“Of course,” Anne said, “only you would order that.”
I had just asked the waiter for a glass of sparkling wine. Something simple from California. As an aperitif.
She and Sofia, my other dinner companion, went for the house white. Nothing wrong with their choice—a basic Pinot Grigio. Simple fruit. Bright acids. Easy drinking. Goes with most of the 250 different dishes served at Planet Thailand, a Williamsburg, Brooklyn style Japanese-Thai joint. All well and good.
Which was why I chose a lively, celebratory start.
And, I got that too common reaction: Why that? Isn’t sparkling wine for special events? You know, promotions, weddings, anniversaries? Or, at the very least, only for caviar and strawberries?
First of all, sparkling wines can go with just about everything, including nothing. Sparklers have the stuffing to stand up to rich dishes, the complexity to work with spices and serious sauces, and a with bruts, a balance of sweet and tart that allows them to work solo. Even filet mignon topped with Foie gras finds its match in a rich, sparkling rosé.
Secondly, isn’t being alive, enjoying a dinner with friends enough of a good thing to celebrate? Who needs elaborate circumstance for the fun pomp of bubbles?
Yet, many people don’t even think of having a sparkler to start a meal. Or even to sip on a warm summer afternoon as the sun melts into its dusk show of purples, reds, and yellows. And this because so many people call all sparklers Champagne and Champagne is only for anniversaries, weddings or when your team wins the Championship.
Every day above ground is a good day, and one worthy of celebration. And, with the pitch-perfect balance of good sparklers, they can help with any food or situation, though those cloying Soviet-style bubblies from Georgia and the surrounding areas are specifically excepted as not even acceptable as dessert to this palate.
And anyway, it’s just damned fun to pop open a bottle, and watch the bead of bubbles rise in the glass, feel their tickle across your tongue.
The Whole Problem of Champagne
Plus, there is the whole problem of Champagne. That is if a wine has bubbles, it’s “Champagne.” This is wrong and a perfect example of why traditional names need to stay home, on labels of wine only from the place where they grew up.
Sparklers come from every country that makes wine, and in many different styles from utterly dry, to lusciously sweet. These wines use different grapes, all with different ways of growing, harvesting, and vinifying techniques. Some are raised by hand and use traditional methods of adding more grape juice to a still wine, other carbonate the still wine as if a soda pop. Some are raised for minimum periods in caves, others shipped out immediately. To call the huge variety by the name of one specific, and expensive style does a disservice both to Champagne, the real stuff, from Champagne, France, but also to the rest of the world’s sparkling wines. These wines each brings something unique to the table.
Specifically, Champagne uses only specific grapes (99.7% of the grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Yes, two are red, and yes there are four other approved grapes— white Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris—which make up less than 0.3% of the total plantings). They are grown only in the soil of the Champagne region, in France, which is primarily Kimmeridgian soil. This is very chalky, so is quite alkaline, but is shot through with marl, limestone, and clay, making this dirt special. Unique in fact. Grapes grown in this dirt, with the climate specific to this one place on earth means they will have flavors unlike any other place on earth. This IS what terroir means.
And while there is brilliant sparkling wine produced all over the world, not one drop of it is Champagne. Only traditionally raised Chardonnay, Pinto Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes grown in this specific soil, and then vinified using the Méthode Champenoise is Champagne. Period. It’s a Trade Mark, just as Apple or Lamborgini are Trade Marks, guaranteeing to the person purchasing the bottle that they are getting what they are paying for. Centries of tradition, and wine made with the right grapes, raised in the right place, in the right way and vinified in the right way.
Not some bland grapes raised on a factory farm, picked by machines, and carbonated like pop. That ain’t Champagne, though it is bubbly.
Hence the problem calling all bubbly by the Champagne name—not all of it is of that quality, and none of it will taste the same. Which means low-quality wine slaps the name Champagne on it, and suddenly, the price goes up as do the expectations.
Real Champagne ain’t cheap, so that does tend to be saved for special occasions. I can see not cracking open a $70 bottle for a quick aperitif. I dink less expensive sparkling wines, which are good but are NOT Champagne
Brut and Balance
Most bottles on the shelves of our local bodega are brut, which has up to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar in it, but with enough acid to make one think it’s bone dry.
Balance. It’s vital in every wine, indeed. But with sparklers, it is THE thing. Generally, sparklers are from cool regions that make acidic, tart wine. Too tart, in fact, for many people’s taste. So, producers take a wickedly dry, tart wine, and add a sweet blend of juice, sugar, and yeast (called “liqueur de tirage”) to it, recork it, and a secondary fermentation starts after which the bubbles are born, turning it into a lovely beverage. Then after removing the leftover yeast cells (disgorgement) final topping off called the “dosage,” a mix of wine and sugar, helps determine its ultimate style from Brut Sauvageto Doux. One perfect for the daily celebrations of friends and good food. One can take a still wine and carbonate it like a soda, but that’s not nearly as fun, nor is it “traditional” and certainly not Méthode Champenoise.
Too bad, my friends didn’t join my celebration. It would have added to our fun.
Five wines under $20 †
Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But affordable doesn’t have to mean boring. Bonus—not only are these wines guilt-free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines.
†(Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.)
These five wines represent important growing regions for sparklers—outside of Champagne and its high prices, of course. Each also represents its own tradition and will interact with cuisines differently. Of course, all are under $20, so you can enjoy experimenting to find the best bottle for a close friend.
Prosecco di Conegliano D.O.C.
$10 Retail †
Great value for a solid wine, refreshing, sparkling adult beverage. Light straw, quite pale in the glass, with a quick rising mousse, and medium to small bubbles. The bead lasted throughout the drinking. Very appealing, bright nose, with citrus, particularly lemon. Across the tongue, an initial burst of bright citrus fruit, moving into solid, refreshing acids, and a friendly, delicate prickling. Long, dry finish with citrus fruits going to the end. Really, a lovely wine for this price. Very appealing. Even if over a million bottles are made. Great when relaxing with cheese (Old Amsterdam and Bulgarian Feta), ciabatta, and extra virgin olive oil as the sun sets.
Deutscher Sekt b. A.
David Shiverick Selection
$14.59 retail. †
Surprising wine—a vintage sparkling wine from German Riesling grapes. Really excellent. My guest compared it to Veuve Clicquot.
Medium-straw in color, with a nice mouse and fine bead. Rich nose, with lanolin notes over citrus, hints of pineapple and a touch of litchi. On the palate, starts sweet, but that vanishes almost immediately into fine prickles from the bubbles and firm, salivary gland exciting acids. Hints of tropical fruit play throughout. Long, very dry finish—the bubbles continue prickling throughout powered hard candy notes, like a Sweet-Tart candy. Really interesting, long finish. Superb with tabbouleh and feta cheese, and fresh peaches. Almost better alone. Almost.
Scharffen Berger Cellars
$14.99 retail †
This Veuve Clicquot backed sparkler from the cool Mendocino County of California is two-thirds Pinot Noir, one-third Chardonnay, and made in the classic Méthode Champenoise. The bottle fermentation leaves fine, long-lasting bubbles and bead. Light straw in color.
Comes on as dusty white fruit, which burns off quickly, leaving hints of wildflowers. On the palate, it comes on dusty white fruit, with solid acids, and medium body. A solid wine, presenting good structure, and a long, very dry finish that again returns with hints of field flowers, that turns to granny smith apples on the finish. With time in the glass, the fruit opens up. Simply a solid wine, that handled a crudité perfectly. Pick it for any everyday meal of vegetables and white meat. Excellent on its own, better with food. Makes a killer mimosa.
Fox Creek Vineyards
Vineyard Brands, Importer
A freak of the sparkling wine world, but typically Australian—a light ruby red—not rosé mind you—blend of 54% Shiraz, 32% Cabernet Franc, and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon. Not a full-blown sparkler, more of a Frizzante (about 2/3 of the full pressure). No bead once the mousse has burned off. But the nose makes up for that—all fruit: ripe red and blackberries, with toasted oak elements, and caramelized sugar. Unusual, but pleasing.
And on the palate—an attack of pure berry fruit, with a pleasing petulance, and, oddly for a sparkler: lightly gripping tannins. Solid cedar flavor from barrel age. It’s medium to full-bodied, with a long, very dry finish, laced with those surprising, but well-integrated tannins. The berries continue, in full, to the very end. This wine has BBQ written all over it. Drink this with any grilled meat topped in a sweet sauce. Perfect. Overall, a very appealing wine, especially for those who like the fruit-forward, oaky Australian style.
Marques de Gelida
Tempranillo Brands, Importer
$9.80 retail †
Very pale, almost clear straw with a medium mousse, and a steady bead of small bubbles. The nose is all full of pears and green apples, with hints of doughnut, caramel and apple tart. The palate starts as pure white fruit, which moves quickly into prickly bubbles and acids. It’s medium-bodied yet moves late palate into somewhat lush white fruit and apples, which continue into the finish. Nice long finish with light petulance, touches of white fruit and well-balanced crispness. Simply, a very well-made sparkler from a classic region. Drink with fish, shellfish, or simply prepared pork—a roast with pan sauces, sautéed spinach, and rice pilaf.
New wines Tasted Fresh for Your Perusal
A fair quaff that suggested it could have been much more. Medium garnet, with a touch of brown on the meniscus. Many long legs, all around the glass. The wine has a yummy, braised beef nose, a bit of heat, some earthy tones, black licorice—very appealing. Medium body with a done of dark fruit, followed by acidity and fine tannins late in the long finish w/a dose of smoke. A reasonably enjoyable quaff without being exceptional: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. This would go well with beef or meat-based sauces. This was a gift: not a purchase, but can be found online for $7.99.
An earthy wine not everyone will like: Light goldenrod, sheets in the glass, fairly viscous. Mineral nose with some pear notes. Light attack—with notes of stone and minerals, unctuous with a solid underlining of acid, mellowing into a minerally bitterness. Speaks to the gallets of the Rhone. Unctuous to the end: almost oily: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇫🇷. Not much for sipping, but built for white meats and strong-flavored fish, including bouillabaisse, and other bold stews. This is a white with serious minerality and body. From the Tasting Room wine club. Just over $14.00, including shipping.
Deep dark plumb, nearly opaque, a few slow legs. Somewhat viscous. The nose showed some dark berry, with a whiff of smokey char. The attack and body were not as big or luscious as everything so far had lead me to expect. A mild attack, with some berry fruit and bitterness mid-palate. Fine gripping tannins late and all the way through the finish to the end. Drinks easily, but without being anything special: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. Think everyday red, burgers, spaghetti with red sauce, pepperoni pizza. Nothing you want to think about. This Paso Robles wine blends Malbec, Merlot, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, Carménere, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc into an everyday meal kinda wine, burgers, pasta with meat sauce, Pizza and the like. Received this as a gift in Columbus, Ohio: not a purchase, but runs $16.99 to $19.50.
Shows some garnet with a touch of rest toward the meniscus. A few long legs, mixed with some sheeting. Dark berry and Bing cherry notes on the nose. Hot, with vanilla and warm spice hints. Satisfying. Not much of an attack, which expands quickly into acids. Fruits start after a flash of alcohol (13.5% ABY) and settle down into long pleasing finish where the dark fruit finally shows up, along with fine tannins. Big, boozy wine with a supple finish that makes up for the hot start: 3 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. This would sub for a merlot or Cabernet sauvignon—big joints of red meat, complex, assertive sauces, braises, even BBQ. Forget the pork with this monster. From McGovern’s Wines & Liquors in Bay Ridge Brooklyn: $14.99.
Deep bing cherry in color with distinct browning on the meniscus and a few legs. Spicy wood notes, over deep, dark, brambly berries. A rich fruit attack wit fine tannins and solid acidy balance this wine well. Cedar notes, full-body, with tongue-gripping tannins lead into a long intriguing finish. Crazy long and lingering. A wine to ponder: 4 of 5 🍷🇪🇸. For this older wine, think lamb, or some Jamon, or pork with a complex sauce. Not an acidic one, think cream and mushroom. Game birds would do well. Don’t get this near shellfish. Ick. Forgotten Manhattan wine stop for ~ $17.00.
Intriguing if a bit off-beat Pinot Noir—medium garnet—Rusty toward the clear meniscus. A good number of very slow legs. Moderate viscosity. The nose is a bit spicy, slightly hot, with dried dark fruit and a touch of earthiness. Medium-bodied, it comes on zippy, with grippy tannins. It turns somewhat mouth coating, moving into dark berries. It’s long dry finish shows some very fine tannins and a bit of that fruit which lingers into a slightly bitter though quote long finish. From the Tasting Room wine club. Just over $14.00 including shipping: 3 of 5🍷🇺🇸Not a sipper, this one. It needs food, charcuterie, pork, cream sauces.
From the Tasting Room wine club. Just over $14.00, including shipping.
Slow starting, but ultimately satisfying red. Medium garnet/plum in the glass with long legs all around the glass. The attractive nose show off sour cherry with a touch of earthy. The attack is all acid, very zippy, light-bodied, with some fruity notes over fine tannins—almost like sweet-tarts; long finish of fine-grain tannins, acidity, and light fruit notes. It ends up as a pleasing cherry-currant sweet-tart: 3 of 5 🍷🇮🇹. From the Tasting Room wine club. Just over $14.00, including shipping. This pairs with what it grew up with—classic Italian dishes such as tomato-based pastas, pizza, and spicy Italian sausage and pepperoni. Great with many of the Italian -American versions of these as well.
Sharp wine, especially with food. Clear goldenrod, with some viscosity, very slow, fat legs. Crisp nose, moving to warm, with creme brulee, and tasty white fruit. Honey and caramel on the attack, with firm acidity and even a hint of bitter. Mouth coating, caramel apple. Super long finish—but in balance. Finishes dry, best with something to eat: 4 of 5 🍷🇫🇷. Think Pasta, poultry, lean fish, vegetarian. It can work as an aperitif, but the food will enhance it. From the Tasting Room wine club. Just over $14.00, including shipping.
A Protean wine—didn’t like it at first, but pulled me in as the glass grew empty. Very pale goldenrod, many, big, fat legs all around the glass. The nose is caramel, quite rich, with a shart undertone of allspice and mulberry cream. Comes on big, rich, but has a decided bitterness, firm acidity under the cream caramel. Long caramel finish with those bitter notes. Then, very late, some salted caramel notes and lemon custard, with a touch of the peel. Time smooths down the rough edges: starts at 2.5 but finishes with 3.5 of 5 🍷. Think ripened cheese, cream sauces, and rich fish (salmon, tuna, and the like), though Pork and Poultry would work quite well, or tomato-based bean dishes. From McGovern’s Wines & Liquors in Bay Ridge Brooklyn: $10.99.