The ins and outs of bubbles

Legend has it that back in the year 1695, a French monk named Dom Perignon put some sugar into a finished wine, recorked the bottle and then laid it down to taste again later.

To his surprise, and to our everlasting pleasure, when he reopened the bottle a couple of years later — voila! — he drank the first sips of Champagne.

Today, all sparkling wines that bear the official Champagne name on the label and that are, of course, all from the official Champagne region in northern France are required to be made in this same traditional way, called "methode champenoise." They acquire their elegant small-bubble effervescence from carbon dioxide released during the second in-bottle fermentation that occurs after the addition of more sugar and yeast.

Many U.S. sparkling wines, such as the Willamette Valley's Argyle brand, and the better California brands, such as Napa's Domaine Chandon and Roederer Estate from the Anderson Valley, are also made in this methode champenoise.

Other super cheap sparkling wines, such as Cooks, are not made by the methode champnoise, and they get their fizz directly from carbon-dioxide canisters, similar to those found at soda fountains. These lesser sparklers tend to have very large bubbles that fail to persist on the palate and that interfere with other wine flavors.

In fact, when you pay the big bucks for real Champagne, you are actually paying to avoid precisely these drawbacks. The real thing has superior palate persistence and elegant small bubbles that tend to complement, rather than interfere with, the wine's refreshing acidity and complex fruit flavors.

Champagne, and actually all sparkling wines, are produced in several different styles, which primarily are defined by their varying levels of sweetness. The "brut" label, for example, indicates only a hint of sweetness while "demi-sec" or "doux" tells you that the wine has a very high, sometimes even a dessert-course level, of sugar. The bottles that say "blanc de blanc" on the label tell you the wine is made solely from chardonnay instead of the usual blend of chardonnay and pinot noir.

Of course, we all associate Champagne with the holidays and other special occasions. But Champagne is too often overlooked as a fine and rewarding dining companion, especially with spicy foods like curries or Latin foods.

I particularly like bubbly wines with hot and spicy shrimp at Ashland's Thai Pepper restaurant or at one of the many fine Indian restaurants in our valley. When ordering bubbly with a meal, keep in mind that the brut style, instead of a sweeter one, is usually the best choice.

So the next time that you hear that distinctive Champagne cork-popping sound, perhaps while sharing a bowl of spicy ceviche, oriental shrimp or lamb curry, offer up a toast — to that 17th century monk named Dom who found that a little fizziness in wine can jazz up even the dullest of parties!

Condé Cox owns the wine education and consulting business, Place in the Glass ( He lives in Jacksonville and can be reached by e-mail at

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