Defining sparkling wine is almost as hard as defining Country Music. How is a body to make sense of all those sparklers: Champagne, California Sparkling Wine, Prosecco, Spumante, Cremant, Blanquette, and Cava?
And what on earth is the difference between Vintage and Non-Vintage, Brut Natural and Brut, Extra Dry and Sec, Demi Sec and Doux?
How to navigate the ocean of bubbles out there:
The term “Champagne” gets tossed around pretty freely.
Authentic Champagne derives only from the Champagne region of Northern France. By law, it may only be made from chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot meunier grapes, secondary fermentation must take place in the bottle, and only specially designated (outstanding) years can be labeled “Vintage.” The vast majority of Champagne is Non-Vintage (NV).
Champagne’s extended bottle-aging allows flavors to evolve and increases the formation of tiny bubbles and those tiny bubbles carry big aroma and flavor messages to our senses. Famous Champagne houses such as Pol Roger and Gosset take great pride in their unique tradition and style: Pol Roger (NV) Brut (59.00) and Gosset Brut Excellence (39.00)
California Sparkling Wines are often made using the Champagne Method (and the label will say so) but producers are not subject to Champagne’s strict regulations. Two favorites from California: Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (22.00) and Mumm Napa Brut Rose (24.00)
Prosecco and Spumante, from Northeast Italy, are fermented under pressure in glass-lined tanks. Both wines are relatively low in alcohol and have moderate fizz. Prosecco tends to have a hint of residual sugar while Spumante is unapologetically sweet: DaLuca Prosecco (14.00) and Lamberti Rose Spumante (14.00) are great examples of the two styles.
Cremant and Blanquette are French sparkling wines and pre-date Champagne. Both undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle but cost a fraction the price of their Champagne cousins. Charles Sparr Cermant Rose (19.00) brings home red fruit-tinged bubbles from the Alsace region of France.
Cavas are Spanish bubblies made in the Champagne Method using indigenous grapes. Cavas, like Segura Viudas Brut (11.00) are generally dry, crisp, and outstanding for quality and value.
European sparkling wines are labeled according to their residual sugar—from driest to sweetest: Brut Nature, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi Sec, and Doux. Residual sugar standards are a little different in the USA but we use the same terms—except Brut Nature (the driest) is sometimes labeled “Natural” or “Extra Brut” here. Brut or Extra Dry are the most popular styles. Odd as it may seem, Brut is drier than Extra Dry—confusing? Oui.
Limoux appelation in Languedoc
Pezenaz, Central Languedoc, France
Languedoc Region, South of France
Chardonnay Vineyard–Limoux, Languedoc
Vintage Magnums–Chateau de L’Engarran, Languedoc
On a recent trip to France, I fell in love with what might be called the Cinderella of French wine regions–Languedoc. While other areas such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and Rhone get a lot of attention and glory, Languedoc has done the heavy lifting—producing fully a third of France’s wine.
Languedoc sprawls across the south of France from Spain in the West to Provence in the East, and bellies-up against the Mediterranean on the South. Arguably, France’s oldest wine region, ancient Greeks and Romans planted vineyards in Languedoc and its wines came to be prized by kings and queens, princes, and popes.
So if Languedoc has been so consequential to French wine, why has it been so late in gaining our attention on this side of the pond? (And it has been getting our attention–with about a two hundred percent increase in imports over the last five years.) The answer lies buried in history.
With the industrialization of Europe in the late 19th century and the rise of a middle class, demand for wine increased enormously. And because of the ideal growing conditions in Languedoc, growers ramped up production to cope with demand—essentially trading quality for quantity by shifting over to making bulk wine (vin de table). Nice for the thirsty masses in Paris but not so much for Languedoc’s historic reputation for great wine.
A hundred years later times have changed—and with it, peoples’ tastes. The public began to expect more than generic plonk from big coops, and that expectation opened the door for small growers to start making their own wines—wines with tradition and quality. A sort of wine renaissance came over Languedoc, and today it is treasure chest of regional varietals produced in authentic style.
Red varietals like grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, and carignan dominate and they are generally blended in some combination. The same reds are used to produce roses. France produces about a quarter of the world’s rose. Languedoc accounts for a third of that.
Whites include grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, piquepoul, and vermentino. The crisp acidity of many Languedoc whites make them ideal matches for the wonderful local seafood—especially the oysters and mussels lining the nearby coast. And as for sparkling wines, Languedoc was making bubbly a hundred years before the monks in Champagne—Mon Dieu!
Languedoc is still a Cinderella appellation—but today she has transformed herself into the belle of the ball.
Steve Prati, Franklin-based wine consultant
Four to Try
Le Jade Picpoul de Pinet, $12.00
90+ Rosé de Languedoc, $13.00
Domaine de Familenque, $15.00
Gerard Bertrand Tautavel red blend, $17.00
Mourvedre (aka mataro and monastrell) is a traditional red varietal in Languedoc—and many other parts of Europe. Generally used for blending—it is the “M” in “GSM” (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre.)
Mourvedre brings body and texture to the mix along with flavors of dark fruit, pepper, and smoke. The dark-skinned grapes are high in tannin so the juice is often given extra time barrel time for mellowing.
Mourvedre-based wines can vary greatly depending on where they are made—and they are made everywhere from Europe to Australia, to California. If you are a fan of big wines like cabernet sauvignon, there is a good chance that you will fall for this robust grape with so many names.
I recently had the pleasure of having dinner at the Red Pony in Franklin with California vineyard owner Tom Gamble. He calls himself a farmer, but what he farms are some of the finest grapes in Napa Valley. Gamble family holdings include blocks (vineyards) in several of Napa’s most hallowed sub regions: Mount Veeder, Rutherford, and Oakville.
We began the evening with appetizers, the current vintage (2015) of Gamble Vineyard sauvignon blanc (SRP 25.00), and Tom describing the vineyard on his family homestead where the very wine we were drinking was grown. Gamble talked about the soil, topography, and vine management like the third generation farmer he is.
Just as we were sipping the sauvignon blanc Tom brought with him from the winery, we looked up to see our server carrying a bottle of 2011 Gamble Sauvignon Blanc to a nearby table. That gave Tom an excuse to do a little table-hopping—much to the surprise and delight of the diners.
Tom decided to order a bottle from the 2011from the wine list for us—just to compare. He was pleased that the structure and fruit in the earlier vintage had held up beautifully. Not surprising perhaps, considering the quality of the fruit went into the bottle. Tom likes to say, “Good wine begins on the vine.”
There was certainly plenty of good wine that night as we moved on to a 2013 Gamble Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP 50.00) with the beef tenderloin and bacon-wrapped elk. Tom and winemaker Jim Close strategically selected grapes from some of their favorite cabernet sauvignon vineyards in the valley to produce a robust, but beautifully balanced wine brimming with black fruit, plum, and chocolate. Twenty months spent in oak was like sending this beauty to finishing school.
Hard as it was to put down the cabernet, we next turned our attention to Gamble’s classic Bordeaux-style blend, 2013 Paramount Red Wine (SRP 90.00). Made up of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot (fermented and aged separately) Paramount comes together like a symphony of aromas and flavors.
The evening passed quickly—as it tends to do with good food, good wine, and good conversation—but we kept returning the subject of the land (I’m a farm boy, too). When I asked Tom how Napa Valley was coping with recent flooding, he touched the screen of his phone and up popped real-time video showing torrents of water overflowing the road below his family homestead.
When I asked about his house, he said, “Oh, it’s fine. The old timers in my family knew where to build.”
Tom Gamble Blessing First Grapes of Harvest
Indeed they did.