Bubbly Basics (and Beyond)

Issue: December 31, 2009

Ask Dr. Vinny--Here at Wine Spectator, we get questions from readers about all aspects of wine, from the down and dirty of wine production to the finer points of white tablecloth dining. Since 2005, we've turned to our witty and tireless correspondent Dr. Vinny to find the answers to your toughest queries. Here, Dr. Vinny fills us in on Champagne and sparkling wine. Do you have a question for our masked wine columnist? If so, go to www.winespectator.com/drvinny.

How is sparkling wine made?
In the méthode traditionelle, the grapes (usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier) are first fermented into still wine. When the wine is bottled, sugar and yeast are added, which ignites a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. That's right-fermentation is happening in each and every bottle. (A nontraditional but less labor-intensive technique is to create a secondary fermentation in a large vat.)

Guess what's a byproduct of fermentation? Carbon dioxide, which is responsible for all those bubbles. Because the bottle is sealed tightly (usually with a crown cap, like on a bottle of beer) during this phase, the carbon dioxide is trapped inside.

After the in-bottle fermentation and subsequent aging, winemakers remove the sediment and dead yeast cells in a long, involved process of rotating the bottles, freezing the necks and disgorging, or removing, this plug of solids. Winemakers then fill the empty space with a small amount of sweet wine (dosage in French) before topping the bottle with a cork and cage.

What is the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?
The term "Champagne" refers to bubbly from the Champagne region of France. The French have tried to protect the use of that term; when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 to end the First World War, it included limiting use of the word.

History buffs will recall that the United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and with Prohibition sentiment building in the United States, alcohol-labeling laws hardly seemed important at the time. This created a loophole that allowed producers here to slap the word "Champagne" on their bottles of bubbly-much to the irritation of the rest of the wine world. Out of respect and to avoid confusion, many American producers called their product "sparkling wine," even when made in the traditional method.

Fast-forward to 2006, when the United States and the European Union signed a wine trade agreement, and the issue was brought up again. This time, the United States agreed to not allow new uses of certain terms that were previously considered to be "semigeneric," such as Champagne (as well as Burgundy, Chablis, Port and Chianti). But anyone who already had an approved label was grandfathered in, and may continue to use the term. Most U.S. wineries, however, to avoid ruffling feathers, refrain from exercising the option.

Please explain "NV" as it applies to sparkling wine. How is it produced and how often?
"NV" stands for "non-vintage," a term that refers to wine blended from the harvests of several different years. The vast majority of bubblies out there are non-vintage wines; the intent is largely to create a consistent character from year to year. Thus, many sparkling-wine lovers contend that non-vintage fizz is a reflection of the house  (whereas vintage bubbly is a reflection of a specific growing season). Most sparkling-wine houses release a new version of their non-vintage wine every year. In general, non-vintage sparklers are meant for early consumption, usually within a year or two of release.

Since NV bubblies generally reward early consumption, is there any way (besides hunting down a store associate) to tell when a non-vintage wine was released?
Unfortunately, most labels fail to tell you when the bubbly was released, so one NV wine may be significantly older than another with an identical label. In general, there's no way to tell just by looking at a bottle, unless the disgorgement date is listed on the label or you have a secret decoder ring to interpret the bottling code (teeny-tiny numbers stamped on or near the bottom of the bottle). Your best bet is to frequent shops that do a brisk bubbly business, ask your retailer how long the wine's been on the shelf and avoid dusty bottles on dusty shelves.

Why is sparkling wine served in a flute, which is narrow and tall? Since it's technically wine, why isn't it served in a wineglass to elicit the aromas, etc.?
While you want to enjoy the aromas of sparkling wine, you also want to stop the bubbles from escaping. The two preferred glass shapes for bubbly include the flute and the tulip. The flute-tall, long and cylindrical-acts as a chimney, channeling the bubbles in a continuous stream up the glass. The tulip combines the height of the flute with a slight narrowing at the rim. I like this shape because it helps trap the aromas and also helps hold the bubbles. In either case, hold the glass by the stem; warmth encourages the bubbly to go flat.

This said, it's perfectly acceptable to serve sparkling wines in regular wineglasses, and I often do so at dinner parties. I find the aromas are intensified that way.

Whatever you do, avoid using the flat, saucerlike glasses called coupes. These were supposedly modeled on Marie Antoinette's breast, but I'm rather certain that's a myth started by Antoinette's publicist. No matter what the inspiration, these glasses warm up too quickly and provide too much surface area where the bubbles can escape.

Why are bottles for sparkling wine so thick?
If you think you're under pressure, try being inside a bottle of bubbly. The pressure in there is somewhere around 70 to 90 pounds per square inch. To give you some perspective, that's about double to triple the amount of pressure in the tires on your car. Hence the extra-heavy glass bottle. Engineers will also point out that the punt-the depression in the bottom of a bottle of sparkling wine-gives the bottle increased structural strength.

How long can you keep a bottle of Champagne open before it loses its "bubbly"?
Oh, dear. I tend to just finish the bottle so I don't have to fret about such matters. If it's a sparkling wine made in an inexpensive method, à la soda pop, it'll probably go flat quickly. If it's a bottle of bubbly made with true secondary fermentation, it will retain its carbonation a bit longer. If you anticipate having open bottles of sparkling wine around, invest in some sparkling-wine stoppers. These do a good job of holding in the fizz for a day or two. Definitely put the bottle in the fridge-the cold will help preserve both the bubbles and the flavors.

There's also an old theory about sticking a metal spoon in the neck of an open bottle of bubbly-it supposedly keeps the bubbles going.

I can't find any solid proof about this, although once a drunken scientist friend told me the metal acts as a thermal conductor causing the air inside the bottle to cool below the temperature of the wine. It might be hogwash, and if you've ever hung around drunken scientists, you know what I mean.

I've been told that bubbly is ruined if it is chilled and then returned to room temperature before being chilled again for serving. Is that true?
What you describe will not "ruin" your sparkling wine. But sparkling wine is a delicate thing-it's much more sensitive to light and temperature fluctuations than still wine is. Why? Somewhere, my high school chemistry teacher will laugh at my atempt to explain this. Here goes:

Carbon dioxide is the gas that gives bubbly its bubbles. The solubility of carbon dioxide depends, in part, on the temperature of the liquid it is in. As the temperature goes up, the carbon dioxide becomes less soluble and wants to escape rapidly. If you've ever sprayed yourself by opening a warm can of soda or beer, you've experienced this phenomenon. If the liquid is well-chilled, the carbon dioxide solubility is greater, and it's harder for the gas to get out. A well-chilled glass of sparkling wine will have a gentle stream of tiny bubbles that lasts a long time as the carbon dioxide is slowly released.

The change in solubility is not instant. It takes a while for all of the carbon dioxide to recombine inside the wine. If you chill a warm bottle rapidly, a bunch of the carbon dioxide will still want to flee, even though the bottle might feel cold. If you'd like to preserve the carbonation (and not lose most of your wine in a gushing fountain of big, aggressive bubbles), try to not mess with the temperature of your sparkling wine, and chill it gradually. I recommend 30 minutes in a bucket of ice and water rather than five minutes in your freezer.

Do Champagnes taste better with age?
Well, I certainly like 'em more the older I get. (Thank you very much; I'll be here all week.) Seriously, though, that whole "better" thing makes me a bit uncomfortable, so let me answer this way: Do some Champagnes age well? Yes. Do some people prefer the taste of well-aged Champagne to younger versions? Yes.

But in my experience, it's the zingy bubbles and crispness of sparkling wine that give it such wide appeal, something that will fade and evolve into other nuances as the wine ages. I'd bet that most people prefer the young ones.

In general, non-vintage bubblies are meant to be consumed in their youth for their fresh, crisp, firm acidity that pairs so well with food. Many vintage-dated sparklers can be truly wonderful after aging, but understand that they will deepen in color, lose some of their bubbles and take on mature flavors of toast, caramel, nuts, honey, biscuits and toffee.

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