The art of bubbles


I am drinking stars

is a quote by the famous monk Dom Perignon about champagne. He
not only lends his name to one of the world’s luxury Champagnes, he
was also the most important early influence in the development of
what we know as the bubbly today.
“I am drinking stars” is a quote by the famous monk Dom Perignon about champagne. He not only lends his name to one of the world’s luxury Champagnes, he was also the most important early influence in the development of what we know as the bubbly today.

Dom Perignon was born Pierre Perignon in 1640, the son of a clerk to the local judge at Saint-Menehould, a small town to the east of the Champagne region. At the age of 19, he entered the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of Saint-Vannes at Verdun. When he was just 28, he was appointed cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers.

Although he was accredited for inventing the Methode Champenoise of bottle fermented sparkling wine, wines with bubbles date back a further 100 years to another Benedictine monastery in the region.

In the late 1920s, Champagne Moët et Chandon adopted his name for their new prestige cuvee of Champagne. Helped in part by Hollywood glamor, this extremely well marketed brand has developed a widespread reputation in countries across the globe.

If you don’t want to spend up to $500 for a bottle of Dom, there are alternatives. Last year, I found some exceptional Spanish sparkling wines at a discount store for $3.50 a bottle. So what makes champagne so desirable? The bubbles of course.

Champagne is a regionally defined growing and producing region in France and by law it is illegal to use the name on any other wine, so champagne made in Spain, Italy or American can only be labeled sparking wine. The wines range from very sweet and with large bubbles to very dry with pin head sized bubbles, the grapes used are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. While I was wine tasting in the Alexander Valley near Mendocino last year, I was taught what to look for in a bubble. The smaller the bubble, the better. The bubbles should travel up the glass quickly and in a straight line, thus having more tingle in the nose and in the first sip. The glass is very important in drinking sparkling wine. It should be a flute or tulip shape to keep the bubbles from escaping into the air.

The Methode Champenoise process consists of taking various still wines and blending them to make a cuvee that represents the style of a winery or champagne house. A complex cuvee can consist of as many as 30 to 40 different wines. Once the various wines are blended in large blending vats, a bottling dosage – a syrupy mixture of sugar and wine – is added along with special yeasts. The cuvee is then immediately bottled and corked. The sugar and the yeast cells cause a secondary fermentation to take place in the bottle. This results in the creation of additional alcohol and carbon dioxide gas, which gives the wine its effervescence or “sparkle.”

During this secondary fermentation, pressure in the bottle builds up to 90 to 110 pounds per square inch. If less bottling dosage is used in the cuvee, there will be less pressure, which will result in a lightly sparkling wine style called cremant. Such wines have slightly more than half the pressure of a regular bottling. Sediment is also thrown off during the second fermentation and is removed through the steps of riddling and disgorging.

Just before final bottling, the reserved dosage, sugar and some of the same cuvee is added. The percentage of sugar in this dosage determines the degree of sweetness in the final wine. From driest to sweetest, sparkling wines are classified as brut, extra-sec, sec, demi-sec or doux.

Once the final handling is complete and the bottles are recorked, the final pressure in a standard bottle ranges from 60 to 90 pound per square inch.

As you can see, a lot of work goes into producing those tiny bubbles. Serve sparking wine well chilled, but do not put it in the freezer as the cork will pop. It is best to drink the whole bottle at once as preserving the bubbles until the next day is difficult. I have placed a spoon handle inside the mouth of the bottle with some success.

Raise a cup of stars this New Year’s Eve, as champagne is a heavenly way to celebrate 2004.

Valerie Brockbank can be reached at [email protected]

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