This most celebrated sparkling wine always seems to signal "special occasion." Though bubbling wines under various appellations abound throughout the world, true Champagne comes only from the Champagne region in northeast France. Most countries bow to this tradition by calling their sparkling wines by other names such as spumante in Italy, Sekt in Germany and vin mousseux in other regions of France. Only in America do some wineries refer to their bubbling wine as "champagne." Dom Perignon, 17th-century cellarmaster of the Abbey of Hautvillers, is celebrated for developing the art of blending wines to create Champagnes with superior flavor. He's also credited for his work in preventing Champagne bottles and corks from exploding by using thicker bottles and tying the corks down with string. Even then, it's said that the venerable Dom Perignon lost half his Champagne through the bottles bursting. French Champagne is usually made from a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir or pinot blanc grapes. California "champagnes" generally use the same varieties, while those from New York more often are from the pressings of catawba and delaware grapes. Good Champagne is expensive not only because it's made with premium grapes, but because it's made by the méthode champenoise. This traditional method requires a second fermentation in the bottle as well as some 100 manual operations (some of which are mechanized today). Champagnes can range in color from pale gold to apricot blush. Their flavors can range from toasty to yeasty and from dry (no sugar added) to sweet. A sugar-wine mixture called a dosage added just before final corking determines how sweet a Champagne will be. The label indicates the level of sweetness: brut (bone dry to almost dry less than 1.5 percent sugar); extra sec or extra dry (slightly sweeter 1.2 to 2 percent sugar); sec (medium sweet 1.7 to 3.5 percent sugar); demi-sec (sweet 3.3 to 5 percent sugar); and doux (very sweet over 5 percent sugar). The last two are considered dessert wines.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.