Why is Champagne the Wine of New Year’s Eve?

On CBC Ontario’s CBC drive-home shows we chat about bubblies for the New Year’s in the third part of our holiday wine series.

We also chatted about this on CBC’s Alberta at Noon as well as The Morning Edition in Saskatchewan and Metro Morning in Toronto.

Champagne is the traditional sparkling wine to ring in the new year, but there are other alternatives.

Further below are the wines we talked about in the audio clip above.

Do you know the answers to these bubbly questions?

Why is Champagne the wine of New Year’s Eve?

Savvy champagne producers have managed to associate their bubbly with life’s highest moments: winning the Formula One race or Wimbledon tennis championship, launching a boat, a baby, a marriage or a new year.

Several hundred years ago, top champagne houses, many of them young women who were widows or veuves (think Veuve Clicquot), sent cases of their bubbly to royal courts across Europe whenever a new baby was born or a king or queen crowned to help celebrate. This early product sampling and event marketing was quite effective.

Why do Indy 500 winners drink milk but Formula One winners drink champagne?

Tradition. One of the first winners of the Indy 500 race asked for a bottle of milk to slake his thirst. He did so again when he won the next year.

A local dairy farmer saw an opportunity for product placement and had a bottle of milk ready when he won the third year.

Tradition also is why Formula One winners drink champagne.

What’s the pressure inside a bottle of bubbly?

The pressure inside a cold bottle of bubbly is 90 pounds per square inch (psi), which is equal to that of city bus tires.

When you open it, you get that pop, or sigh, as some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) is released, but most of the CO2 stays dissolved in the wine.

What’s the fastest way to chill a bottle of bubbly?

No, it’s not the fridge, which can take several hours at least.

Instead, submerge your bottle up to the neck in ice water to bring it down to the chilled temperature of between 4-6 degrees Celsius or 40-43 degrees Fahrenheit in about 20-30 minutes.

Never put it in the freezer, unless you’d like to see the stars as it explodes.

Why do you have to chill bubbly before opening it?

When a bottle of bubbly is room temperature, the CO2 is largely not dissolved in the wine and is just lying at the top, waiting to escape.

So when you open it, the pressure goes from 90 psi to less than 1 psi in just a few seconds … all of the CO2 makes a run for it out of the bottle and it sprays everywhere, leaving your bubbly flat.

That’s great for Formula One winners, but not for you if you want to drink your wine rather than use it to wash your walls.

Why don’t we use those wide glasses for bubbly anymore?

The coupe glasses were said to be shaped after Marie Antoinette’s breasts. However, their wide open bowl allows a lot of bubbles to escape. This is why we use flute glasses, with their slender, long bowl and narrow opening.

We also tilt the glass when pouring to reduce the head or mousse to keep the bubbles in the wine rather than let them escape into the air.

Why is there both foil and a wire cage around the bubbly cork?

This is also due to the pressure inside the bottle, and acts as three layers of defence from allowing that cork to fly out before you open it.

How fast can a champagne cork travel?

Champagne corks have been clocked at 50 mph, and in champagne caves where they’re aged, they can be a workplace hazard for riddlers (those who turn the bottles).

The typical distance between your eye and the bottle as you open it is 23 seconds: a flying cork needs less than .047 seconds to reach your eye, faster than your blinking reflex.

Corks are able to fly to distances of up to 42 feet.

How many bubbles in a bottle of bubbly and in a glass?

One million, which is lower than the 20 million previously thought, though still plenty for most of us.

This is according to Dr. Gérard Liger-Belair at the University of Reims, aka the Bubble Professor, whose specialty is the “nucleation sites” of bubbles in carbonated drinks. I interviewed him for my first book Red, White and Drunk All Over.

Is Champagne a must to make New Year’s a classy affair?

No. There are many other sparkling wines from around the world noted below. Entry level Champagne (which sounds as absurd as saying a starter Porche) clocks in at $60. You can get a terrific sparkling wine at a third to half that price.

That may be why Prosecco from Italy is the fastest growing bubbly in the sparkling wine category, whereas Champagne sales have been declining slightly, according to the Wall Street Journal this week.

Does that concern the Champagnoise? No! They were shipping product during the Napoleonic Wars for heavens sake.

Their response: more people trying bubbly brings more consumers into the category who can “grow up” eventually to Champagne. Cheers!

From reader Peter Mills, more sparkling trivia …

Small Print on the Label

There is a law in France that requires a Champagne label to contain certain information about the maker. There is no requirement about the size of the type. Accordingly, the Champagne makers bury the information in tiny type of fine print on the edges of the label.

Take a magnifying glass and scour the label of any bottle of champagne. You will find one of the following with the meanings noted:

RM Recoltant – Manipulateur (best, vineyard made, small quantity, high quality)

NM Negociant – Manipulateur (very good, negociant-made)

RC Recoltant – Cooperateur (good, vineyard co-op, vineyards individually too small to be able to blend well and consistently)

CM Coperateur – Manipulateur (decent, co-op produced)

MA Marque d’Acheteur (avoid, volume labels, better sparklers available elsewhere)

CBC arts

Top 5 Sparkling Wines to Toast the New Year

Natalie MacLean, editor of Canada’s largest wine review site, selects her top five sparkling wines to ring in the new year.

Taittinger Nocturne Champagne

Champagne A.C., France

Toasty and robust especially for a Champagne house known for the delicacy of its sparkling wines. Love this. This Champagne is a sparkling wine blend of 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. This is a special edition bottle of the Taittinger in purple glittering squares (“reflective tiles”) meant to look like a tree ornament.

Score: 93/100
Price: $73.95
Alcohol: 12.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Drink: 2013‐2018
LCBO: 385195


Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava

Penedes, Spain

Superb value! Toasty, earthy, dry and refreshing sparkling wine that’s a fraction of the cost of Champagne. Lovely yeasty notes on the nose with some toasted apple and almond on the finish. Stock up for your parties now.

Score: 89/100
Price: $14.95
Alcohol: 12%
Sweetness: Extra Dry
Drink: 2014‐2017
LCBO: 216960

Ferrari Brut

Alto Adige Trentino D.O.C., Italy

Tasty, robust, crisp and delivering everything you want in a refreshing sparkling wine at a fraction of the price of champagne. Works well as an aperitif cocktail or pair it with shellfish or fried chicken. Highly recommended.

Score: 92/100
Price: $25.95
Alcohol: 12.5%
Sweetness: Dry
Drink: 2014‐2017
LCBO: 352153

Kew Vineyards Blanc De Noir 2011

Niagara Peninsula, Ontario V.Q.A., Canada

Crisp and clean with baked bread and green apple notes. Good value for the price. This is a new winery worth following. The original vineyards were planted in 1975, among the oldest in the region, and winemaker Philip Dowell is an old hand with a well-established reputation in the region. Pair with salmon sashimi.

Score: 90/100
Price: $29.95
Alcohol: 12%
Sweetness: Dry
Drink: 2013‐2015
LCBO: 380030

Wolf Blass Yellow Label Sparkling Brut

Southeast Australia

A fruity and delicious bubbly that’s a great value. Notes of lime and green apple. Pair with caviar, potato chips, salmon, guacamole and resolutions that you may keep only for a day.

Score: 87/100
Price: $17.95
Alcohol: 11%
Sweetness: Extra Dry
LCBO: 649996


Why is Champagne the Wine of New Year’s Eve?

Stephanie: Now there’s a sound that probably sounds familiar. It’s synonymous with New Year’s Eve, the popping of a bottle of Champagne during in the New Year. With 2015 just around the corner, Natalie MacLean is here to help us maneuver the many choices available. She’s the editor at her own website nataliemaclean.com and for the past couple of weeks she’s been with us with her top wine picks. Today we’re talking about the bubbly. Hi Natalie!

Natalie: Hi Stephanie!

Stephanie: Can you tell me why Champagne is such a popular choice for celebrations?

Natalie: Well it’s traditional. I think it goes back to those very savvy Champagne makers. They are exquisite marketers. If you think about the first of anything … the first of the year or a first marriage even a second marriage, a first baby, a christening of a first boat … it’s always Champagne.

Stephanie: It’s true.

Natalie: They’ve managed to weave themselves into all of our highest celebratory moments in life including  New Year’s Eve so that’s where the tradition comes from.

Stephanie: And it goes way back, I mean so this is a French movement you’re thinking?

Natalie: Yes, definitely. It’s a French operation, specifically from Northern France … the Champagne region of France. That’s the only region that can claim the Champagne name. What happened back in the 1800s, maybe even earlier, is that Champagne was able to get their bubblies into the courts of Europe. Whenever there was a baby born or a monarch crowned, they would be shipping off their bubblies to help with the celebration. So it was one of the earliest sampling programs that was extremely successful.

Stephanie: That’s interesting.

Natalie: Yes.

Stephanie: So what’s the difference then between Champagne and Sparkling wine?

Natalie: It depends on where the bubbly is made. Only Champagne from the Champagne region of France may be called Champagne. Otherwise any bubbly outside of that region of France is Sparkling wine. You can think about it like this … all thoroughbreds are horses but not all horses are thoroughbreds … and that’s not to say that other Sparkling wines aren’t as good as Champagne. It’s just they can’t lay claim to that name.

Stephanie: It’s a regional distinction.

Natalie: It’s a regional distinction and trademark that they’ve guarded very strongly, again to their credit because it really has that cachet maintained. So if we look at different regions around the world, many of them use the same methods that they use in Champagne and the same grapes. Again we have to refer to them as Sparkling wines.

Stephanie: Many people were probably referring to Sparkling wine when we actually talk about Champagne, is that right?

Natalie: We use it as kind of a generic term even though the Champanoise would be aghast at that. We make terrific Sparkling wines here in Canada and Spain and Italy do but they’re not Champagne.

Stephanie: So what should we look for in a Sparkling wine?

Natalie: Well, I look for value first and foremost. I love anything that tastes twice as expensive as it costs and that includes Champagne, itself. There are some  marvellous Champagnes on the market but what I’m looking for is something that is of high-quality. When we think about Sparkling wine, of course you think of the bubbles and I love to see those tiny beaded bubbles … smaller, in my mind, is better. It must be very delicate with a persistent flavour and most of all I want that Sparkling wine to pair well with a wide variety of food.

Stephanie: Is this one of those things where you have to know your own palate Natalie, to understand what it is you’re actually looking for?

Natalie: Yes, I think that always helps. I think we can get away with more latitude when it comes to Sparkling wines just because it has that added element of effervescence. I visited the Champagne region a few years ago and I tasted the base wines before they had the bubbles. They tasted quite different. They were not horrid but I think the bubbles really add a lift of flavour. I don’t think you can go too far wrong as you can in some of the still styles of wine.

Stephanie: I like your mantra of ‘a bang for your buck’ or ‘a pop for your bucks,’ so what should you expect to pay for a good Sparkling wine?

Natalie:  Entry-level Champagne is what’s called ‘non-vintage’ Champagne. There’s no year on the label and that doesn’t mean it’s not any good. In fact a lot of the Champagne makers pride themselves on a house blend that’s consistent year after year. You’ll start at $50 … that’s a bargain for a non-vintage Champagne and then as you go up into vintage dated Champagne, Rosés and the most prestigious Champagnes, you can blow $300-$400 easily. If we move to Sparkling wine from Canada or the United States, I find the prices average at about $30-$35. It’s quite a bargain comparatively because it’s the same grapes and the same methods. The real deal, the least expensive bubblies come from Spain and Italy.

Stephanie: Okay. Tell me about some of those, what are your top picks?

Natalie: As we go to Spain they’re called Cavas and that just means cave; that’s where they’re aged and made. Segura is a terrific one from Spain and right now you’ll see it in the liquor stores where they often have their entry-level one at $13. It’s unbelievably good. They have a prestigious bottle at $30. It is a beautiful gift wine and the quality is there.

Stephanie: Yes.

Natalie: If we go over to Italy, we have Prosecco. They are dry and they are bubbly. Ferrari is a good one from Northern Italy. Again, you’re looking at about $20-$25 for a high-end Prosecco. It will go down to about $15-$20.

Stephanie: And it pairs nicely with certain foods as well?

Natalie: You know I think Sparkling wine is one of the most food-friendly wines on the planet, because it has the bubbles working. My favourite pairing is high-low shabby chic Champagne and potato chips. I can’t take credit for that because Marilyn Monroe did in the Seven Year Itch and I’ve been a fan ever since, both of her and of the pairing. If you think about the fat and the salt of a potato chip that coat your mouth, and then you take a drink of bubbly with its swarm of bubbles and a nice acidity that you really don’t notice, but it’s there. The bubbles are like little tiny brushes in your mouth, cleansing your palate so that the next chip taste almost as good as the first one. That’s what you want with food and wine pairing … each helps the other.

Stephanie: You’d mentioned that you do have a regional favourite as well, what’s your Sparkling wine pick for the Ontario region?

Natalie: I have many, the one I’ve chosen today is Kew vineyards in Niagara. That is K-e-w Vineyards. It’s a Blanc de Noir a white from red, meaning they used Pinot Noir grapes but they didn’t allow skin contact so that’s why we get the colour. It’s a white Sparkling wine and it’s just beautiful. It has fresh notes of big red and green apple and again it’s beautiful with potato chips, sashimi or if you want to break into the shellfish, oysters…

Stephanie: This is mouth-watering, absolutely! But what about if you want to splurge on the real thing, is there a Champagne that you suggest?

Natalie: Well, I just love Taittinger Champagne. They make a variety of Champagnes but they’ve come out with one for the Holidays, specifically. It’s the whole package so to speak that really draws me to it. It’s a top-notch quality Champagne, it’s non-vintage and the bottle has reflective tiles in various colours of purple. It is  very festive and meant and looks like a tree ornament. It reminds me of a disco ball but that’s fine.

Stephanie: Yes.

Natalie: After 3 glasses it looks beautiful and you can’t tell the difference.

Stephanie: Yes.

Natalie: It is about $74 but it’s worth the splurges … it’s really lovely.

Stephanie: … and still not up there to that $300 or $400 bottle that you mentioned, so that is good.  Yes, but what about people who don’t like Champagne or Sparkling wine or if we want to encourage people to have something for their DD’s. What would you suggest to bring in the New Year?

Natalie: I love a cider and cider comes in the two types. There’s hard cider with alcohol and there’s cider without. You could put some Sparkling water into the cider that doesn’t have alcohol to make a lovely festive drink. A lot of people love that essences of apples. We have wonderful cider producers in Ontario, Quebec and across the country. There’s also Sparkling cider if you don’t want the Champagne.

Stephanie: Those sound great and thanks to you, Natalie, this New Year’s I’m going to pair with potato chips, you and Marilyn.

Natalie: I’ll drink to that, Stephanie.

Stephanie: Thank you! Cheers and thank you.

Natalie: Cheers, thanks.

Stephanie: That was Natalie MacLean; if you missed those picks, I am tweeting them @ CBC staff on Twitter. You can find them there, and she has some great suggestions.



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