Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Understanding and appreciating kosher Champagne and sparkling wines

I write this in the throes of winter, and I find nothing cheers me up more than a crisp glass of bubbly. With all that is going on in the world around us, I doubt anyone is going to find good cheer and celebratory vibes unwelcome, so the topic of sparkling wine (with Champagne at its core) seems particularly appropriate. Crisply refreshing and owning a near-perfect pairing ability with a vast quantity of foods, this genre of wine has been pigeonholed as a celebratory beverage and continues to fall short of gaining any real traction among the mainstream kosher-drinking crowd.

Centuries of celebrity quotes trumpeti Champagne as a wine to be consumed early and often including from Winston Churchill (“Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right”) and Napoleon Bonaparte (“I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself”; a quote plagiarized and bastardized by Churchill himself into “In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it”). How could these passionate advocates not have not succeeded in convincing the wine-guzzling masses to incorporate it into their regular repertoire? If they don’t, I hope my own view convinces at least some of you to reach for sparkling wine the next time you are looking for a refreshing and versatile wine.

While the British actually “invented” sparkling wine in the 17th century, they failed to make it their own, partly as a result of their inability to grow quality grapes during their inferior dark and dreary English summers. It wasn’t until 30 odd-years later that Champagne was born, after a French monk named Dom Pérignon fiddled with the process and helped create the luxurious wine by refining a number of the processes. (While an avid winemaker and oenophile, he wasn’t actually the “inventor” of Champagne, per se.)

Despite prevalent usage around the globe as a descriptor for any wine with bubbles, legally Champagne may only refer to sparkling wine grown in the chalky soil of France’s cool-climate Champagne Appellation D’origine Contrôlée (AOC), which yields grapes with considerable acidity contributing to Champagne’s food compatibility. In order to be labeled as Champagne, the wine must also be produced in accordance with a stringent set of rules comprising the traditional méthode champenoise (the traditional method of making Champagne described below). Located approximately 90 miles east of Paris, the region covers approximately 84,000 acres of prime wine-growing soil spread among 319 villages (referred to as Crus). Approximately 90% of this land is owned and farmed by nearly 15,000 independent growers with the remainder owned by the approximately 110 Champagne “Houses” and collectively yielding over 300 million bottles of Champagne a year. While the tradition of independent growers selling their crop to the houses continues for the most part, recent years have seen a proliferation of growers producing and retaining all or part of their crop to produce, bottle and market Champagne under their own names with nearly 5,000 growers trying their hands these days at this process. These wines are commonly referred to as grower Champagne and are prized for their quality and uniqueness among oenophiles around the world. Unfortunately there are no kosher grower Champagne wines available today (and given the methodology of producing kosher French wine, I doubt there is any such grower Champagne in our near future either).

While there are a number of methodologies for creating sparkling wines, méthode champenoise is generally deemed the best, with many famed wine-growing regions around the world producing wines in this method including Spain (Cava), Italy (spumante or prosecco (depending on the region it is from), and South Africa (Cap Classique). That said, there are numerous excellent options for the discerning customer, spread across the entire range of geography, price and methodologies.

The kosher wine market is still playing catch up with the general marketplace, although California is making some nice versions. Hagafen is a long(er)-time player in the market and Covenant recently released a sparkling wine of their own. That said, some of the best kosher sparkling wine available comes from Israel. The Golan Heights Winery has been the market leader in this regard for over a decade, with their Blanc de Blancs under the Yarden leader often ranking as one of my top five kosher sparklers every year, accompanied by the none-too-shabby Brut Rosé and the insanely well-priced Gamla (Gilgal in the U.S.) Brut comprising the best slate of kosher sparkling wines around. Other high-end players are entering the market, with Matar releasing a new sparkling wine (which I haven’t tasted yet) and Castel having three different versions in the works (all tasted last year, but it will be a while before they are ready for market).

By Yossie Horwitz

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