It’s almost New Year’s Eve, and the popping already has begun.
Not the fireworks, although those too will surely come as the clock counts down to midnight, but the sound of corks being jettisoned from bottles of sparkling wines. For many people, ending one year and beginning the next with Champagne or some other sparkling wine is a tradition.
If so, it’s one indelibly linked to the economy. According to the Wine Institute, which tracks things like this, in 2007, with the economy still rollicking along, the U.S. consumed 13.8 million wine-bottle cases of sparkling wines, which includes Champagne.
Two years later, the consumption was up to 13.9 million cases, but the increase came in domestic (mostly California) sparkling wines as foreign sparkling wine sales sagged. By 2010, foreign wine sales were up as 15.4 million cases of sparkling wine were consumed, indicative not only of the recovering U.S. economy but also the strength of the dollar compared to sagging economies in Europe.
California, not surprisingly, leads the U.S. in sparkling wine production and last year produced just more than 8 million cases (96 million bottles) of sparkling wine, which allows American consumers the luxury of more choices from more countries than, say, Britain. But the Brits, perhaps it’s tradition or simply because they don’t have as wide a range of selections as their American counterparts, consume nearly three times as much Champagne each year.
Champagne, as we all know, is a name protected by law and comes only from the Champagne region of northeast France; all other bubblies are properly called sparkling wines. While nearly all Champagnes are based mainly on three grapes – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – you can find sparkling wines made from shiraz and other varietals.
I know of only one Colorado winemaker producing a sparkling wine and that’s strictly a small-batch, private bottling. Because the costs of production and bottling are so much greater in making a sparkling wine, size of scale plays a role in who can afford to produce them. Extra thick bottles, special stoppers and the labor involved keeps the cost of a sparkling wine higher than a producing a still wine.
Freixenet (fresh-eh-net), located near Sant Sadurni d’Anoia in Spain’s Catalonian region, is the world’s largest maker of sparkling wine made in the traditional method (also often referred to as methode champenoise or methode traditionelle), producing 100 million bottles of cava each year. This traditional method includes hand riddling, the gradual turning of each upended bottle to clear the unfiltered wine of sediment,for the higher grades of Freixenet’s cavas.
Non-traditional methods, in case you wonder, may include such short cuts as blasting the still wine with carbon dioxide to produce bubbles. Fermenting the wines in immense stainless steel tanks rather than individual bottles is called the Charmat method and is used to make Italian Proseccos.
According to the Champagne Bureau, 40 percent of all sparkling wine sales occur around the holidays. That might be due to what New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov called the myth of “black-tie urbanity” connected to Champagne. In his column Dec. 19, Asimov pointed out that “Champagne is one of the world’s most versatile and pleasing wines. That’s another crucial point: Champagne is a wine, though this may not be obvious to some, and it needs to be thought of in that context.”
And in a Twitter post from 2010, he wrote “Drink Champagne because you want to, not because some marketing fool tells you it’s ‘Champagne Day.’”
That extends to all sparkling wines, which range in price and value from under $10 for some imported bubblies to several thousand dollars for the ultra-prestige labels. Which means you can splurge on that $50 bottle of Champagne during the holidays and still enjoy something with bubbles the rest of the year.
When looking at labels, remember sparkling wines range in sweetness from Extra Brut (driest), Brut (the most common), Extra dry, Dry, Demi-Sec and Doux (sweetest).
If you want the traditions of Europe without the cost, look for some of the American wineries with their roots in Europe. These include such familiar names as Gruet, Schramsberg, Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), and Gloria Ferrer (of Spain’s Freixenet family). Other names to watch for include the J Wine Company and Robert Mondavi (California); Freixenet and Codorniu (Spain); and Bortolomiol, Bisol and Drusian, all from Italy.