"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 dollars worth of bubbles!"
When Champagne was new in the late 1700s, it was expensive, rare and even a little dangerous -- with a probability of insubstantial bottles exploding at the cost of life and limb -- a combined appeal that catapulted it into the position of the world's most celebrated wine.
Ross' choiceBrut RosÚ
North Coast, Calif.
Ÿ Suggested retail and availability: About $40 wherever fine wine is sold (distributed by Tenzing, A Wine and Spirits Company, Chicago)
Founded in 1862 by German Jacob Schram, Schramsberg's pedigree of sparkling wine made in the hand-craft tradition of Champagne has been nurtured by generations of the Davies family since 1965. The Brut RosÚ is a mealtime bubbly, a mouthful of red fruits influenced by flavorful Pinot Noir grown in Carneros and coastal regions, with exotic spice accents added by a 30 percent blend of Chardonnay. Along with judicious barrel fermentation, there's stature enough for the most flavorful dishes, including country pate, grilled seafood, veggies and poultry, even red meats. When the ball drops at midnight, kiss French, but drink American.
Today, Champagne isn't new or hard to find. The greatest danger is over consumption and a deadly morning-after. It is still expensive, due as much to marketing as production technique.
Above all, however, Champagne is still uniquely Champagne. I recommend drinking it often for health and well-being, from producers including Charles Heidsieck, Duval Leroy, Piper-Heidsieck, Pol Roger and Taittinger.
But if steely austerity at a $30-plus price tag isn't your thing, the wine world now offers sparkling wines to fit every palate and pocketbook. Here's a look at other styles and some holiday (or everyday) toasts to match.
A votre santÚ! (To your health!)
Produced east of Champagne in France's Alsace region, Cremant d'Alsace is characterized by caressing texture and dry-ish, apply flavors with accents including ginger, white pepper and yeast. Cremant d'Alsace Rose is firmer with strawberry flavors and pink peppercorn accents. Serve with savory dishes, including Alsace specialties choucroute (sausage and sauerkraut casserole that tastes better than it sounds), truite fumee (smoked trout) and flammekueche (Alsace's version of pizza). Favorites include Pierre Sparr and Charles Baur (both $20).
Zum wohl! (To your health!)
German Sekt challenges Champagne's traditional position in complexity, elegance and -- sadly -- scarcity. Look for the designation Sekt b.A. (bestimmter Anbaugebiete) which signals top-quality regions and approved grapes, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Riesling.
Von Buhl Sekt is statuesque, with flavors of fresh pear and raw almond, a plump texture followed by a firm smack of acidity. With the delicate sweetness of "sweet" seafood, von Buhl Sekt ($22) is perfect for crab, lobster and sushi. Around here, it will be hard to find; once tasted, it is harder to forget.
Tchin-tchin! (Meant to imitate clinking glasses.)
Twenty years ago, a sip of Prosecco required travel to northeast Italy, where the wine was produced and unceremoniously served in carafes at local trattorias and tavernas. Today, with annual imports nearing 2 million cases, you can enjoy Italy's fabulous fizz with just a trip to your local grocery.
Prosecco wins fans for creamy texture, not-bone-dry flavors compared to apple, peach and lemon curd and a price tag in the less than $10 to about $20 range. For top-quality, choose Prosecco from the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene zones. Absolutely eschew non-Italian imitations. My favorite remains the pioneer to America, Nino Franco "Rustico," richer and steelier than most at just $12.
Serve Prosecco on its own, with light appetizers or as a base for cocktails including the Bellini.
'Here's looking at you, kid!'
Americans enjoyed nearly 100 million glasses of bubbly last year, about half of that during the winter holiday season. While sales of imports top domestic sparklers, the U.S. offers quality bubblies in many styles and prices.
Michelle (Columbia Valley, Wash.) is Domaine Ste. Michelle's new name with prettified package. It's everything I want from an easy-drinking sparkler: juicy, crisp and simply refreshing at $15.
Roederer Estate (Anderson Valley, Calif., $23) combines the best of California fruit -- with juicy green apple and lemon curd flavor -- and French technique, defining plump mouth feel with yeasty richness and sleek acidity. On occasion, I prefer it over Champagne.
Schramsberg Brut RosÚ(North Coast, Calif) is a mealtime bubbly. The top of Schramsberg's line coming in at $140 is "J. Schram" -- with more power and drive, but also requiring more concentration. For dreamier enjoyment and at a more reasonable $40, I prefer this Pinot Noir-based RosÚ, full of red fruits and exotic spices, with stature enough for country pate, grilled seafood, veggies and poultry, even red meats.
And in the words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other!"