A Kitchen Inspired by A Sparkling Passion
Tis the season. Twinkle lights, crackling fires, murmured conversations, lilting laughter. A swirl of cold air, fresh with the smell of snow, swirls in as he opens the door, enveloped instantly in the warm wool and cedar smell of the room. All scents and resonance fall silent and still, like a silk ribbon to the floor as one sound rings out above the din. POP!
How is it that certain sounds can call us to place? Pavlov and his dogs had one answer. The POP! I was describing, was of course, the sound of a champagne cork inviting the conversations and laughter to continue. I read once that the sound causes people look around with raised eyebrows and to straighten their spines with anticipation, an experiment that I hence enjoy observing. Since the 1890’s, Champagne was touted as the favorite of royals, nobility and the middle class alike, but the beverage itself is much older.
Many people know the story of Dom Perignon and how he supposedly was “tasting the stars” etc. Others know that particular incident never occurred, and it, along with so many other stories, is a marketing line. Legends are always charmingly fuzzy. Sparkling wine has been in existence since the 1530’s, consumed widely in the south of France in Limoux, and to the north, across the channel in England. The White Cliffs of Dover are in fact made from the very same calcareous soil that is found in Champagne- roughly 160 km north east of Paris.
The Limoux contributed the dosage, a name for the added sugar necessary to begin the secondary fermentation. The English, due partly to their love of the wine, but also to the glass maker guilds, had patented a thicker glass to contain all of those delightful bubbles in the 1630’s- roughly 40 years prior to the infamous Dom’s employment at Haut- Villers. Like so many marvelous gastronomic delights, Champagne comes to us in its modern version from all of the changes and serendipity in the past. It comes from a very specific region of the world, it is made from only three different grapes, and it has always been cleverly marketed. However, Champagne precisely becomes a sparkling wine in a unique way, a way that has a protected, sanctioned status. I will clarify here, that while all Champagne is a sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
Some sparklers, like Prosecco, are tank fermented and bottled as a sparkling wine. Others are simply a still wine carbonated like a soda. Other wines may get their sparkle in the same way, like Cava, and some sparkling wines from the U.S., but have other differences, like grape varietal, and the all important terroir. Champagne differs in this way. Grapes are grown in that cool northern 49th parallel, in chalky, mineral soil. They are harvested a bit earlier than most, when sugar content is lower and acidity is higher. Still wines are then made allowing normal fermentation, where yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and the bi product of CO2 dissipates. The resulting wines- which are quite acidic, are then blended. To this, a Liqueur de Tirage (a little sugar and yeast) is added and the wine is capped and stored.
It goes through a remuage- a unique way of storing and turning bottles horizontally with a gradual vertical shift, so that all of the sediment that develops is eventually corralled into the necks of the bottles. This is still done by hand in many houses, although mechanical gyroplates now do the work efficiently, with much less cost associated. Depending on the style of Champagne, this aging process can take anywhere from 15 months to 3 years. This aging is called Tirage. Disgorgement happens next. The neck of each bottle is put into a brine solution that semi freezes the wine that is in the neck of the bottle, containing all of the lees (dead yeast cells) and other sediment that has collected there. The temporary cap is popped off and a plug of the gunk is expelled from the bottle, leaving a clear sparkling wine. The dosage is now added, how much depends on the house and desired sweetness of the final product. The wine is then released to the market, or stored according to law or house preference.
Prestige Cuvees, such as Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon is aged 7 years before release! Famous names have all contributed to this process. The first Brut in 1876 from Perrier Jouet, when they didn’t add a dosage, turned palates from usually very sweet wines to the first ever Brut; Veuve Clicquot (the Widow Clicquot) gave us the clear, sediment free sparkler we drink today.
However, there are treasures to be found outside the big names- lately there has been a surge of interest and demand for Grower Champagnes. Grower Champagnes come from the same vineyards that own the land in which the grapes grow, identified on the bottle by the tiny letters “RM” for recoltant manipulant. The total viticulture area of Champagne is not very big. Real estate is in high demand and astronomically expensive- exceeding 1 million euro per hectare. Grape growers, have small plots in different vineyards dispersed over the 33,000 plus hectares of the designated region, which is separated into five wine producing AOC’s. There are currently roughly 5,000 producers of wine and 19,000 growers in Champagne. That ratio suggests that most people sell their grapes, instead of making their own wine for profit.
Grape growing and wine making in Champagne are very expensive ways to try and earn a living. Added to the extreme expense of land, equipment and labor, it is still agriculture, and thusly at the mercy of nature. A bad harvest means no one makes money, and with weather and pest variables it is a wonder anyone does it at all. Noted on the bottle by the tiny letters “NM” for Negociant Manipulant, big houses, or the Grande Marques, can support the cost of business much easier than a small producer, and can afford marketing stateside and worldwide, effortlessly guiding us to a trusted brand. Big houses seek consistency- producing cuvees that are the same year in and year out. Their dollars keep the economy of Champagne afloat.
The grower dares to let terroir take control, making small amounts of beautiful, focused wine. I liken them to the difference between a wild rose (grower) and a greenhouse rose (big house). Terroir is a term the French coined to merge contributing factors such as soil, climate, age of the vine, slope of a vineyard, sun exposure, etc., and their effects on a wine’s profile. It is the sense of “this is what it tastes like where I come from” ideal that speaks to us in flavor nuances from the glass. How many wonderful ways can you taste Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier? Grower Champagnes strive to let that come through, and craft it with an artisanal fervor arguably unmatched in the wine world. After all, what wine commands more notice?
As much as I love the history, all of these facts swirl in my head as the wine swirls in my glass – yes I do swirl my Champagne-, becoming just another aspect of appreciating the wine in the glass before me. Its tawny rose hue and fine bubble stream illuminated by the warm glow of the room. Toasted notes of biscuits, almond, and nutmeg waft up toward me, followed by wild strawberries, red apples, and a creamy, silky texture. In this time of giving thanks, toasting friends and family, and celebrating a new year of happiness and opportunity ahead, I am grateful for all of the Champenois, past and present who have contributed to my passion for this wine, and the pleasure I have for sharing it with everyone. To your season, cheers!
How Do I Choose?
Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.
·Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
·Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apertif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
·Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
·Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
·Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine it’s toasty, nutty and rich quality.
·Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.
Sparkling Wine Cocktails
Try these for a celebratory flair!
·Champagne Framboise: Fill a champagne glass with champagne or sparkling wine, pour in a couple of teaspoons of raspberry liqueur or framboise, and float some raspberries in the glass.
·Kir Royale: Fill a champagne glass with champagne or sparkling wine, pour in a couple of teaspoons of cassis, and float some strawberries on top.
·Bellini: Fill a champagne glass about two-thirds full with champagne or sparkling wine. Top with peach nectar and garnish with a peach slice.
·Champagne l’Orange: Fill a champagne glass two-thirds full with champagne or sparkling wine. Top with Lillet rouge and garnish with an orange slice.
·Easy Mimosas: Fill a champagne glass two-thirds full with champagne. Top with orange juice and garnish with a orange slice.
·Clementine Crush Sparkling Cocktail: Try our recipe for a festive cocktail featuring the vibrant flavors of clementines, cranberries and fresh rosemary.
Have a favorite cocktail recipe with a sparkling base? Tell us in an email to [email protected].
With “A Kitchen Inspired” we will share with you the current and up and coming ingredients, products and cooking methods that inspire our team members, chefs and the kitchen at Whole Foods Market Dublin.
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