July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:01 PM
"Holiday season kicks off in just one month and I'm already thinking of dishes I'd like to cook for Thanksgiving. One item that is always necessary for holiday festivities is sparkling wine or champagne. DRINKING STARSCome quickly! I'm drinking stars! cried Dom Perignon, the 17th century cellar master of the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvilleres, in the Champagne district of France, upon tasting his first bottling of sparkling wine. Delighted by the effervescence that developed in some of his skillfully blended wines, this blind monk devised a clever method of trapping the bubbles: he replaced the traditional wine stopper, then made of cotton wadding saturated in olive oil, with the now familiar cork stopper, which he fastened tightly to the bottle with twine. This prevented the expansion of gases forming inside the bottle from popping the corks, a problem that in earlier times earned sparkling wines the names (ITAL)sauté bouchon, cork popper, and (ITAL) vin diable, devil wine.I like champagne because it always tastes as though my foot's asleep, says columnist Art Buchwald. While not as romantic as Perignon's reference to drinking stars, Buchwald's wry comment also captures the essence of sparkling wines, which tend to delight, amuse, refresh and invigorate.THE RIGHT STUFFLike France's Champagne region, which lies just 19 miles northeast of Paris, the Pacific Northwest's sparkling wine region - which encompasses parts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia - is endowed with the magical combination of factors necessary to produce great sparking wines: climate, grape varietals, and soil conditions.Traditionally, most sparkling wines are made from pinot noir and chardonnay, two grape varietals that are raised successfully in the Northwest. Johannesburg Riesling, the grape varietal used to make the sparkling wines known as (ITAL) sekt in Germany, is also widely planted here. The bulk of Northwest sparkling wines are produced from these varietals.WHAT PUTS THE SPARKLE IN SPARKLING WINE?Sparkling wine is produced from a special blend (cuvee) of acidic wines which, through the introduction of sugar (in the form of a syrup known as (ITAL) liqueur de triage), undergo a secondary fermentation. This liqueur feeds the hungry yeasts, resulting in the by-product of carbon dioxide gas and alcohol, which gives the wine its sparkle.Two common methods are used to produce sparkling wines: the bulk, or Charmat process, in which the wine's secondary fermentation takes place in large vats, and the classic (ITAL) methode champenoise (pronounced me-thode sham-pen-wah), in which the secondary fermentation takes place within the bottle. Wines produced by the Charmat method are typically less complex.To be labeled as a true champagne, a wine must be produced from grapes grown in France's Champagne region, and made according to traditional (ITAL) methode champenoise methods. In the States, however, we refer to sparkling wines fermented in the bottle as (ITAL) methode champenoise wines. It is during the secondary fermentation, known as (ITAL) triage, when wines are aged on the lees (yeast sediment), for two to six years, that the wines develop the sought after yeasty, bread-dough characteristics associated with great sparkling wines. As yeasts gobble up sugar in the wine, they throw off sediment that must be removed - a labor intensive process known as degorgement. Traditionally, bottles are placed neck-down in slanting racks fitted with round holes, known as (ITAL) pupitres. Each day, for an extended period, the bottles are twisted (a process known as riddling), which agitates the sediment. The bottles are gradually tipped straight down, with the unwanted sediment collected on top of the cork. Winemakers carefully pry the cork from each bottle with a special curved knife, then stand back as the sediment shoots out, propelled by the pressure built up in the bottle.A modern method of degorgement, now favored by most winemakers, involves freezing the sediment and wine in the neck of the bottle. When the wine expands, through freezing, it blows the cork and the sediment right out of the bottle. Either way, it is a time-consuming and potentially dangerous task, considering the pressure in each bottle equals up to 60 pounds per square inch.Once the wines are degorged, each bottle is quickly topped off with a mixture of still wine and sugar (and sometimes a trace amount of brandy). The amount of sugar added is the determining factor in the style of wine produced. Brut, the driest sparkling wine, contains less than one percent sugar; extra sec (or extra dry) contains one to two percent sugar; sec (slightly sweet) contains three to six percent sugar; and demi sec (sweet) contains five to ten percent sugar. There is nothing better to greet guests with than the pop of a cork - it is the sound of celebration - so pop one soon, and enjoy.Good champagne often costs $70 and more, but there are some delicious sparklers for under $30. Look for those produced by:Argyle Wine Company, OregonSummerhill Winery, B.C., CanadaDomaine Chandon, CaliforniaDomaine Ste. Michelle, WashingtonFreixenet, SpainMumm, CaliforniaSeaview, AustraliaSt. Innocent, OregonSte. Chapelle Winery, IdahoSavory Cheese ShortbreadServe these buttery shortbread crackers with champagne or sparkling wine and cold-smoked salmon or lox for an elegant appetizer. Stored in an airtight container, these will keep up to three days.Makes about 12 dozen2 1/4cups all-purpose flour1/4teaspoon cayenne pepper1cup (2 sticks) butter, chilled and cut into small pieces2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese1/2 cup milk1tablespoon Worcestershire saucePlace the flour and cayenne in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is reduced to a coarse meal, about 8 to 10 seconds. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Stir in the grated cheese, mixing well. Using a fork, stir in the milk and Worcestershire sauce until well combined. Roll the mixture into two 1-inch-diameter logs, wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and chill until very firm, at least 1 hour.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets, or line with parchment paper. Remove the logs from the refrigerator, and slice each one into 1/4-inch thick rounds. Place the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving 1-inch between them. Bake the shortbread about 12 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Cool on wire racks. "