Maybe it’s living next door to Napa Valley or that I’ve outgrown vodka-soda, but I knew I’d developed a taste for good champagne when I couldn’t bring myself to go near the cheap Barefoot Rose at a party recently!
I wanted to learn more about champagne (“bubbly”) and my new picky palate so I decided to interview the extremely knowledgeable Sommelier Shannon Silver, who is also my friend and a blogger in the making. It turns out that bubbly has a complicated history and creation process, but she broke down some surprising facts everyone should know. The result was my personal version of Champagne for Dummies!
First, a quick lesson in champagne:
- Basic sparkling wine existed in the time of the ancient Romans
- For a wine to be called champagne, it must be from the Champagne region in France, made via Methode Champenoise or Methode Traditionnelle (for wines made outside of Champagne), requiring a secondary bottle fermentation in the bottle
- There are three grape varietals that can be used to make Champagne: Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Muenier (red), and Chardonnay (white).
- Most champagnes are a cuvée, or blend, of either vintages and/or varietals. If they are made from a pure variety it usually means the grape is of outstanding quality
- Rose gets it’s color from prolonged contact with red grape skins, or by adding a touch of red wine to the mix
- A vintage is created with grapes that were harvested all in the same year
- The bubbles are created by fermentation of the yeast and sugars that are added during the early stages of fermentation, which creates carbon dioxide
- Sparkling wine undergoes it’s second fermentation in metal tanks or bottles, as opposed to wooden barrels. This is what gives it the bubbles! A complicated processes of tipping the bottle to remove yeast cells and releasing pressure follows, before it’s ready for corking
- Brut means dry, or less sweet
Interview with Sommelier Shannon Silver
Shannon, thank you so much for helping to enlighten me about bubbles! I’m really excited for your blog (Champagne at Shannon’s) to debut later this spring, and to see all of the amazing recipes, pairings, and date ideas relating wine and food that you’ll be sharing.
What are some random champagne facts people might not know?
- It’s rumored that Marilyn Monroe once took a bath in 350 bottles of champagne
- Better sparkling wines have tiny bubbles
- There are 49 million bubbles on average, in each bottle of champagne
- An unopened bottle of Veuve Clicquot was recovered from a 250 year old shipwreck sold for $156,000 in 2012
- Brut champagne was not created until 1850
- The traditional wide mouthed champagne glass was said to be molded from the bust of Marie Antoinette!
As a Sommelier, what are your favorite wineries for bubbles in Napa Valley and the surrounding area?
I cannot recommend Iron Horse Winery (in Sebastopol just outside of Napa) enough! If you are a local or making plans to visit Napa, this is a must. The panoramic views of the valley are breathtaking, with wines to match. I highly recommend the Wedding Cuvee. The colour is a nice rose gold, and it is on the fuller bodied, creamy side. Think strawberries and cream.
In Napa, I recommend both Schramsberg and Mumm. I have yet to visit both of them (hint-hint, Jill, let’s go!!) but I enjoy their bubbles. They have some of Napa Valley’s oldest caves. The caves provide a consistent cool temperature, allowing the flavours to develop as they undergo their bottle aging. According to their website, “At any given time, as many as 2.7 million bottles are in the Schramsberg caves, aging two to ten years before release.”
Mumm is a winery in Napa that uses the that uses the style, and technique of Champagne. As you know, here in San Francisco we get a ton of fog. The fog makes it’s way over to the Valley and contributes to the vibrant fruity palate and crisp acidity of this bubbly, key factors for sparkling wine.
What types of food goes best with bubbly?
Everything! I strongly believe that sparkling wine (especially champagne!) goes with everything. To this day, my boyfriend still teases me for ordering champagne to enjoy with a grilled chicken sandwich at a super casual burger joint in San Francisco!
Okay, so, I suppose I can narrow it down… but before I do so, I must make it very clear: The best pairings are the ones you like, no matter what the experts say. That being said, I enjoy champagne with shellfish, including oysters (cooked or raw), crab, lobster, mussels, and shrimp; fried foods; omelets or savory egg dishes. There is a reason why mimosas are so popular with brunch – however, the best mimosas are only a kiss of juice and should still be translucent.
TIP: Try ordering a mimosa made from good bubbly with juice on the side – often, too much juice is added which takes away from the taste of the sparkling wine!
Other great pairings are pasta dishes with a cream or butter sauce; Risotto (I love Giada’s champagne risotto recipe, it’s a go to of mine for a quick super easy dinner ); and sushi, nigiri, and sashimi.
Most of the dishes I listed are either one of the following: light, fatty (re: oil, butter, fried), fresh, or salty dishes. Those components pair nicely with champagne in their own way. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, give it a try with curries and try sweeter bubbles with spicier food.
I know I said champagne goes with everything, but I would try to avoid it with overly sweet items. If you must have champagne with dessert, try sweeter champagne with a sweet dessert or a less sweet dessert with dry champagne.
What is your favorite cocktail made from bubbles?
I personally prefer my champagne straight up! But you can’t go wrong with a classic champagne cocktail.
Here’s a super quick cocktail idea: Get a cube of raw sugar (or brown sugar), dash it with some bitters (I like Angostora) and then pour the champagne on top.
Or try a Sparkling Sorbet Mimosa – my favorite way to make a mimosa is a (small!) scoop of Caio Bella Blood Orange sorbet, then top it with champagne (I also like to do this trick with tequila or vodka!).
What are the best cheap options for bubbly?
- Crémant de Bourgogne – this is a good, inexpensive champagne substitute. Crémant de Bourgogne is an appellation (special area where grapes are grown) in Burgundy, France – hours away from Champagne and made a la methode traditionnelle. Rather than Pinot Meunier, you will see Gamay occasionally added to the mix. Whites, along with Chardonnay, will include Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne, Sacy, or Pinot Blanc. Although they are similar to champagne (same country, similar varietals, same method), they are much easier on your wallet.
- Caves de Lugny Crémant Blanc de Blancs (BdB) and the Rose – at ~$17 a bottle this is one of my favourites. The BdB is dry with a nice effervescence, bright citrus and stone-fruit notes. The beautifully coloured rose is a bone dry blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay, with fresh strawberry and raspberry notes.
- Prosecco – this old world sparkler from Veneto, Italy is made from the Glera grape and is on the light, crisp side. The second fermentation occurs in stainless steel tanks rather than in bottle, thus making Prosecco a bit more cost-effective (and also a great one to use for sparkling based cocktails or cooking). I like Zonin. It is a delicate sparkler, a tad on the off-dry side, with nice acidity, fruity apple notes with a kiss of nutty almond. The Zonin Rose is delicious, as well. The infamous Wine-Maker book calls it “seductively delicate”, with a floral, fruity palette. It averages at about $14 a bottle, but I have seen it for $9 here in San Francisco.
Best Expensive Options?
- Krug, Krug, Krug. I cannot say it enough. Krug is my favourite thing to drink whenever I get the chance. I find it is the quintessential champagne, and whenever I think of champagne, I immediately think KRUG. Krug is an intense, full bodied champagne with very complex tasting notes. You will get the buttery brioche, roasted nuts, poached stone-fruits, and rich marzipan creaminess. Visually, the way the bubbles dance is just intoxicating – no pun intended. I can easily gaze off into a glass of Krug’s tiny bubbles! Price: starting at $150 (also sold in half bottles appx $90, which is a perfect way to enjoy a glass with your beau – or two by yourself. )
- I have a fond spot for Ruinart Brut Rose. I recently went to London with my boyfriend, and this was the only champagne they had at the hotel we stayed at. Not only does it bring me so many good memories with every sip, but Ruinart is also a well-regarded champagne house. You can expect a powerful sparkler, with a lovely balance of warm spice, fresh berries, and rosy florals. Price: starting at $90 a bottle.
- Andre Clouet makes a great Brut. The Silver Brut sees no dosage (no sugar is added to adjust the sweetness of the wine) which requires that it must be made well. This bone-dry champagne has nice minerality (. Although it is made from Pinot Noir, I’ve seen it compared to Chablis, which can perfectly sum up the tasting notes. There is a bright acidity to it and like most Chablis, this wine would go so perfectly with oysters (hint hint aphrodisiacs) to share for a perfect appetizer and makes it a wonderful aperitif to stimulate your palette. This wine is a bit more reasonable, starting at $50
There are obviously so many more to add to this list, but I wanted to give different price points, and keep them reasonable in this category. If anyone has any questions about any others not mentioned, I am happy to answer!
Shannon is an experienced certified Sommelier who has worked in various restaurants, bars, and wineries and currently lends her expertise to planning events for Silicon Valley finance executives. To contact Shannon, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shannon is creating a blog based on her extensive background in wining and dining – look for more info here on the launch of Champagne at Shannon’s this spring!
Coming soon: Shannon’s easy bubbly recipes, and background on the name of my blog.
For more info: Windows of the World – Complete Wine Course by Master Sommelier Kevin Zraly – I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about wine.
What’s your favorite food to pair bubbly with?