December is finally upon us, and while we all can agree champagne is a great treat year-round, there is something extra special about those effervescent bubbles come the holidays. In preparation for your celebratory holiday festivities, a little extra champagne background, knowledge and history will make you “the hostess with the most-est!”
For centuries, champagne has been considered a symbol of luxury and celebration. However, for a bottle of sparkling wine to authentically be labeled as “champagne,” it must be produced in the Champagne region of France. This rule is strictly enforced in most countries through national codified laws and EU regulations. People may colloquially refer to all sparkling wines as champagne, but, legally, each wine-producing region has an exclusive right to use their names on their labels. For example, Italy produces Prosecco, while Spain produces Cava.
However, the U.S. had been in battles with the EU since 1861, when Calif. first began producing sparkling wine and marketing it as champagne. After more than a century of debate, the two governments reached an agreement in 2005, stipulating that any producers who had already been selling California Champagne could continue using the name, but from 2006 on, no other American wine producers could market sparkling wine as champagne. Hence the reason some American sparkling wines can be labeled as champagne (Korbel®, Cook’s®, Andre®, etc.)
Regardless of these legal requirements and attempts at educating the U.S. on the exclusivity of the name, consumers generally refer to American sparkling wines as champagne. So, for the sake of saving us all a little confusion, we will stick to that from here on out.
Across the globe, there are several types of champagne produced, all varying in sweetness, color, taste, etc. Brut champagne is the driest of all types, with only zero to 11 grams of residual sugar, meaning the sugar left after the fermentation of the grape stops, explains Rebecca Hensley, a champagne specialist who works at Total Wine & More® in Plano. “Then, there is extra dry, which a lot of our Proseccos are, and they have about 11 to 15 grams of residual sugar. There is a semi-seco, that is even a bit sweeter,” Ms. Hensley says. “And, finally, there is the demi-sec, which is the sweetest of all champagnes. I believe it is about 30 to 50 grams of residual sugar.”
When it comes to recommending champagnes, Ms. Hensley says it really depends on what kind of drink you are looking to enjoy. If it is going to be served on its own, people generally prefer one of the sweeter champagnes, such as the semi-seco or demi-sec. If it is being incorporated into a drink such as a mimosa or a Bellini, a brut or extra-dry champagne will be better, as the other cocktail ingredients tend to be on the sweeter side. “You also want to keep in mind how a cocktail will look to your guests. If you are throwing a party, you want the drinks to look festive and appealing,” Ms. Hensley adds. “For example, you would not want to use rosé champagne in a cocktail that includes juice or a colored liquor because then the drink can have murky color. Rosé has a pink tint, so it blends beautifully with clear liquors.”
Another thing a host or hostess should keep in mind is that champagne should always be served chilled. However, Ms. Hensley warns that you should not put champagne into the freezer if you are trying to chill it quickly, as that can spoil the taste. The most efficient way to quickly chill it is to submerge the bottle in ice and cold water. “I try to keep a large quantity of popular bottles pre-chilled on our shelves so that customers can just run in, grab them and be ready to go, especially come November and December,” she says. “But, if we do not have a pre-chilled bottle available, Total Wine does offer a complimentary quick chilling service that can be done in store while customers shop.”
Opening bottles of champagne can also often be tricky business. While some people like to be grandiose and make a show of opening a bottle, it may be best to air on the side of caution if you are less experienced with party tricks. The safest and easiest way to open a bottle is by flipping down the “key” on the cage and twisting it six times to loosen it. While keeping the cage on the cork, place a towel on top of the cork and hold the base of the bottle firmly in your hand. Begin twisting the base of the bottle toward you while keeping your dominant hand on the covered cork and you will begin to feel the pressure ease the cork into your hand and then hear a soft “pop.” It may not be the flashiest way to open a bottle, but it will definitely prevent any of your guests from leaving with a black eye! You should then slowly pour the Champagne into a glass at a slight angle to prevent it from overflowing with foam.
When it comes to pairing champagne with food, the drink can really take you from appetizers all the way through to dessert, explains Susi Zivanovic, the corporate sommelier and beverage director who leads the mixology program at Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille in Frisco. “Typically, I would pair some of the lighter sparkling wines, like Prosecco, with lighter things like seafood appetizers,” she shares. “Really, anything you would consider putting a squeeze of lemon on because those lighter wines are very citrus driven and festive and bubbly.”
These lighter champagnes are also best served in the typical champagne flute, while some of the sweeter champagnes could be served in the old-fashioned coupe glasses, so guests can really enjoy the fragrances those heavier wines give off. “Also, if you are having a party and want to serve a champagne cocktail, go ahead and mix your other ingredients together, even a few days ahead of time. Then, when your guests arrive, you can pour their drinks and then simply top them off with champagne,” Ms. Zivanovic says. “Not only does it allow the other ingredients to settle in together, but it is a great way to impress your friends and really look like an expert mixologist.”
Whether you are serving champagne for your family or a holiday party with many guests, you will be sure to impress during this season of celebration. Cheers!