Champagne was an accident, a wonderful one, but an accident none the less. It is the result of an accident caused by nature. In the middle ages, the 1600’s and early 1700’s, cold winters in the very northern grape growing region of France around Reims and Epernay were causing the yeast to stop the fermentation of the grape juice. Then in the spring when the weather (and the barrels and vats containing the wine) warmed up, the yeast would start the fermentation process again. But in this “second fermentation” the by product was bubbles, considered a flaw. The Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, deemed to be the father of champagne, was really doing research to try either try to prevent the bubbles from forming, or alternatively, how to remove the bubbles. The British came to the rescue. They tasted these “bad wines” and decided they liked the bubbly characteristic and started to buy them for distribution in England.
Over the successive centuries technologies were developed so that today sparkling wines can be made without bottles exploding, or barrels becoming affected by untimely secondary fermentation. The base wines are made as still wines – usually in the Champagne region from Pinot Noir, Pinot Chardonnay and Pinot Meniere. Different regions use different white grapes to make the base wine. Cavas in Spain are made from different base wines than those in the Champagne region, Prosecco is made from Prosecco grapes in Italy. By the way it is illegal to use the word “champagne” for any wine other than a wine that originates in the Champagne region of France. After the base wine is made it is then processed a second time to get the bubbly product. In the “methode traditionale” the base wine is “bottled” in bottles which have live yeasts and sugar already into the bottles, the yeast and sugar start a secondary fermentation causing the bubbles. In the “charmat” process (such as used to make Prosecco) the yeast and sugar is injected into secondary fermentation closed stainless steel vats and the wines are bottled after the bubbles have developed.
Champagne is regarded as the quintessential celebratory beverage. It is consumed at holiday festivities, to toast the bride and groom at weddings, it is used to christen new ships. But this is a wine blog, and wine and food blog, so what is the perfect pairing between foods and sparklers? Champagnes come in very dry versions (brut) and slightly sweeter (extra dry and slightly sweeter demi sec). Cavas tend to be fruitier and a little sweeter than Champagne, Prosecco fruitier still. Spumanti (made from the muscat grape) can be quite sweet. Obviously the food pairings run across a large spectrum of taste. The moscato based Spumanti is perfect with fresh peaches over ice cream.
Traditionally the thinking is that the austere dry flavors of a Champagne are perfect foils for both salty foods (appetizers, nuts, certain cheeses) or fatty foods (the acidity cuts through the fats, try champagne with southern fried chicken). Remember that if composing a dinner, we start with the foods that ‘tease’ the taste buds, less complex sauces, often salty, a whole plethora of starters. These starters pair wonderfully with the minerality, dry finish and elegance of Champagne. So do certain fish (think filet of sole in a champagne and green grape sauce – called Veronique). Champagne is wonderful with caviar (salty) and with foie gras (fatty). “Red champagnes” (a cuvee made from a base of Pinot Noir, not blanc de noir) is often a wonderful pairing with roast meats.
Sparklers are versatile, pair well with many different types of foods, and ultimately, celebratory. Watch for the future release of Veedercrest’s new sparkler.