Friday, March 1, 2013

Buy champagne that doesn't suck

Champagne is the best, even on a budget. It's the drink of victory, new beginnings and rap songs. It's pretty. It's celebratory.

If you don't have anything to celebrate, you are bad at coming up with excuses to drink. Unless you're a recovering alcoholic (the cooler, more self aware half of my friends just stopped reading) or, like Angie Jordan, it gives you a headache (30 Rock, Season 1, Episode 13, this is the best citation you have ever read), you should be ready to pop some bubbly on a moment's notice. Come on, this is a drink that is totally acceptable to have at brunch that doesn't involve tomato juice. It's fantastic.

Here are some reasons I've had sparkling wine in the past year: 

Birthdays
A wedding (!!!)
My best friend got a job she really wanted
I didn't get a job I really wanted (actually same bottle as above. I bought it for the former, we drank it for the latter. While baking cupcakes. She's the best)
Scrabble was happening
Started a project (script, workout plan, making the bed)
Finished a project (script, bath, this sentence)
February
Other months

Before Shelby Ledgerwood showed me the ways of wine, I was content to think of all sparkling wine as ultra glam and super delicious and the ideal thing to mix with vodka (no, seriously. Vodka, a some ruby red grapefruit and then the rest of the solo cup champagne? If you're even a little bit under the age of 25 go make yourself five of these immediately and don't drink water because you don't get hangovers anyway and I want to be you). Now, I've got the tiniest bit of taste, and it's threatening to ruin everything.

This article isn't just a list of reasons for you to buy bubbly. It's also full of tips on how you can do that, for not too much money, and without getting a wine that is terrible.

But first, some photos that should give you reasons to celebrate:

There's a thing called The World Famous Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree and it is this tiny but so extensive and this adorable lady owns it! 

Here is some stuff that is inside it:


Crochet roller skates!




Crochet oreos! In a crochet teacup! And my thumb!


Crochet everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

When it comes to cheap wine, selection is key. Places like Trader Joe's and BevMo pride themselves on having a good selection of inexpensive wines, and people on hand to tell you about them. But CostCo, Sam's Club and even Rite Aid have some good buys, especially if you use an app like Wine Finder. These stores give you a choice beyond good or cheap; they offer a range of both prices and styles.

Sparkling wine is traditionally very dry. The traditional Champagne method involves two fermentations and ageing. They start with a completely dry (not sweet) still wine that has already been fermented to have some alcohol. Then they add sugar and yeast. Sugar + Yeast = Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol. Most wines are made in big, open vats, so the CO2 dissipates into the air. But on Champagne's second fermentation, it's happening in the bottle, and those bubbles got nowhere else to go. Champagne is aged, too, and this is the key factor in its typical dryness. Lees ageing is a process winemakers use to give wines a toasty, biscuity flavor. Combined with Champagne's high acid and bright, fruity flavors, this is f-ing delicious. It's also a nice way of saying "dead yeast cells." Lees is exactly that. And the only way yeast cells die and get us that lees is when there's no more sugar left. So the way sparkling wine gets its classic flavor is by sitting with yeast carcasses for like 10 months.

If you don't typically like that flavor, you can go for wines that don't use this method. For instance, if you get a sparkling wine made from an aromatic grape, it won't be lees aged so as to let the natural flavors shine. A sparkling moscato, for example. The cheapest champagnes like Andre just add carbon dioxide on the assembly line. But just because a place doesn't use second fermentation doesn't mean they resort to this. Other methods are solid, too. So even if you don't see "Methode Champenoise" (though that's a good sign), it might be good. And if you don't like that toasty flavor anyway, it will be great.

You may notice that both Champagne and champagne are chill with your spellcheck. That's because the Champagne region grows great Chardonnay grapes (perfect for sparkling wine because the high acidity helps it age) and perfected the method of second fermentation. Now, this method makes for the best champagne, so lots of people use it. While in the EU they might get mad at you for even so much putting "Champagne style" on your label, in the USA we don't give a fuck.

But you should. Good winemakers don't need to rip off someone else's name. Sure, Californians can call it champagne, but the good ones don't. They know better. They take pride in their products. So pick a wine that's secure in its identity. It'll be better.

Checking the region, grape and level of dryness and take you a long way. Basically, if there's absolutely no region, that's not too encouraging. Ditto for no grape varietal listed. And dryness should be what you like. How do you know how dry a sparkling wine is? I shall tell you!

Here's the something you need to know that will maybe blow your mind like it blew mind: if you want something extra dry, do not go for something labeled extra dry.

WTF ALI?! WHY ARE YOU SUCH A VICIOUS LIAR? THAT IS CONTRADICTORY INFORMATION! I AM STILL CONFUSED ABOUT THE IRAN CONTRA AFFAIR FROM MY A.P. US HISTORY CLASS, CAN YOU EXPLAIN?

Um, not with that attitude, man. When you're done calling me a liar, keep reading. Wow, there all my second coolest friends go. Shit.

As I mentioned, champagnes are made from a dry base wine and then all their sugar is eaten by yeast that dies and makes it taste extra good. Today, Champagnes, if made in this traditional style, are finished with something sweet, whether it's cognac or still wine, so they're not totally dry. But it's very little. Note: This was not always the case. I did a fun audiobook from the library recently about Champagne and it turns out the old ones were super sweet. But whatever. Anyone who lived before now is stupid anyway.

My point is, there's a specific set of labeling rules for sparkling wines that are crucial to you picking a winner. While each part of the world has different meanings for how many grams of residual sugar are in each of these, the order is always the same. From dry to sweet, it goes:

Brut Zero/Brut Nature/Sans Dosage (little to no sweetness)
Extra Brut (very dry)
Brut (dry, what most sparkling wines are)
Extra Dry/Extra Sec (oh-ho! not a liar! this means "off-dry" which is a little sweeter than dry)
Sec (slightly sweet)
Demi Sec (sweet)
Doux (very sweet)

For that crisp, refreshing flavor we expect from sparkling wine in modern, not stupid times, go for Brut or above.

Finally, a few tips:
-Keep champagne very cold. An ice bucket with water in it will do the trick. Add salt if the champagne isn't starting out right from the fridge to cool it down.
-When opening, turn the bottle, don't pull the cork. See below for an instructional video. I never use a towel or anything, but I do take care to turn the bottle slowly so I open sparkling wine mess-free.
-If you're in the market for a rose, it needs to say that on the label. "Blanc de Noirs" is sparkling white wine made from red grapes (usually Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier). "Blanc de Blancs" is white from white.
-Obama drank Korbel at his inauguration, which is cheap and uses the traditional method. If it's good enough for him and you're not a dick, it should be good enough for you.

Bonus: an opening tutorial

Cheers!

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