BY RICHARD GRANT PETERSON, PHD
Q: What is the best way to open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine?
A: 1) First, be sure the bottle has been well chilled and not shaken or ‘riled up.’
2) Cut or tear off the top inch and a half of the capsule to expose the twisted loop of ‘wire hood’ which is holding the cork in place.
3) Keep your left thumb on top to keep the cork from ‘flying out’ (a rare but possible event – especially where the bottle had been shaken without your knowing it). Untwist the wire to loosen and release the wire hood. Remove it and discard but keep thumb pressure on the cork to protect everyone’s eyes.
4) Grasp the cork by wrapping your right hand fingers around it and hold the cork tightly. The bottle is held with the left hand down low at about label height.
5) Tilt the bottle a little so it is not exactly vertical. As much as 45 degrees is OK. Hold the cork with your right hand while twisting the whole bottle with the other hand. It’s easier to hold the cork and twist the bottle than the other way around. The cork will twist in the bottle and begin to rise as it comes out. Tilting the bottle minimizes gushing, even if the bottle has been handled roughly. Do not let loose of the cork as it comes out of the bottle. The whole thing is easy with a little practice (and we recommend that you practice a lot).
6) These instructions assume you are right handed; if not, just change hands.
Q: How does Sparkling Wine differ from Champagne?
A: The methods of production are identical as are the grape varieties used. In deference to the region of France named ‘Champagne,’ we do not use their term. Neither do the Germans, Spanish, Italians or Portuguese. (Would we like it if they called their wine ‘Napa Valley’?) Each country has its own name for what they call Champagne in France, Sekt in Germany, Sparkling Wine in America, etc. In America, though it is legal to call one’s wine ‘champagne,’ (not capitalized), Richard Grant will not do that. Ours is Sparkling Wine, made by the traditional French method (methode champenoise) – and made from an absolutely unique and antique grape called Wrotham Pinot (the Wrotham Clone of Pinot Noir). See also Champagne and Sparkling Wine in the Glossary on this web site.
Q: Why do sparkling wines have lower alcohol content than table wines?
A: The alcohol in wine comes directly from the sugar in grapes used to make the wine. The grapes for sparkling wine are picked when they are at or near 19% sugar, while grapes for table wines are picked at sugar levels from 22% (white wines) to as high as 26% (red wines). Because of low grape sugar levels at harvest, sparkling wines are lowest in alcohol, white table wines are higher and red table wines are usually the highest in alcohol. Sparkling wines typically have only 11 or 12% alcohol; white wines 13 – 14% and red table wines, 13 to 16 %.
Q: Why are sparkling wines so much more delicate than table wines?
A: That’s the nature of sparkling wines. Winemakers deliberately grow and produce sparkling wines with delicacy and finesse; by contrast, winemakers produce table wines with bigger body, color and flavor.
Q: Can you compare fine Sparkling Wine with fine Cabernet Sauvignon?
A: Sure, that’s easy. Big, alcoholic and gutsy Cabernet red wines scream from the rooftops ‘I love you’ at the tops of their voices; Richard Grant Sparkling Wine whispers ‘Will you marry me?’
Q: Should I store sparkling wines in my cellar with the bottles lying on their sides, the same way I store table wines?
A: It doesn’t matter! The corks in sparkling wine bottles are much bigger than ordinary table wine corks. They are compressed much more. Carbon dioxide pressure inside the bottles and the corks work together to keep air from entering bottles of sparkling wine. There is no necessity to store sparkling wines on their sides to ‘keep the cork wet’ as is assumed to be the case with table wines. Either way, fine sparkling wines often age well for two decades, maybe longer.
Just store sparkling wines standing upright in your cellar or refrigerator. Of course, you can store bottles of sparkling wine on their sides in a refrigerator for long periods if they fit better on a shelf. I keep bottles in the refrigerator in my office routinely. You never know when somebody important may drop in for a flute of cold bubbly. Readers of this web site have a standing invitation to drop in for a sip, whenever you are nearby.
Q: What are the differences between Richard Grant 2000 and 2001 Sparkling Wines?
A: Same vineyard, different weather each year. The 2000 was aged just over 4 years en tirage and the 2001 was aged just under 4 years. The vines were a year younger in 2000 and produced 395 cases of wine. In 2001 they were more mature and produced 495 cases. The taste impressions of these wines are remarkably similar, with the 2000 a little more mature and rich while the 2001 is slightly fruitier. Both are exceptional gold metal wines.
Q: Is the original mother vine that was discovered in the 1950s in Wrotham, Kent, England still alive?
A: No, that vine was already 200 years old in the 1950s and it died about 35 years later. The good news is that there are now at least two new wild seedlings growing a few feet from where the mother vine had stood. This is exactly what we believe happened many times at that site in earlier centuries. The older mother vine dies and a new seedling springs to life, eventually becoming a new mother vine. Eventually that mother vine dies allowing more new seedlings to sprout. Over many generations, natural mutations happen – which is why Wrotham Pinot is different from other clones of Pinot Noir today.
Q: Exactly when did the Romans bring Pinot Noir into England?
A: We don’t know, but 2000 years ago is widely estimated. One thing we do know is that many Roman coins have been unearthed by the residents of Wrotham Village over past decades and centuries. It happens when they’re cultivating backyard gardens or at nearby construction sites. The Roman coins they’ve found nearly always date from the 3rd century A.D. so 1700 years might be more accurate for Wrotham Pinot.
Q: I’ve heard that Wrotham Pinot is more similar to Pinot Meunier than to Pinot Noir. Is that true?
A: The variety we know as Pinot Meunier is, itself, a clone of Pinot Noir. Both Wrotham Pinot and all other clones of Pinot Noir have Pinot Noir ‘DNA.’ Unlike most other clones of Pinot Noir, the Meunier and Wrotham both have dark green leaves covered by tiny white hairs making them look similar from a distance. But Wrotham Pinot has a greater immunity to some grapevine fungal diseases and it also exhibits more pink and red color in the very young leaves every March and April.
The fruity flavor in the grapes seems different to me also, but flavor is a subjective evaluation which is difficult to prove without detailed analysis. It may be that Wrotham Pinot mutated from an original Pinot Meunier brought to England (as Pinot Noir) or it may be that both Wrotham Pinot and Pinot Meunier mutated from a common Pinot Noir clone at different times and following nearly parallel pathways. What fascinating diversity we find in nature’s grapevines!
Viticulturists know that Pinot Noir is likely the single, most easily mutated variety in the world of cultivated grapevines. That is, there are more recognized individual clones of Pinot Noir than is the case for any of the other hundreds of cultivated varieties in the world. Something about Pinot Noir just makes it want to mutate. So let’s enjoy the diversity we are given to enjoy. Vive la difference!
Q: How can I store a part-full bottle of sparkling Wrotham Pinot?
A: Why, I’m shocked that you and your loved one can’t finish a whole bottle! You can’t put that huge sparkling wine cork back in the bottle, that’s for sure. Never mind, many wine shops carry chrome plated ‘champagne stoppers’ designed to close a bottle tightly and keep the carbonation from escaping. They cost $5 to $7 and are reusable for years. Resealing the bottle with one of these allows you to close an opened bottle tightly and keep it in the refrigerator door until you want another glass. It will preserve the wine for many days, even weeks, although I can’t figure out why anyone would want to keep his/her body ‘sparkling wine free’ for weeks! The French have a great expression: ‘The bottle is open, it must be consumed.’ I like the expression because it facilitates our re-order schedule.
Q: Your sparkling wine has a beautiful peach-pink color but you don’t call it a Rosé. Aren’t the two identical?
A: Delicate pink is the color of the wine. Rosé is a fanciful term used by wineries on wine labels to help the consumer understand what the wine is like. Another term is ‘blush’ but that is used in some lower priced still wines, as well. Unfortunately, many lower-priced Rosé table wines are sweet and not very drinkable. Wrotham Pinot is not sweet and the quality is unsurpassed. So it never occurred to me to use the term Rosé even though there are, in fact, many fine table wines labeled Rosé on the market today. It’s a bit confusing to say the least.
Q: What does the ‘Brut’ on your label mean?
A: It means the wine is dry, which is the opposite of sweet. It never has a sweet taste and contains almost no sugar (actually, between zero and 0.5% residual sugar by analysis). Virtually all the word’s finest Sparkling Wines and Champagnes are either called ‘Brut’ or sometimes ‘Nature’ which means the sugar level is actually zero by analysis. For more on sweetness vs. dryness, look up Brut, Dry, Sec, Extra Dry and Nature in my Wine or Champagne Glossary on this web site. Extra Dry is an interesting, but very confusing term. The confusion may be to blame for the lack of public excitement over the term Extra Dry….
Q: I remember opening Champagne bottles in the past in which the contents gushed out as soon as the bottle was opened. Why?
A: It’s a little like handling soft drinks. If a can or bottle is warm (or not well chilled) and it gets ‘shaken up’ before opening, it’s sure to gush. If it has been stored quietly for several hours and is well chilled, it will never gush. Don’t just jam a warm bottle of Bubbly into an ice bucket for fifteen minutes and call it chilled. Mon Dieu! It’s better to keep a couple of bottles of R.G. Wrotham Pinot in a cold refrigerator all the time. It won’t hurt the wine and the wine will always be perfect for serving to that special visitor at any time. You’ll look like a hero/heroine.
Q: I understand one should never pour a wine glass more than one-third full with white or red table wines. Same rule for sparkling wines?
A: No, no, no! With any sparkling wine, the glass always should be filled nearly to the top – and ‘tulip’ or ‘flute’ champagne glasses are always used because they are tall, thin and graceful. Some have hollow stems, which add pizzazz. The tall glass accentuates bubbles and shows the sparkling wine off to best advantage. Sparkling wine enjoyment is partly visual, partly smell and taste. Don’t ignore the visual part.
Years ago in the movies, champagne was served in ordinary, blah ‘Martini’ glasses – even in supposedly high class restaurants. They ignored the visual part even though they attempted to cover up by claiming that those ‘bird bath’ Martini glasses had been molded originally from one of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I suppose that added class, but it was a terrible glass for champagne enjoyment because it was too short, too wide and there was no vertical distance in the glass through which to observe the rising bubbles. Stick to today’s flutes or tulip glasses for champagne and sparkling wine. And don’t be too finicky about cleaning the deepest part, or hollow stem, of any champagne glass. See the next question, which was sent in by a finicky chef.
Q: No matter how careful I am about cleaning the glasses, my sparkling wines don’t bubble as much in my restaurant as they do when Martha serves sparkling wine to our guests at home. What’s happening here?
A: Your restaurant is killing your glasses with kindness. Relax. And give your wife a raise because she alone knows how to (and how not to) clean champagne glasses. Etch this into your brain: when you clean your glasses too thoroughly — or worse, leave a film of detergent in the glass, you’ve killed your champagne’s ability to bubble! How can that be? I’m thrilled that you asked.
Champagne’s bubbles form in a glass because there are some tiny imperfections, or microscopic bits of roughness, on the inside surface of the glass. Each tiny bit of roughness acts as a nucleus for a bubble to form around and grow larger as it rises in the glass. Suppose there’s a tiny bit of dust sticking to the inside surface of the glass. That, too, acts as an added nucleus, and increases the lively bubbling! When you clean the glass too well, or cover imperfections with detergent, you effectively destroy the roughness and all those wonderful nuclei.
You stop the bubbles no matter how great the champagne. You make otherwise terrific sparkling wine look bad. Shame! Now redeem yourself by getting some new flutes; sterilize them with hot water but lay off the detergent. You’ll see your champagne bubbles re-appear as if by magic. And, unh, maybe you shouldn’t say anything to your wife, just give her a kiss with the raise.
Q: Which foods go best with champagne and sparkling wine?
A: All the best oysters I’ve ever eaten have simply cried out for a nice sparkling wine. Chefs tell me that the finest wine you can serve with oysters is the best (dry) sparkling wine or champagne you can afford. The same goes for seafood hors d’oeuvres. Caviar, shrimp, crab and other sea foods are wonderful with Wrotham Pinot. Check out some of Chef Holly Peterson’s recipes on the recipe section of this website. Makes me hungry to think about it!
As an afternoon snack or after dinner dessert, you can also serve something sweet with brut champagne. Petits fours, cookies, even brownies go well with champagne and sparkling wine. If serving the wine before dinner, caviar on small squares of bread or crackers is superb. If you serve sparkling wine just before dinner, you’ll find you can continue the wine into the early courses of food. In fact, good sparkling wine goes remarkably well with just about any entrée – only salad is a no-no. My wife Sandra and I have begun meals with sparkling wine and continued with the same bubbles, you know the label, throughout dinner. The sparkler went well with everything, including dessert.