For many cooks and wine lovers, holiday feasts and gatherings are synonymous with the enjoyment of the quintessential celebratory beverage, champagne.
And, it seems, they are onto something. After all, champagne is a great aperitif, something to lift the spirits and whet the appetite before a meal. It makes a perfect match to all sorts of hors d'oeuvres, especially oysters and shrimp. Or, it can be served with dessert, to enhance a Christmas cake or classic crème brulée. And what would New Year's Eve be without a glass or two of your favorite bubbly?
When people talk about "champagne," in a general sense, what they are really talking about is sparkling wine. The word "champagne" these days should essentially be reserved for referring to sparkling wines that come from the Champagne region of France, which in many parts of the world has exclusive rights to use of the word on wine labels. Even other regions of France are forbidden from using the name "Champagne" to describe sparkling wine; in Burgundy and Alsace it is called "crémant."
And while the Champagne "houses" of northern France—including Taittinger, Louis Roederer, Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot—do still produce many of the world's best sparkling wines, they no longer have an almost exclusive hold on the U.S. market. Increasingly, sparkling wines from other regions, most notably California, are finding their way into the hearts of oenophiles.
The grapes used to make true Champagne are the same as those used to make true French Burgundy wines: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, all of which grow well in cooler climates. Although the different grape varieties are often blended, there are exceptions. A "blancs de blancs" (literally, "white of white") Champagne is made from all white grapes, typically chardonnay. A "blanc de noirs" ("white of black") Champagne is derived from red grapes—the pressed grape juice is not left in contact with the skins and the wine is ultimately light in color.
Champagne starts out as still wine, in which the natural sugar of the grape juice is allowed to ferment into alcohol. Then, a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to the wine, which is put into bottles that are then stored on their sides. A second fermentation occurs, producing more alcohol and carbon dioxide, which creates the internal pressure and bubbles.
After the wine has been aged in the bottle, the sediments are removed, a finishing "dosage" of sugar is added, and the bottle is recorked. The level of the "dosage" determines the ultimate degree of sweetness of the wine. Champagne labeled as "doux" is the sweetest, followed, in order of sweetness, by "demi-sec," "sec" (dry), extra dry, brut and extra brut, which is bone dry.
Today, the most widely appreciated sparkling wines are dry, brut varieties. They, and their counterparts, come in a vast price range.
Affordable sparkling wines from Korbel (California) and Domaine Ste. Michelle (Washington) are readily available in the Wood River Valley. Some Italian "prosecco" sparkling wines are also quite affordable.
Some of the best bets in the middle of the price range are California sparkling wines produced by sister wineries of the great Champagne houses. Taittinger operates Domaine Carneros, Moet et Chandon operates Domaine Chandon, and Mumm has a property called Mumm Napa. The house of Louis Roederer operates Roederer Estate, which consistently produces highly rated wines.
Higher on the scale are the true French Champagnes. The major houses, including Veuve Clicquot, Moet, Perrier Jouet and Roederer, produce a regular "cuvée" and a special "cuvée," generally made only in outstanding vintages. Many of the special cuvées are indeed special. Veuve Clicquot produces La Grande Dame, Moet makes Dom Perignon and Roederer offers Cristal.
Whatever your choice is, serve it well chilled but not ice cold. And, if you find yourself holding a bottle of Grande Dame or Cristal, think about who you'll share it with. It might just change your life.