TAMPA - Holiday festivities never fail to bring on a thirst for sparkling wines. It's a good time to review the major differences in these wines.
Most Americans tend to use the term "champagne" for generic sparkling wine. By law, Champagne can be used only to designate a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France from chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes. Champagne production is closely regulated in the methods used to produce the bubbles.
It's a mystery that we still find American bottles of bubbly such as Cooks and Korbel labeled "Champagne," but somehow they get away with it.
Champagne tends to be far pricier than bottles with bubbles from other regions of France as well as from other countries. Just about every wine-producing region in the world produces a sparkling wine from local grape varieties.
In Spain it's called "cava," in Italy it's "spumante," in Germany and Austria it's "sekt," and in French regions other than Champagne, it is "cremant de" plus the name of the region (Cremant de la Loire or Cremant de Bourgogne).
How does wine get its bubbles? Under pressure, carbon dioxide is absorbed into the liquid and stays there until the bottle is opened. How the carbon dioxide gets into the bottle determines quality, to some extent.
The best wines get their gas from a second fermentation in the bottle. After the initial wine has fermented, a sugar-yeast mixture is added to the wine as it's bottled. Carbon dioxide -- a byproduct of the new yeast turning the new sugar into alcohol --is trapped in the bottle. After aging nine months or more, the lees of the second fermentation are removed and a dosage or syrup made from sugar dissolved in still wine is added.
The dosage varies in sweetness and determines the finished wine's final sugar level. The driest wines are labeled "brut" or "nature" and go up slightly in residual sugar levels to extra dry, dry and demi-sec, or medium dry, which in fact is rather sweet. Demi-sec has about 15 times more residual sugar than brut. This is called the "methode traditionelle" or "methode champenoise."
All authentic Champagnes, cremants and cavas are produced by this age-old method. It's the most labor-intensive and expensive process, and it produces the most complex wines with the tiniest bubbles and softest mousse. It's the way sparkling wines were produced as early as the mid-16th century in France.
A second way of introducing carbon dioxide into the wine is by the Charmat or tank method, a system invented in France in the 19th century. In this process, after the first fermentation, the wine is deposited into large tanks, some containing as many as 100,000 bottles' worth of wine. After adding the sugar and yeast for the second fermentation, the tanks are sealed, trapping the resulting carbon dioxide inside. The wine is then bottled under pressure. This method is used for many German sekts and all Asti spumantes. It results in larger bubbles in the wine and slightly reduces the finesse.
The third way of producing bubbles is simply by injecting carbonization, the same as for soda water or cola. If you see a sparkling wine for $3.99, you can bet it's made this way. Stick with wines labeled "methode traditionelle" or "method champenoise," or at the least, Charmat or tank method.
Stores are well stocked with bubbly this season, so raise your glass and toast your friends and family.
Mumm Cordon Rouge, Champagne, France: This is a good traditional non-vintage Champagne made from a blend of the three grape varieties used in most such wines. The nose of citrus and pear is layered over roasted nuts and toast.
Mumm Napa DVX 2001, Napa, Calif.: This prestige bottle of vintage sparkling might not be entitled to the name Champagne, but it could fool most people. It's blended by the same experts who make the Champagne version of Mumm in France. The resulting sparkler scored 92 points in a wine magazine.
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blanc, 2005 Napa, Calif.: This is another Napa sparkler that wins nods of approval from judges everywhere. Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, this light, feminine wine has aromas of toasted wheat, ripe pears and ripe apples.
Chandon Blanc de Noir NV, Napa, Calif.: A beautiful orangish-pink color. It's made from 100-percent black grapes -- pinot noir and meunier. This is the wine served at every White House reception. It pairs well with any foods that go with pinot noir and is delicious as an aperitif.
Cristalino Brut Cava, Spain: A perennial favorite, made from macebo and zarello grapes. It's light and refreshing, with citrusy flavors. As are all cavas, it's made from the traditional second fermentation in bottle.
Ca Fulan Prosecco, Veneto, Italy: This wine has become the darling of the Internet bloggers after Gary Vaynerchuk did a Wine Library video tasting declaring it better than a prosecco that had gotten a 90 rating from the Wine Spectator. Prosecco is light, slightly sweet and easy to serve with just about anything but red meat.