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How to choose a fine sparkling wine

Chandon winemaker Tom Tiburzi tastes his way through the vineyards
Chandon winemaker Tom Tiburzi tastes his way through the vineyards
Domaine Chandon

When you want the real truth about wines, there’s no source like the winemaker. Tom Tiburzi, master winemaker at Domaine Chandon vineyards, has a background in Italian food and wine and is also a biologist by training. He was kind enough to do a Q&A recently about sparkling wines, and his responses are truly an education! So I developed a quick checklist from what he said, and below that I give you his complete answers.

A quick checklist for choosing a fine sparkling wine

  1. Look for sparkling wines made with “method traditionnelle” (aka method champenoise). This is the most expensive way to make sparkling wine and only the fine ones use it.
  2. Check how long the wine’s been aged. Less than two years gives a fresher, more vibrant fruit taste. Three years or more will have a creamier mouth feel and more savory notes.
  3. Note the types of grapes used – the classic combo is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
  4. Choose your level of sweetness – Brut (no sweetness), Extra Dry (slightly sweet), then Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux for increasingly higher levels of sweetness.
  5. Sparkling wines make occasions special - but they also go fabulously with food any time.

Tom Tiburzi’s full responses are below:

Q. You said something about how yeast affects amino acids in the sparkling wines you make. How does that work, and what does it mean to the wine consumer in terms of taste and quality?

We use the "methode traditionnelle" [the most expensive way to make bubblies, also known as ‘methode champenoise’]. Adding sugar and yeast to our sparkling wines in the bottle makes them ferment and become effervescent. Before the yeast die in the bottle, they store enzymes, and these enzymes remain active for many years. Yeast is predominantly composed of protein, and proteins are built from amino acids. So as the enzymes disassemble the yeast cells, the proteins break down and return to their principal amino acids. This process, known as “autolysis” (automatic splitting), begins soon after yeast death, peaks after around three years, but can continue for another six years or so.

These amino acids contribute to the sparkling wine aroma, taste and mouth feel. The aromas and tastes are savory, such as toasted bread, brioche and toasted hazelnuts; and the mouth feel becomes increasingly viscous and creamy. Consumers who prefer greater freshness and vibrancy of fruit in their sparkling wine should look for ones that have aged from 1-2 years on the yeast (e.g., Chandon’s Brut Classic or Blanc de Noirs). However, those seeking more subtle fruit flavors enveloped by savory creaminess should look for sparkling wines aged at least three years on the yeast (e.g., Chandon’s Etoile which ages for 5 years minimum).

Q. What, besides price, can a consumer look for on the label of a bottle of sparkling wine to identify the quality of that wine?

First, look to see if the sparkling wine has been produced by the methode traditionnelle as this leads to greater flavor complexity and creamier mouth feel. Next, grape variety is a clue to quality. At Chandon we use the traditional grapes of Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

How the wine is finished is important, look for “Brut” if you prefer no sweetness, “Extra Dry” if wishing for a slight sweetness, then “Sec”, “Demi Sec and “Doux’ for increasing levels of sweetness. Most important is if what the consumer likes, so find out by trying, and remember that our tastes evolve, so it is good to catch this as it happens by taking advantage of tasting opportunities, or just plain experimenting.

Q. Why are some sparkling wines called blanc de blancs? How is it decided which wines get that label and why?

Blanc de Blancs means “white from white” referring to the clear juice coming from white grapes. Sparkling wines from white grapes are often labelled Blanc de Blancs, and are most often made from the Chardonnay grape, as is the Chandon Reserve Blanc de Blancs. Whether or not “Blanc de Blancs” is mentioned on the label is a matter of the producer’s preference. Similarly, Blanc de Noirs, “white from black,” refers to sparkling wines made using the clear juices that come by carefully pressing the red grapes to avoid extracting color from the dark skins. At Chandon, our Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Q. What else would you like to tell the wine-drinking public about sparkling wines?

I always remind our customers that Chandon sparkling wines are great with food and to not hesitate having them with everyday meals as opposed to relegating only to toasts and special occasions – though they do tend to make ordinary occasions special! Look at our back labels for flavor descriptors to help choose the wine for your occasion, and for hints on what goes well with the wine.

Have fun using Chandon sparkling wines to make cocktails. Check out our website to find our cocktail book under the “Entertaining” tab. Here you can also find many great entertaining ideas.

At Chandon we strive for sustainability and are Napa Green Certified for both Land and Winery. The care we put into our wines is equaled by the attention we pay to our environment.

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