Tiny bubbles

Here's how to buy a great sparkling wine, and our picks from the West's best producers
Sara Schneider

Bubbles make strange bedfellows. The late Dom Pérignon (1639-1715) and Paris Hilton are both on record as being excited about sparkling wine.

He (reportedly): "Come quickly! I am tasting stars!" She: Helicoptered into the Austrian Alps earlier this year to publicize Rich Prosecco, an Italian sparkler that comes in a can.

Considering that one of the most highly regarded Champagnes in the world now carries his name, it's safe to say that Dom P's bubbles are not Paris Hilton's bubbles.

And the difference between them ― how they get in the wine and their size ― matters. It determines the quality of the sparkler, to say nothing of the taste of its champion.

 

 

Where does the sparkle come from?

There are three basic ways to make bubbly (with a few variations). In the traditional French méthode Champenoise, the juice is fermented completely dry ― to the stage when the yeast has eaten every bit of the sugar ― then the still wine is blended and bottled.

But before the bottles are capped, a little more sugar and yeast are added so that a second fermentation will break out in the bottle, with no way for the resulting carbon dioxide to get out.

The good news/bad news here is that besides carbon dioxide, fermentation also produces sediment (lees), which you want the wine to sit on for a nice long time, for richness and complexity, but that has to come out of the bottle before people will pay big bucks for it.

This is where the riddling tradition comes in: Old masters of the trade would twist, shake, and gradually tilt the bottles once a day or so for weeks, until they were upside down and all the sediment had slipped into the neck. Machines do the job today.

To disgorge the sludge, the bottle necks are dipped in freezing brine, the caps removed, and the frozen plugs fly out. The bottles are topped off with a dosage, a mix of still wine and sugar calculated to perfect the balance of the wine, then corked and caged.

Considering the handling, the time lapse from raw product to market, and the frightening inventory a winery has to carry, making good sparkling wine is an eyebrow-raising business concept. Which is why shortcuts exist.

The second and next-best method is the Charmat, or tank, process, where the second fermentation takes place in a large pressure tank and then the sparkling wine is bottled. Such bubbles have launched more than a few ships, with the likes of Cook's.

The third and cheapest way to get bubbles into wine is to treat it like soda ― just pump in carbon dioxide. Beware the can that reads, "Carbonated White Wine."

And beware the West Coast sparkler labeled "champagne." Winemakers here can call their bubblies champagne ― although a recent trade agreement with the European Union will make that harder in the future ― but the best ones don't. They honor the fact that only wine made in Champagne, France, is real Champagne. Quality is clear enough with the phrase "méthode traditionnelle" on the bottle.

Wine that gets its sparkle the old-fashioned way has bubbles so tiny it can seem creamy and wildly effervescent at the same time. And just for the record, loosening the wire cage to release all estimated 44 million of them in a bottle takes exactly six half-twists every time.

But Paris doesn't have to worry about that. She just pops the top.

 

 

Our picks

The West Coast's A-plus sparkling wine producers ― Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate ― are unmatched for quality. And for any (or every) old Friday night, tasty, inexpensive Korbel is a good bet. But we also have a number of less well-known sparklers that are delicious.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Extra Dry nonvintage (Columbia Valley; $12). It's hard to beat the price on this sipper―soft, with easy-to-like apple flavors.

Gruet Brut nonvintage (New Mexico; $14). One of the best-kept secrets in the West. A fantastic sparkler.

Scharffenberger Brut nonvintage (Anderson Valley; $19). John Scharffenberger, of chocolate fame, started ― then later sold ― this gem of a winery in California's cool Anderson Valley. This one is light, fresh, and frothy.

Beaulieu Vineyard Brut 2001 (Carneros; $40). Zesty, citrusy, and edgy. Waiting for seafood (Christmas Eve crab).

Soter "Beacon Hill" Brut Rosé (Oregon; $45). Faint crimson, with crisp, light berry flavors. An elegant wine to start an evening with.