Why drink Champagne on New Years Eve?
Champagne has been a drink of the aristocracy and ascendant social groups ever since its accidental invention in 1693 by the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon. The premium cost often relegates the drink to special occasions for most people but the sparkling wine is still enjoyed for celebrations and in times of hope for a possible more affluent future.
Champagne is a white or rose' sparkling wine made from pinot noir, pinot munier and chardonnay grapes in France just up the A4 from Paris. Since 1891 this small region south of Reims has had exclusive rights internationally to the use of the name "Champagne." The wine is unique from still wines because of its labor intensive double fermentation method where a still wine is made then dosed with additional juice and re-fermented in a sealed container where the natural bubbles produced by yeast are captured and saved until the cork is ceremoniously popped.
Other sparkling wines, while delicious, lack the prestige, quality and cost of Champagne and can be enjoyed year round as a table wine for first courses and light meals or snacks. Prosecco of Italy is the furthest sparkling wine from Champagne in both flavor and production method. The lower latitude of the growing region allows the glera grape to ripen further than a french grape would lending it riper flavors of apricots and red peaches. Prosecco may be produced using the Champagne method of re-fermentation but is most often produced with artificial carbonation in stainless steel tanks which is less costly and is reflected in the price.
Cava of Spain is close to champagne in production method but uses different grapes, primarily xarello and macabeo. The land in the Cava DO is less expensive than in Champagne and the climate is more amenable to grape vines which lead to the lower cost while maintaining a quality near to some champagne wines.
American sparkling wines are sometimes produced using the Champagne method, and sometimes not. Some American sparkling wines use the traditional grapes of Champagne, but others do not. Some American wineries were actually founded by French companies in an effort to produce Champagne like wines in America, but still cannot be called Champagne.
So with all these options, few of which are bad options, why drink Champagne? Champagne has a unique flavor that is un-reproducible in any other region in the world. The limestone soil beneath the vines gives the wine a bright stony minerality, the high latitude and short growing season offers up a tight acidity with tart apple and pear flavors, and the unique yeast and fermentation processes give a rich bready flavor often described as brioche. Each of these components married together produce a wine that can taste like a fresh apple pie or caramelized pear tart that is truly unique. This Holiday season I encourage everyone to pickup a bottle of the real Champagne and experience the centuries old tradition of celebration, hope and optimism!