A Bit o’ Bubbly

2005.Oct.07 Friday · 0 comments

in Drink

Buenos Aires – Shared a bottle of wine and a bite to eat with Andres Rosberg, the new president of the sommelier association here in Argentina. Future projects in the offing. We dropped by a small wine shop he knows that offers the opportunity to taste wine by the glass or bottle, accompanied by casual nibbles. This is quite common here – the idea of a “wine bar” as we might think of it in the U.S. is non-existent; there have been attempts to open them but they don’t succeed. One of my main reasons for meeting with Andres was to find out why. It seems really to be quite simple – in general, Argentines like to eat while they’re drinking, and they like to sit down to do it. The idea of standing at a bar while nibbling and drinking, tapas bar style; or sitting at a table or bar and just drinking wine, without food; just doesn’t register as something worth doing in the national consciousness. So tasting bars tend to be small affairs within wine retail shops, a chance to try some or all of the stores wares, often along with something to eat.

This obviously contradicts the idea that Argentines won’t embrace the concept of a wine bar. It does keep the situation small and intimate, and in most places folks sample something, buy, and leave. And, with a retail shop being the prime focus, it is perhaps just a sideline. On the other hand, La Finca, at Honduras 5147 in Palermo Viejo, clearly makes it a strong part of what they do. The shop itself offers maybe a hundred selections of wine, virtually all from the Mendoza region of Argentina. They are stored in rough, but beautifully designed wooden bins along the walls, along with a selection of preserved foods like olives and salsas. But the entire center of the shop is dominated, given the small space, by 3 tables with charis, and a couple of barrels with stools around them. A large portion of the wares that they offer are available either by the glass or bottle to consume on the spot, and the preserved foods are used as the main component of culinary offerings – basically plates of cheese, meats, salsas, and olives. Andres told me not to expect others to do much more than stop in and maybe try something, buy a bottle, and leave; but, much to his surprise, the space filled up quickly after opening – all chairs and stools taken up by folks clearly there to enjoy each other’s company over bottles of wine and small plates of food. Perhaps it’s time for a wine bar in Buenos Aires after all.

The bottle we shared was an unremarkable bottle of sparkling wine, even given the price of 18 pesos a bottle. Mapú Carú Extra Dry Chardonnay was minerally and crisp, with very little fruit showing and a bit too much alcohol in evidence (partially due to being overchilled). I wasn’t able to find out anything more about this wine, though if I do, I may come back and add a little info in. In sum, it was drinkable, especially accompanied by a couple of nice plates of the aforementioned nibbles. I doubt I’d rush out to buy a bottle. The label notes that it is made by the Charmat method, which gives me the opportunity to talk a little bit about the methods of sparkling wine production.

The first, and “most important” for most folk, is the Méthode Champenoise, or traditional champagne method. The nutshell version of the process is: 1) the base wine is made; 2) sugar and yeast is added to the wine and it is immediately bottled with a crown cap (standard bottle cap), where it undergoes a secondary fermentation – being in a sealed container, the carbon dioxide becomes the sparkle rather than escaping into the air; 3) the wine is aged; 4) the bottles are “riddled,” i.e., essentially turned upside down on an angle, and through a steady turning process, the yeast and sediment in the bottle is collected into the neck; 5) this “plug” of sediment is removed, the bottle is topped off with a splash of wine to refill it, and it is corked for final distribution.

The second is called the Transfer Method. It proceeds through the same first three steps, however instead of the riddling process, the wine is transferred to new bottles, under pressure, and passing through a filtration system to remove any sediment.

Third, the Méthode Ancestrale, is a method used in very few places, mostly in south and western France. Basically, the fermentation process is started, and midway through it, the wine is bottled, yeast and all. There isn’t a second fermentation, the sparkled comes from the original one. The yeast is left in the bottles, and it is not unusual for these wines to have noticeable sediment in the them. A variation on this technique is that used in Asti (Italy) for making Asti spumante – essentially just that the wine is transferred to fresh bottles in order to remove it from the sediment.

The Charmat, or closed tank method, moves the whole process into pressurized, glass-line, steel tanks. After the first fermentation the wine is moved to these special tanks where the addition of sugar and yeast is made, and the “sparkle” happens, after which the wine is bottled. This tends to result in wines that have bubbles that are a bit larger and not as well dissolved into the wine. My personal experience, and that of many other folk, is that these wines go flat a bit faster than the older methods.

There is an off-beat and relatively rare method called the Continuous or Russian method; I’ve also heard it referred to, probably incorrectly, as the Russian Continuous method. Here, the secondary fermentation takes place over a longer period of time, with the wine steadily passed slowly through several tanks filled with oak chips or a similar material. This has the double effect of steadily filtering out the sediment and at the same time imparting oak flavor into the wine.

The final method is basically just used for very inexpensive wines – the equivalent of bulk sparkling. It is, quite simply, carbonation, just the addition of carbon dioxide into the wine, much the same as the process of making soda.

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