Nothing says holiday fun quite like the sound of a bottle of sparkling wine being opened. The festive “pop” always makes me smile.
There is something special about a glass of sparkling wine. Wine drinkers seem to be able to enjoy the wine for itself, without slipping into the jargon about legs, body, aroma and all the rest. It looks festive, you sip it and you feel better.
Though I have long preached the benefits of drinking sparkling wine on ordinary occasions, most Americans still think of it as celebration wine. In fact, 40 percent of all sparkling wine is sold in October, November and December.
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are all major sparkling wine days. Whether it’s fine Champagne from France, or the fresh, fruity bubbles of Italy’s prosecco, we can’t get enough of it at this time of year. Because most of you probably will buy at least one bottle of bubbly this month, I thought I would give you all the information you need to find the right bottle or two for you.
First, only the wine from the Champagne region of France, about 90 miles northeast of Paris, can legally be called Champagne. So don’t look for the word on bottles from Italy, Spain or the United States. The rest of it is called sparkling wine, though some countries do have their own word for their sparklers. French sparkling wine made outside of Champagne is called Crémant.
Champagne seems to be the wine of choice for special toasts, whether it’s winning the World Series or Super Bowl, or celebrating an engagement, wedding or birthday. In fact, I hope when my time comes, someone will offer a Champagne toast at my funeral.
WHAT KIND OF WINE. When buying sparkling wine you need to know which style you like, though some of us pretty much like them all. Dry sparkling wines have a zesty acidity that makes them particularly suited to food. They can be great with any course of the meal. Sweeter sparkling wines are better with dessert.
From driest to sweetest, sparkling wines will have these designations: brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec, doux. Extra dry and dry are slightly sweet wines, so don’t be fooled by the words.
Many sparkling wines are also identified as “Blanc de Blancs” (made from chardonnay grapes), “Blanc de Noirs” (produced from black grapes), or rosé or pink sparkling wine/Champagnes (small amount of red wine added to the blend or wine that is allowed brief contact with color-laden grape skins).
HOW IT’S MADE. There are two basic ways to make sparkling wine: methode traditional (Methode Champenoise) where the bubbles develop in the bottle during a second fermentation, and tank or Charmat fermentation, where the bubbles are introduced in large, pressurized tanks. The chief advantage of tank fermentation is lower cost. Some tanks can produce 100,000 bottles at a time.
Sparklers produced in tanks tend to be less complex and have larger, shorter-lasting bubbles than those produced by the traditional method. But they can be fresher and fruitier.
However it is made, we are drinking more of it, in America and around the world. Sales are especially strong among millennials, or younger drinkers.
From 1970 to 2014, consumption of all sparkling wine in the U.S. more than doubled. Production worldwide is up 40 percent in 10 years, while still-wine production is up 7 percent. About a third of U.S. sparkling wine drinkers, or 18 million Americans, say they drink sparkling wine at least once a week.
France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia produce 74 percent of sparkling wines, though American wines still sell the best here. Top consumers of sparkling wines are Germany, France, Russia, the U.S., Italy and the United Kingdom.
HOW TO DRINK IT. The bubbles in the wine come from carbon dioxide.
Small bubbles are preferred to larger ones, and you want the bubbles to
continue throughout your drink.
The wine should be served cold in tall, narrow, stemmed glasses called flutes. These concentrate the bubbles in the glass.
Don’t put your sparkler in the freezer – that tends to kill the wine’s effervescence. For quick chilling, place the bottle in a mixture of ice and water for 15 to 20 minutes. Or lay the bottle down in the refrigerator for three to four hours.
Be careful when opening the bottle. The bubbles create a lot of force and can push the cork out at a high speed.
Point the bottle neck away from your face and away from your guests. Remove the foil. Hold the cap down with your thumb and begin untwisting the wire, loosening the cage. Gently remove the wire
and immediately replace your thumb on the exposed cork, watching for any movement.
Now place the rest of your hand firmly around the rest of the cork and twist gently, while counter-twisting the bottle gently with your other hand. Allow the cork to free itself from the bottle with a quiet sigh or gentle pop, leaving the bubbles and wine inside the bottle.
When pouring sparkling wine you will have to pour twice into each glass as the bubbles fill the glass and then settle down. Buy a good champagne stopper from any wine shop for $5 or less. It will keep unused wine for a day or two.
When drinking, use all the senses. Look at it, admire the bubbles, let it breathe. Sniff it and swish it around your mouth, making sure you get some to the back of your tongue. Then swallow and repeat.
I like sparkling wine with just about anything. There really isn’t a food that you can’t pair with a good sparkling wine. Try a burger with bubbles or pizza with prosecco. You will love it.
Here are some of my recommendations for what kind of sparkler to drink, but you can also consult with your favorite wine shop. They have plenty on hand this time of year.
Champagne: Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve and Rose ($65-$80), Billecart-Salmon ($50-$55), Taittinger Brut Prestige Rose ($70-$75), Moet & Chandon Imperial ($50), Champagne Aubrey ($40-$45).
Other French: Mâs Crémant Limoux ($13-$15), Crémant d’Alsace, Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace ($19-$22).
American sparkling wine: Gruet Brut, New Mexicao ($15); J Cuvee 20, California ($30); Biltmore Estate Sparkling Blanc de Noir, North Carolina ($20), Frank Family Rouge, California ($45), Biltmore Pas de Deux Moscato ($20).
Prosecco: Mionetto (various styles) ($12-$20), Bisol ($24-$26), Jeio ($15-$18), Adami (Garbel, Bosca di Gica or Col Credos) ($15-$22), White Knight ($15-$17), Bolla ($12-$15).
Spain: Casteller Cava ($10-$12), Freixenet Cava Cordon Negro ($9-$12).
Others: Santo Brut Sparkling from Greece ($20-$22).
Finally, here are some cocktails recipes. I would use less expensive sparkling wine for most cocktails. You don’t need to spend $30 for a Mimosa mixer.
THE CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL
This traces its roots back to 1862. The classic version allows the sparkling wine to shine, which is why choosing a high quality one is important, and features a nice balance of bitter and sweet.
1 sugar cube
Chilled sparkling wine
Drop the sugar cube into a Champagne glass and soak it with two to three dashes of Angostura Bitters. After the sugar has slightly dissolved, fill the glass with wine and top with the lemon twist.
It’s unclear when exactly the Bellini was invented but most think it occurred sometime in the 1930s or ’40s at Harry’s Bar in Venice by Giuseppe Cipriani, who named the drink after his favorite artist.
3 ounces sparkling wine
2 ounces peach puree (peel and slice a peach and purée in blender or mash with fork)
Place the peach purée in the bottom of a Champagne flute and top with the wine. Stir and serve.
1/3 ounce créme de cassis
3 ounces sparkling wine
Pour the créme de cassis into a Champagne flute and fill with sparkling wine.
You can substitute other liquers, such as Chambord for a raspberry flavor, or Cointreau.
Pour equal parts of orange juice and sparkling wine into a Champagne flute.