“Not Champagne”

Champagne is a region, but it’s also a beverage technology: one that swept the globe, helped create the idea of commercial branding, and has become virtually synonymous with celebration. Somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of annual Champagne sales are made between December 1st and 31st.

Nonetheless, it’s not the only place that makes bubbles, and it’s not the only way bubbles are made! Two days after whatever all of us end up doing on a pandemic New Year’s Eve feels like as good a time as any to contemplate sparkling wines outside of the context of celebration: we can treat them like wines.

Which is to say, we can think about their expression of place, and the character of the grape varieties that go into them; we can expand our range of methods, resulting in wines that are anything from cloudy and lightly fizzing to frothy or creamy, orange or pink or purple or deep gold, wines that are suddenly good with a whole lot of different food, that are refreshing, in many cases low-alcohol, perfect hair of the dog for the yearlong hangover 2021 is shaping up to be.

Class was on Saturday, January 2. These were the wines:

How you might see it on a wine list
Mariotti, Bianco dell’Emilia, “Smarazen”, Emilia-Romagna, Italy NV

Who made it? Mirco Mariotti
Out of what? Organically farmed own-rooted trebbiano and malvasia di Candia grown on beachy sand.
Planted where? A growing area called Bosco Eliceo, about a quarter mile from the Adriatic Sea, in Romagna.
How does it sparkle? Typical regional frizzante method: juice ferments in tank with native yeasts (1 day on the skins, hence that tannin!); after fermentation, Mirco bottles and adds juice from the same vintage that he’s kept frozen since harvest to kickstart a second fermentation. The yeast and some solids from that juice are still there, which is why it’s a little hazy (not disgorged).
What’s “Smarazen”? A local card game; Mirco likes to play.

How you might see it on a wine list
Château Bois-Brinçon, Crémant de Loire, “Brut Nature”, Anjou, Loire Valley, France 2018

Who made it? Géraldine & Xavier Cailleau and a team of I would guess 10-15 full-time employees (it’s a mid-sized, 55 hectare estate built around a 13th century church holding that was confiscated during the Revolution, half planted to orchard, half to vines).
Out of what? A single plot of chenin with a little bit of pineau d’aunis, on soft yellowish limestone, farmed biodynamically.
Planted where? Just east of the arrow on the map, where the schist changes to limestone, in the heart of the Loire Valley.
How does it sparkle? Crémant (creamy bubbles) has to be labelled by region and made using traditional a.k.a. Champagne method: a first fermentation after pressing (in this case, in tank, with native yeasts), and then a second fermentation kicked off when it was bottled (in this case, with grape juice instead of a mixture of beet or cane sugar, wine, and yeast, which would be more typical — so, more native yeasts!). It was bottled in January 2019, and sat with those dead yeast for one year until being disgorged in January 2020 (they tell us on the back of the bottle). After disgorgement, it was finished with a little bit of wine to top it up, but no added sugar.

How you might see it on a wine list
Ayunta, Rosé, “Metodo Ancestrale”, Etna, Sicily 2019

Who made it? Filippo Mangione, Sicilian, ex-sommelier/wine writer/UK-US wine sales agent; he bought his first vineyard parcel from a retiring farmer on Etna in 2011. He owns a tiny number of old vines (2.8 ha), but buys fruit as well.
Out of what? Nerello mascalese, mostly, although most old vineyards in the area are co-planted and some vines you don’t even know what the variety is. 50-100 years old.
Planted where? The volcanic soils of Mt. Etna’s north face. 
How does it sparkle? After a slow press that draws out some color, the juice ferments with native yeasts in vat and is bottled while it’s still fermenting; it finishes in bottle. This makes it “pet-nat” aka “petillant naturale” aka “method ancestrale” aka “natural fizz.”

What we looked for:

Texture. How silky, fizzy, or prickly are the bubbles? Is there creaminess (from lees aging), or a little astringency (in the case of the Mariotti, from skin contact)? Does the wine feel rich and round, or bright and zippy? How sparkling is it? (Is it still fizzing on day two? Day three? Champagne is usually bottled between 5 and 6 atmospheres of pressure; pet-nats like the Ayunta, and frizzantes like Mariotti, can have much less —as little as 3 or 4. This makes a difference in flavor, but also in how long you might want to leave a wine open.)

Region and variety. Sparkling wine conversations often focus on winemaking — how long on the lees? disgorged when? what’s the dosage? — but these wines were as much about where they were grown and which variety as those details. Whether it was the malvasia di candia & trebbiano from Romagna’s beaches, nerello mascalese high up on Sicily’s active volcano, or chenin on tuffeau in the heart of the Loire, we thought about these wines reflected place. We looked for chenin’s quince & pear & chamomile & honeysuckle, for nerello mascalese’s sunkissed red fruit and volcanic smokiness, for the texture and amped-up aromatics that come from northern Italian white grapes with skin contact.

Food pairings. Finally, all of that thinking about texture and different expressions of variety and place got us talking quite a bit about food pairings, and how to use these wines as condiments on the table, both to match intense flavors and also to cut or contrast rich, fatty elements of a dish.

Further reading

“Among Sparkling Wines, the Other Half Lives Pretty Well,” Eric Asimov, New York Times

“Don’t Call It Sparkling Wine,” Zachary Sussman, Punch

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