A guide to festive, swoon-inducing sparkling wine
I’m often asked to name my favorite wine. The answer: sparkling. I love seductive sparkling wine so much I inked a tattoo of Rosé Champagne on the back of my leg.
And I’m not the only avid admirer. Lily Bollinger of the famed Bollinger Champagne house once remarked, “I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it unless I’m thirsty.” A Thirsty Girl after my heart.
What is it about bubbly that makes us swoon? Is it the crack of the cork? Or the sight of sparkle making its way to the top of the glass? Or the feel of the bubbles dancing on our tongue? It’s all of the above, and more.
With the holidays in full gear, there’s nothing more festive to drink and share than bubbly. Our guide:
The first thing to remember is that not all wine with bubbles is Champagne. Unless the bottle is made in the Champagne region of northeastern France, it’s called sparkling wine. Grapes planted in cool-climate Champagne include white Chardonnay along with two purple-hued varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These noble varieties give Champagne and other world-class sparkling wines their unique elegance.
Recently, I watched Benoit Gouez, chief winemaker of the iconic Moët & Chandon Champagne house, as he showcased the blend of more than 100 different wines that go into their famed “Imperial” cuvée. With rows of wine glasses set in front of me, I sniffed, swirled and spat (OK … sipped) and saw up close how much effort goes into making Champagne.
Though it may seem like magic, the process of making sparkling wine is fairly straightforward. Still wine is made by crushing grapes, then adding yeast to eat the sugar and produce alcohol. Making sparkling wine is another few steps. First, the base wines (still wines that are very tart) are blended together in a base blend, or cuvée. Then, a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to the cuvée and put in tightly sealed bottles. As the yeast eats this bit of sugar during the secondary fermentation, it produces carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the bottle. Voilà — the sparkle is born.
There are many different types of sparkling wine, including those from the United States and other countries. When made with top-grape varieties, they can rival the quality of Champagne. There are also the popular and easy-sipping Italian fizz Prosecco (made with the Glera grape variety), the affordable-yet-complex Cava from Spain and other options.
When it comes to buying bubbly, the label will give you many clues to the style and ultimate taste. For example, most sparkling wine is a blend of grapes from various years, as it keeps the style constant. When there is an excellent harvest, a “vintage” Champagne or sparkling wine is made. These tend to be more expensive than the multi-vintage blends.
Blanc de Blancs: Generally from Chardonnay. Tastes fresh and crisp, like biting into a crunchy apple. Try them with oysters or salted nuts.
Blanc de Noirs: From Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, they range in color from pale yellow to light pink, are more full-bodied and are an excellent choice to serve throughout a meal.
Rosé: These dry-styled pink sparklers are usually made by adding a dash of red wine to the base blend, but can be crafted like traditional still rosé, where the pink hue comes from contact with red grape skins. Goes with everything from popcorn laced with truffle oil to salmon and sushi.
Brut: A dry wine. Most bottles will be labeled Brut. They can taste fruity but are not considered to have any noticeable sweetness.
Extra-Brut: Often called Natural or Nature, these are the driest of sparklers with an often mouth-puckering freshness.
Extra-Dry: Contrary to the name, when you see this on a label, the wine actually tastes slightly sweet. For those who like a rounder, fruity style, it’s an ideal option.
Demi-Sec: It literally means half-dry; these wines tend to fall on the sweeter side. A bubbly to drink with dessert.
Gifts and party pours
Splurge: $50 and up
Moët & Chandon “Imperial” Brut, Champagne, France, $50 — From the winery that produces the lauded prestige Champagne Dom Pérignon, its classic (and more affordable) Imperial bottling combines elegance and creaminess in one package.
Pol Roger “Pure” Champagne, France, $65 — A newer wine from a historic producer that captures the snap of freshness and dryness that an Extra-Brut wine can deliver. With oysters, it’s magnificent.
Laurent-Perrier Rosé, Champagne, France, $75 — This is a personal favorite and ranks as the best-selling rosé Champagne in the world. The vintage Pinot Noir sparkler is packaged in an alluring 17th century-shaped bottle.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, Champagne, France, $80 — This delicately styled pink whispers class. You’ll want to drink the whole bottle yourself.
Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut, Champagne, France, $150 — One of the icon vintage wines of Champagne, this lush sipper pays homage to a great lady of bubbles (see story on sidebar “The brilliant widow”).
Savor: $20 – $45
Gloria Ferrer “Blanc de Noirs” Sonoma County, California, $20 — With a hint of pink color due to being crafted from Pinot Noir grapes, this aromatic, succulent sparkler is one of the best values in the bubbly world.
Jansz Rosé, Tasmania, Australia, $22 — It’s hard to find true rosé fizz for this price, but I discovered it in the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. Hailing from the island of Tasmania, this wine (made by a woman) is a hidden treasure.
Lucien Albrecht Brut, Crémant d’Alsace, France, $24 — Crémant (creamy) wines are made with the same method as Champagne. But because of slightly less gas pressure, they are less fizzy. Always a great deal, try Crémant-style wines from other areas of France, such as Crémant de Bourgogne.
Le Grande Courtage “Blanc de Blancs” Brut, France, $25 — Made with a blend of white grapes led by Chardonnay, this non-Champagne French sparkler is one of the prettiest packages I’ve seen. A great gift.
Iron Horse “Russian Cuvée” Green Valley, Sonoma County, California, $38 — California is home to world-class sparkling wine, and ranking at the top is Iron Horse. This vintage wine sports rich fruitiness, making it ideal to sip alone or with food.
Steal: $10 – $20
Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, Cava, Spain, $10 — There isn’t a better price-to-quality ratio than this Cava. Crafted from native Spanish grapes Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, it’s dry, fresh, delicate and juicy. Stock up and get ready for the holidays.
Korbel “Sec” Sparkling, Sonoma County, California, $13 — The Sec (a sweeter style) was the first wine ever made by the original Korbel brothers. Sweet is back, and this popular style is ideal for après-dinner drinking.
Domaine Ste. Michelle “Extra Dry” Columbia Valley, Washington, $15 — If you’re looking for a wine to serve with spicy appetizers or even with desserts such as Christmas cookies, look no further than this fruity, slightly sweet bubbly.
La Marca Prosecco, Italy, $16 — This chic wine with its designer label looks expensive but is easy on your wallet … and your palate. Juicy and refreshing, it’s an impress-for-less holiday gift idea.
Mumm Napa “Brut Prestige” Napa Valley, California, $20 — A class act, this lush yet crisp blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes is worth twice the price.