by Thierry Boeuf in the Tribune (February 20, 2001)
Celebrating the new
arrival with sugar and bubbles?
A few years ago, when a friend of mine had his
first child and we were both students in Oenology together, I decided to visit him and his wife with a mutual friend of theirs
to celebrate the birth. The only thing we had to decide when preparing for the visit was which one of us would be taking the
sweet white wine from Jurançon and who would bring the soft toy turtle to go with it.
The origin of our gifts dates back to the 16th
century, when Henri de Navarre was born in a region located in the south west of France, in the center of the PyrénéesMountains that borders France and Spain, where Jurançon is produced. Henri later became King of France, better known as Henri IV and is still today one of
the most famous French kings, who was known to like good food, good wine and a good life. When Henri was born his cradle was
made from tortoise shell (still visible in the museum of Pau) and he is said to have drunk a few drops of some of this famous sweet Jurançon
just after his birth.
And both the mother of the new baby and the friend accompanying me were from this
I speak about this
today because, last week, I did the same thing with a few drops of another sweet French white wine, this one from the Loire valley, which
is closer to my homeland. I chose a Vouvray demi-sec from 1985 to celebrate the birth of my second son, and he indicated to
me that he liked it so much that he wanted more. When my first son was born, he enjoyed the Pineau des Charentes made by my
grandfather in the Cognac region.
Sweet white wines are produced in most vineyards. In France, in addition to the two wines already mentioned, we have in the Bordeaux region, the appellation
of Sauternes, where Château Yquem, the Sauternes of the Sauternes, is made.
Alongside this appellation are several others which, like the previous
one, only produce sweet white wines. They are Barsac, Loupiac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Cerons and Cadillac (from which came
a certain man who founded a car factory with the same name).
A neighbor of the Bordeaux region is the largest
and the biggest sweet white wine appellation of France: Montbazillac, which
is not as famous as Sauternes outside of France, but is much better known in the country since the wines are less expensive.
In the south of France, many sweet white wines are made from the Muscat grapevine,
which is originally from Greece. These appellations are Muscat of Frontignan, of Rivesaltes and in the Rhône valley,
the famous Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. In Alsace, when the climate is favorable, they make the late harvest wines mainly
from Rieslings grapes and, on the other side of the Rhine, in the Rheingau, the Germans make, perhaps the most famous sweet
white wines of the world- the Trockenbeerenauslese especially from Shloss Johannisberg.
These wines are not
only reserved for the celebration of births, but are often used for other special occasions, such as birthdays, Christmas
or Valentines Day. They should always be chilled and drunk either, before a meal as a cocktail- with one of the most delicate
(and expensive) appetizers: the famous Foie Gras (goose or duck liver), with a blue cheese such as the Roquefort, or with
a dessert, which I, like most professionals, believe does not enhance the full character and taste of these wines.
While on the topic of celebration, one of the
most popular ways of celebrating any event is commonly through Champagne or another Sparkling wine,
especially for the New Year. At one point it was said that more than two thirds of the Champagne
consumed in a entire year was actually drunk in one hour around on January 1.
When I write Champagne
I mean exactly that: the sparkling wine made in the French region of Champagne- those such as
Krug, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot or Taittinger. It does not mean that the other sparkling wines are not good, but they do not have
the right to be called Champagne, even if a number of bottles still have it on the label e.g. Californian, Spanish or whatever
French law is strict
for all Wine Appellations and is even more so for that of Champagne because this region was made
rich by its bubbling wine. The people from this region can and actually do sue whoever uses the name without authorization.
Last year they even stopped a perfume company from using the name of their region for a new perfume.
But back to bubbles and sparkling wines. You should know there are many
other types made in many regions and countries in the world. In France,
virtually each wine region makes it. In Alsace, you will find the Crémant dAlsace; in the Loire Valley are the Vouvray and
Saumur appellations; in the southwest is the Blanquette de Limoux while in the southeast there is the Clairette de Die, to
name only a few.
Thus far I have only mentioned
appellations, which means wine produced in specific areas and carrying its name. There are commercial brands, which do not
have to respect the same rules and, for that reason, are able to produce wines at lower prices, like the Duc de Valmer and
In Spain, the Penedes region, near Barcelona, has some of the worlds biggest wineries specializing in sparkling wines such as
Frexeinet. The region of Asti in Italy is famous worldwide through its Asti Spumante, while in Germany many inexpensive sparkling
wines are made, such as Henkell. You probably know about the many Californian sparkling wines- Andre, Totts or Cooks- but
do you know that some are made by French Champagne companies such as the Mumm Napa?
As you will notice the range of prices for these wines varies considerably.
Even if some of this is due to the fame of some names, the difference in techniques explains most of it.
The most expensive way to make a sparkling wine is to start by making
a still wine and then bottling it with some sugar and yeasts in order to provoke a second fermentation. I should remind you
that all alcoholic fermentations are made by the transformation of sugar (glucose) into alcohol (ethanol) by yeast, and that
this process is accompanied by the production of carbonic gas (CO2). Then, when we have the fermentation inside a closed bottle,
we have also an accumulation of carbonic gas.
Every year there are accidents with people who forget that under pressure,
gas can be very energetic, and not only in planes reactor. That is why doctors see so many people who were caught opening
a bottle of sparkling wine with their eye right in front of the of the bottles neck.
Hopefully, this warning will not prevent you from liking the pop of the
corks when opening a sparkling wine at any time, whether it is before or during a meal. Some people like them dry, others
sweet. In any case the easy thing with these wines is that they can accompany any food. Why not have it from the beginning
till the end of the celebration?