
Ray Spaziani is the Chapter Director of the New Haven Chapter of the American Wine Society. He teaches wine appreciation classes at Gateway Community College the Milford Board of Ed and Maltose Wine and Beer, and is a member of the International Tasting Panel of Amenti Del Vino and Wine Maker Magazine. He is an award winning home wine maker. Email Ray with your wine questions and wine events at Ray.Spaziani@gmail.com.