Holiday Bubbles? Let Purpose, not Price or Pedigree, be Your Guide
The old saying is that it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. For my part, the bubbles I want at the end of the day on the crush pad are in a glass of sparkling wine, not beer. Add the holiday season to already festive post-harvest celebrations and it’s no surprise that a lot of sparkling gets consumed in wine country between October and January.
But how to select which bubbles to serve when? Do you go on price? Familiar chateau or famous pedigree? Do you pick up a case of whatever’s on sale this week and hope it’s good? Rather than employ any of the above strategies I always think first about how I’m going to be using the wine.
We’re going to be drinking it, obviously, but will I be pouring a float of brandy on top of the flutes for a Champagne cocktail? Will I be serving it on its own with blinis, caviar and lemon or was I hoping to find a sparkler to pair with a creamy seafood dish? These very different situations can and should be served by very different wines. Below are three examples (all available at BevMo stores this holiday season) of how grape type, fermentation process and length of aging can really change how a wine behaves in the glass and with food. By first analyzing how you need the sparkling wine* or Champagne to perform, you’ll be able to select the appropriate wine for the job.
The wine: This is a relatively unknown “Cremant de Bourgogne” which means sparkling wine from Burgundy. The wines from Champagne get all the thunder but there are many wonderful sparklers made in just about every region in France. This wine is really charming and shows zesty aromas of pear skin, honey, citrus peel and a lively mousse on the palate. It clocks in at 1.1 g/L sugar so carries enough for roundness though doesn’t finish overly sweet. The Ugni Blanc and Chardonnay blend plus 9 months aging in the bottle (methode traditionelle**) give it more complexity than most cavas or domestic sparklers in this price range.
Use it for: Don’t hesitate to use this as your go-to “cocktail wine” this holiday season. Keep a case on hand (one bottle always chilling in the fridge, obviously) to offer to visitors and to reward yourself with a weeknight glass. Use this as a base for all your “bubbly +” needs like sparkling wine cocktails, mimosas and other recipes. However, it’s not “big” enough to stand up to rich appetizers or creamy, savory main dishes. Though I usually don’t serve sparkling wines with dessert (I don’t like syrupy bubblies), this wine, with its balance of sub-threshold sugar and acidity, could be a nice refresher for light-hearted treats like a passed holiday cookie plate. Additionally, its zesty citrus notes would do really well with fresh, vibrant flavors like chiles, cilantro, lime. Chips and salsa, anyone?
Other great choices: Michelle Sparkling Brut, USA $11.99
The Wine: Another “methode traditionelle” non-Champagne discovery, the “Toques et Clochers” Cremant de Limoux is a real treat and a great value. Aromas of honeysuckle blossom and lemon sugar cookie lead the way backed up by lovely notes of fresh-baked baguette. Flavors of lemon curd and citrus peel are balanced perfectly with yeasty, creamy flavors. The 24 months that this wine aged in the bottle makes for a fatter mouthfeel, a longer finish and a bigger mouthful of wine. If you are looking for a sparkling wine that tastes more like a traditional Champagne and not a fruity cava or Prosecco, this is a great choice.
Use it for: This wine’s balance of citrus fruit and fresh-baked brioche character make it quite a chameleon. It can stand up to cheese, olives and charcuterie but would also do well with the above-mentioned caviar on blinis garnished with lemon or cracked dungeness crab with garlic and citrus. It would make a fine standard “Champagne Cocktail” with Cognac and Angostura bitters but I wouldn’t use it where more vibrant, fruity flavors were needed as in a “Champagne sorbet” recipe (I would use the Ambal, above). This is the perfect pick-me-up to leave chilling in an ice bucket for Santa, by the way.
Other great choices: Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley USA $23.99
The Wine: A true Champagne made from 35% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Meunier. Flinty, stony aromas of wet concrete, ripe pear, muted ozone and fresh wild mushrooms open up this higher acid, lower sugar wine that is begging to be served with food. The three years aged in the bottle create a rich mouthfeel with flavors of toasted brioche, fresh butter and apple peel. The finish is long and savory.
Use it for: This wine has enough acid, complexity and weight in the mouth to be able to go with poultry and fish dishes, like scallops finished with tarragon and a light cream sauce. It could be served on its own to open a party but I would be sure to offer cheese gougeres, wild mushrooms on toasted baguette rounds or something similarly rich to offer a counterpoint to the body as well as the acidity of this savory wine.
Other great choices: Domaine Carneros Late Disgorged 2008 Brut Cuvee, USA $48.00
As you can see, neither price point or pedigree alone can dictate how and when a sparkling wine can best be enjoyed. Just because it’s not from Champagne doesn’t mean it can’t be impressive and it’s much more important to pay attention to style and your intended purpose rather than price point alone. Sparkling wines and Champagnes are some of my favorite beverages because they are naturally celebratory and literally have a life of their own. From cavas to Champagnes to California sparkling wines and French cremants, the world of sparkling wine is complex, delicious and just begging to be discovered.
*Only sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region can be called “Champagne”. I use the generic term “sparkling wine” as a catchall for bubbly vino that comes from other places.
** “Methode traditionelle” is the traditional manner in which Champagne and many other sparkling wines are produced, the key part of which is aging the wine in the bottle. EU rules stipulate that areas outside of Champagne must use the words “methode traditionelle” to describe the process rather than the “methode Champenoise” used to describe Champagne, even though they are essentially the same protocol. Length of aging in the bottle may differ
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Started in 2013, www.girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and loves to drink sparkling wine.
The above featured French sparkling wines were among a selection tasted on 11/20/14 at a “Wines of France” tasting hosted by BevMo! and are currently available at their stores. Many of the domestic wines also mentioned can be found at BevMo as well as at other retailers nationwide and directly from the wineries.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014