About the Bubbles
By Riggs Fulmer
As the holidays recede in the blurry distance and we survey the wreckage of our credit ratings in their wake, it might seem a bit silly to devote a column to sparkling wine, but, on the contrary, there is no better wine for the lengthening days of early spring than bubbly!
Sparkling wines are some of the most versatile food-friendly wines around, so it’s something of a pity that they are equated solely with celebration. That festive pop can just as easily signal the beginning of a new meal as a new year, and the delicate freshness of many sparkling wines serves as a perfect foil to the returning produce and lighter fare of springtime.
Bubbles have been known in wine throughout its history, although the reason for their presence took a bit longer to work out. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew and wrote of this phenomenon and equated it with phases of the moon, or the presence of good or evil spirits. After the fall of the Roman Empire, European winemakers noted the presence of bubbles in their wines from time to time, but considered this a fault (if you’ve ever opened a bottle of Pinot that’s refermented a bit since bottling, you’ll understand why). It seemed to happen relatively often in the region of Champagne, where cold weather often halted fermentation while there was still some residual sugar in the wines, and this resultant fizz was met with great disdain by the local winemakers. Indeed, the monk Dom Pérignon was charged with getting the bubbles out of the wines, not only for reasons of flavor, but because the bottles tended to burst in the cellar, sometimes setting off chain reactions wherein cellars would lose up to 90 percent of their wine.
But while Champagne and Cremant d’Alsace (“cremant” being the French word for bubbly made outside the Champagne region) argue over who got it right first, it was in fact the sensible English who found the bubbles delightful, and sought to understand their origin. The re-discovery of cork closures, used in Roman times but lost when the empire fell, and the development of stronger, coal-fired glass allowed them to experiment with bubbly in a much more controlled way. In 1662, English scientist Christopher Merritt wrote a piece detailing how the presence of sugar in the wine would lead to its being sparkling, and noted that an amount of sugar could be added to almost any wine to make it bubbly. Thus it is arguable that the English were purposefully making sparkling wines before the Champenois were.
There are many kinds of bubbly from all around the world, from regions as far-flung as Tasmania, where vineyards along the Tamar River are producing lovely “champers” from Pinot and Chardonnay, to South America, to northern India. The flagship is undoubtedly Champagne. Though the name is legally available for use outside of Europe, only wines from Champagne should really bear the name. The elegance and expressiveness of true Champagne dwarfs almost every pretender to the throne, with some noted exceptions in Franciacorta, in northern Italy, California and Oregon.
However, sometimes the elegant structure of Champagne can be a bit much, and then the thirsty drinker can turn to refreshing, light iterations like Spanish Cava or Piemontese Prosecco—particularly popular in Portland. Excellent examples of these wines can easily be found for under $20.
Here in Oregon, with our gentle climate and wonderful geography, we are beginning to make some truly world-class bubblies, generally in the traditional méthode champenoise. The standard-bearer is Argyle, whose impeccable facilities bring forth some of the most complex, delicious bubblies anywhere outside of France. Other standouts are Domaine Meriwether and the newcomer, Ecosse, producing a lovely sparkling Rosé to go with their elegant, Champagne-like Brut.
Grapes used in the production of bubbly are picked earlier than those destined for still wines, while their acid levels are high and sugar relatively low. They can also be made from higher-yielding vines, for the same reason. Most sparkling wines are cuvées, blends made from a variety of sources and grapes. This is the predominant paradigm in Champagne, where the large houses often make their wines from hundreds of different parcels. However, particularly with our modern infatuation with terroir—a wine’s ability to express its birthplace— single-vineyard and -varietal sparklers are becoming more popular. So-called “Grower Champagnes” are examples of this.
Generally speaking, bubblies go through two fermentations. The first one takes place, then the bottles are riddled and disgorged, which is the process of removing the dead yeast lees while retaining the CO2 to produce the bubbles. Often the bottles are stored upside down, and the tops dipped in a freezing agent, allowing the lees to be drawn off. This is when “dosage” takes place, the introduction of a mixture of fresh wine and some sugar to control the level of sweetness. Dosage is not always used, and is seen in some quarters as a form of adulteration, but the practice is common.
A main concern among consumers is the sweetness level of the wines. Americans tend to like their wines a little sweeter, and often lower-end bubblies ratchet up the sweetness to levels that would be cloying to Europeans. Generally speaking, Brut is the driest level; wines labeled Brut—be they from Oregon or Italy—are usually almost completely dry. Other terms for dry include “sec” in French, “secco” in Italian, or “trocken” in German. Confusingly, the term “extra dry,” found on some Champagnes (a famous example of “extra-dry” Champagne is Moët et Chandon White Star, which doesn’t say ‘extra-dry” anywhere on the label) actually indicates a marked sweetness!
Drier bubblies tend to work better with food—you haven’t lived until you’ve tried sashimi and Champagne—but well-made sweeter varieties, such as the charming Moscato d’Asti from northern Italy, function perfectly as aperitifs or for breakfast. Show me a wine person camping without Moscato d’Asti, and I’ll show you a thirsty one! Try it and you’ll be a believer.
The fact is that sparkling wines are as versatile a category as you can find, with wines of all colors, sweetnesses and intensities. Bubbly is great with or without food, in cold or warm weather, at night or in the afternoon. The next time you plan a nice meal—say broiled halibut with fingerling potatoes and a frisée salad—reach past the dry Riesling and grab a bottle of Argyle Brut or Prosecco, and you’ll discover just how wonderful and adaptable these wines can be.
Riggs Fulmer is a language-loving wine writer and musician. He resides in Portland.