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posted: 12/27/2011 6:00 AM

Champagne for holiday toasting and everyday enjoyment

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I love Champagne.

I recommend drinking it regularly for health and well-being. But Champagne has become one of the things that keeps me in the wine business; with an employee discount, I can afford the stuff.

So, I write with mixed emotion that Champagne has new competition. You folks who pay full retail -- and even us insiders -- have asked for affordable bubbly and we've been answered. Italy, Oz, Spain and the U.S. have stepped up their sparkling game with beautifully-crafted, yummy sparkling wines you don't have to transfer funds to purchase.

There's Italy's fabulous fizz, Prosecco, with soft bubbles and delicate fruit flavors ranging from Granny Smith apple to juicy-ripe peach. Nino Franco "Rustico" ($18) introduced the U.S. to Prosecco, continuously offering beautiful balance, creamy texture and a dry-ish, refreshing palate. Sorelle Bronca Extra Dry ($18) is plump, with come-hither sweetness. While shelves are packed with Prosecco -- with drinkable examples beginning at $9 -- steer toward bottles with the Conegliano or Valdobbiadene designations. Serve generously with international antipasti -- including salmone affumicato (smoked salmon), egg rolls and hot wings -- or in a Bellini, Italy's peachy answer to the brunch-time Mimosa.

For drier flavors with mineral accents, check out Spain's Cava. For straightforward and crystal clean flavors, there's no better value than Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($10), to serve with tapas, noshes and for gatherings from one to 100. Both Jaume Serra "Cristalino" ($10) and Freixenet Cordon Negro, (in its distinctive black bottle, $12) are well made and widely available. Vilarnau Rose ($19) is texturous, with wild strawberry and candied cherry sweetness and dry finish, to complement barbecue and exotic spices.

It took decades and countless glasses to convince this Champagne lover that domestic bubbly could match France's elegance and power. I saw the light in a glass of Roederer Estate l'Ermitage ($45) that combines California's ripe pear and green apple fruit with brioche and mineral accents and a complex finish. Many glasses onward, I discovered the powerful and structured Schamsberg's "J. Schram" ($100) Never tiring, (someone's gotta do it), I tasted Gloria Ferrer Brut Rose ($42), unfolding with time in its glass to reveal alluring complexity of wild strawberry and brown spice in a chewy, dry mouthful. Each of these is rich and balanced enough for charcuterie, the richest seafood and lighter, fine red meats. Each producer also offers excellent entry-level labels for about $20 less on the shelf.

Finally, there is the phenom that is Gruet, New Mexico's own, with styles including Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Rose, and -- my personal favorite -- Blanc de Noirs ($14) with creamy texture, complex flavors of tree fruits and brown spice and focused finish.

And if you do spring for Champagne as 2011 comes to a close, you may use my favorite quote: "Here's to Champagne, the drink Divine, that helps us forget all our troubles. It's made from a dollar's worth of wine and three-dollar's worth of bubbles."

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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