Sparkling wines

More than any other wine, Champagne is associated with festive celebrations. It is difficult to imagine, in these days of global warming, that true Champagne’s existence is due to happenstance, thanks to a mini ice age in the 1600s.

True Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France, located some 90 miles northwest of Paris.

The French, under the auspices of the Comite Interprofessional de Vin de Champagne, the EU governing body for the Champagne region, zealously guard the name "Champagne." Any co-opting of the name for other purposes is quickly dealt with through litigation. If thinking of naming your next born "Champagne," you may want to reconsider.

Any sparkling wine is basically a carbonated beverage. In the 1600s, it was so cold in Champagne that still wines fermenting in vats, unbeknownst to winemaking monks, did not finish fermentation before they were bottled.

When it warmed in the spring, yeast trapped in the bottled wine came to life and resumed fermentation. Working yeast gives off carbon dioxide. When trapped in an enclosed bottle, pressure and bubbles build. In the monks’ case, their primitive bottlings exploded like missiles over cellar floors.

Monks like Dom Pérignon (for whom Moet’s prestige cuvee is named) worked tirelessly to eliminate bubbles in what had been still wines, but without success. Succeeding winemakers finally acquiesced to the bubbles, which are now embraced by the world.

Though the Champagne region is no longer experiencing a mini ice age, winemakers of the region replicate the laborious process of their ancestors. Wines are fermented in neutral wood or stainless steel vats. Blends are assembled and mixed with small amounts of sugar and yeast.

This mixture is bottled and temporarily capped. The yeast goes to work in bottles, creating bubbles. Each bottle rests in this state for a year, receiving a slight downward turn daily until the bottle is almost standing on end, with spent yeast trapped in the neck.

Necks of bottles are then frozen, and when the temporary cap is removed, the pent up pressure in the bottle explodes the frozen sediment from the bottle. Each bottle then receives a dosage of wine and a measure of sugar that determines the Champagne style, ranging from slightly sweet to bone dry.

This involved process of extensive manual labor, plus a relatively limited production, causes true Champagne to be pricey. If your budget allows, Champagne should be enjoyed. But for those whose budget or inclination do not allow justifying a Champagne expenditure, there are many less-pricey sparkling wines from around the globe.

Champagne is not the only French sparkling wine. Sparkling wines are made in other regions of France and are most often called Cremants. Cremants from France, Cavas from Spain and Franciacorta from Italy generally carry the wording "Methode traditionale" or "Method Champenoise" on the label, meaning these wines are made using the same hands-on process involved in making true Champagne. These wines are generally very reasonably priced in comparison to Champagne.

The broader spectrum of sparkling wines, including the wildly popular Prosecco, are made by the more mechanized Charmat method, in which secondary fermentation occurs in large stainless steel tanks.

The cheapest of the cheap sparkling wines just have CO2 injected into them for carbonation — like your favorite soda pop. Some of these carry labels like "American Champagne" or "California Champagne" because of a loophole trade agreement that allows continued use of the word Champagne on their labels.

Obviously these wines are not Champagne, but in their defense, when offered in a blind tasting, they can sometimes be confused with the real thing.

This holiday season, raise a glass of something sparkling to toast the New Year.

• For children and those who do not imbibe, sparkling cider or lemonade will do the trick.

• For those seeking good moderately priced sparklers, consider Prosecco, Cava, Cremants and fine California sparkling wines.

• For those wanting to splurge, perhaps a Prestige cuvee, the best of the best, from one of the top Champagne houses is in order. Consider the ubiquitous Dom Pérignon, from the house of Moet et Chandon, or Cristal, the prestige cuvee for the house of Louis Roederer.

Contact Pat Kettles at