Sparkling wine: how to open and serve
Nothing says celebration quite like the fizz of a sparkling wine or Champagne, Celia Hay tells us how to serve such festive drinks.
Celebrations always seem to go a little better with a glass of something sparkling. Bubbles, as the category of sparkling wine is often casually referred to, are produced in a number of ways and in most cases this is directly reflected in the price you pay.
Just mention the word Champagne and it conjures up images of luxury and celebration. Many people mistakenly call all sparkling wine — wine with CO2 captured in the bottle — Champagne. But it is worth remembering that Champagne is a region in France and the name is protected so that only wines produced from this region can be referred to as Champagne.
The method of making Champagne is known as methode Champenoise and outside of Champagne this same process is called method traditional as winemakers cannot use the “Champagne” word.
The process involves the second fermentation of a dry wine in a sealed bottle so that the bubbles are retained. There is a whole regime of techniques around the ageing and finishing of the wine. Generally a wine that is made in this style will have the words method traditional or “fermented in this bottle” on its label.
A blend of chardonnay and pinot noir and pinot meunier (both with skins removed) are used in making Champagne and method traditional. How the blend is constructed varies from wine to wine. Generally chardonnay is considered to add lightness and elegance while pinot noir add more body and weight to the blend.
The most distinctive aspect of wines made in the Champagne or method traditional style is the nutty, bready, yeasty character on the nose resulting from it ageing on its lees — spent yeast cells, inside the bottle. This is known as autolysis.
The best quality sparkling wines will always have a vintage or year on their label, however, most are known as NV or non vintage which means they are a blend of years.
There are also a number of styles:
- Brut naturelle – bone dry
- Brut – very dry
- Extra sec – dry to medium dry
- Sec – medium dry
- Demi sec – sweet
- Doux – very sweet – to serve with dessert
Some sparkling wines are fermented in the tank. Prosecco and Asti are Italian examples of this. Other wines, and many NZ sparkling sauvignons are in this category and have carbon dioxide added to produce the bubbles.
How to open Champagne/sparkling wine
Chill the wine to 6-10 degrees. Wine that is well-chilled is much easier to open than wine that is insufficiently chilled, which tends to “pop” spontaneously. When opening, point the bottle away from you and away from anyone standing nearby.
Have the flutes ready so that you can pour straight away. Present the wine by holding the bottle so that your guests can see the label.
Remove the foil by pulling the tab. The safest way to open sparkling wine is to use a cloth over the muzzle (wire around the cork) to help hold it in place. Undo the wire around the muzzle and loosen with your right hand, while holding the cork and muzzle in place with your left hand (your thumb can be on top of the cork).
Slowly twist the bottom of the bottle (not the cork) with your right hand while holding the cork and muzzle still with your left.
Gently ease out the cork. Hold the cork in place, while the initial pressure is slowly released. Schhh is the sound you should hear as the cork comes loose. Wipe the opening with your cloth.
Pour slowly into the flute. You can fill a quarter of the glass and then wait for the bubbles to settle before pouring more into the glass. With skill, you can just pour slowly in one pour. Place the bottle in an ice bucket to keep cool.