Few things — with apologies to the Times Square ball — signal the start of a new year quite like the pop of a cork and the fizz of bubbles in your glass.
Sparkling wine, as it’s referred to when produced outside France’s Champagne region, is a great celebratory wine everywhere — not just here on the North Fork, where it’s poured at vineyard weddings, restaurant dinners and in tasting flights at wineries.
The wine’s stranglehold on the holidays — let’s face it, we’re just as likely to pour it at Christmas dinner as we are on New Year’s Eve — has a lot to do with how quickly it needs to be consumed, according to Lieb Cellars winemaker Russell Hearn.
“It lends itself to sharing over a meal with friends,” he said, noting that, unlike other wines, you can’t just store it in the refrigerator after opening.
Even if its shelf life is shorter than other wines, there’s still a great degree of care that goes into creating your favorite local bottle of bubbly, winemakers explained.
Several methods are used to produce sparkling wines, all of them requiring a second fermentation. The Charmat Method, in which the second fermentation occurs in a tank, is the less costly way. Some still wines are even directly injected with carbon dioxide to create bubbles.
Méthode Champenoise, on the other hand, involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle and is the method preferred by most local winemakers. It is a years-long process that, as the name suggests, mimics the Champagne region’s traditional style. The catalysis of the secondary fermentation is the addition of a sugar and yeast mixture to still wine, which is then capped with a bottle cap similar to the ones found on old-fashioned soda bottles (the cork comes later). the yeast consumes the sugar, resulting in carbon dioxide becoming trapped inside the bottle, which gives the wine its effervescence.
“Méthode Champenoise means quality,” said sparkling pointe’s French-born winemaker Gilles Martin, who employs this method exclusively to create all of the Southold winery’s products. “It retains carbonation in the wine longer than the Charmat Method or directly injected carbonation methods. Méthode Champenoise wine develops a lot of character and toastiness from the time spent in the bottle.”
Méthode Champenoise is ideally suited to the North Fork’s cooler climate, Hearn noted. Grapes used in sparkling wines are hand-harvested first and are deliberately underripe to ensure low sugar and high acid content. The sugar level is purposefully kept lower than for regular still wines because the second fermentation requires added sugars that in turn drive up ABV. The still wines used as a starter for the sparkling are roughly 10% ABV. By the time Méthode Champenoise is complete, the wines are in the desirable 12% range.
“Sparkling wines need cool climates because you don’t want the grapes to be too sweet and you want to retain acidity,” said Hearn, who also uses the Méthode Champenoise to create the Cutchogue winery’s sparkling Pinot Blanc and Sparkling Rosé. “If you are harvesting on a 90-degree day, you’d lose the acidity too quickly as well as having too much sugar. We harvest when it’s 70 degrees.”
The second fermentation lasts only a couple of weeks, said Paumanok vineyards winemaker Kareem Massoud, who also uses Méthode Champenoise for his Aquebogue winery’s Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs. The wine’s character is built from its time spent in the bottle, fermenting “on the lees,” the sediment of dead yeast that collects after consuming the sugar. Massoud leaves his sparkling on the lees for a minimum of 36 months, but that timeline is subject to a winemaker’s preference. Martin, for example, ages Sparkling Pointe’s wines for anywhere from 18 months to eight years. Hearn, who prefers a delicate sparkling, opts for no more than 24 months.
“When you age on the lees, over time you gain more of the characteristics of the yeast,” Massoud said. “When people talk about champagne or sparkling wine, you might hear the word ‘autolytic’ as a descriptor. Autolytic refers to the breakdown of the yeast cells … Instead of using the word autolytic, you could use the term brioche, [evoking] toast or any type of baked bread.”
The final step before the bottle is ready is disgorging the lees to clarify the wine. Over the course of several weeks, the bottles are continuously rotated on an angle to bring the sediment to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen. The frozen block pops out from the pressure and the traditional cork and wire frame cap you’re accustomed to popping are secured on the bottle. Just don’t keep it in your cellar for too long.
“Sparkling will maybe last three years,” Hearn said. “It is not advantageous to put away for 10 years because it is not going to get any better with time after disgorging.”
The North Fork is a great place to drink bubbly year-round. Its dry effervescence pairs well with lighter seafood fare, such as local oysters or bay scallops, and everything from cheese dishes and antipasto, to just about anything served at your next holiday soirée … not that you need a reason to pop one open.
“Sparkling doesn’t have to be a celebratory wine,” Hearn said. “It should be drunk more often.”
The proper way to uncork sparkling wine
Uncorking a sparkling wine or champagne improperly is the fastest way to dampen a party. There is a good amount of pressure behind the cork and it can be harmful when accidentally launched in the wrong direction, Massoud noted. His advice? Towel or cloth napkin in hand, keep your thumb or palm over the cork when releasing the wire frame. If the cork doesn’t naturally dislodge after the wire frame is removed, gently twist the cork and bottle to create counterpressure to slowly uncork the bottle. The towel will not only prevent the contents of the bottle from wastefully spraying across the room, but it will also give you a firm grip. The celebratory “pop” may be fun, but in fine dining settings, the slow, quiet release of gas from the bottle is the audible sign the cork has been properly released.
This story originally appeared in December 2019.