Tips to help you celebrate with sparkling wine
The holidays are for celebration. With joy in our hearts and our smiles, we raise our glasses to toast friendships old and new, the accomplishments of the year now ending, and the possibilities that lie ahead. Our glasses most likely contain liquid joy, a wine that sparkles with promise, its bubbles lifting our spirits as they climb steadily, inexorably from the bottom of the glass. Nothing can keep them down. As the famous Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon exclaimed while enjoying his own champagne, "I'm drinking stars!"
Here are five things to know about sparkling wine as you prepare to toast your loved ones.
1. It ain't champagne unless it comes from Champagne.
Those of us of a certain age tend to call any bubbly champagne, the way we used to call any cola Coke or any copier a Xerox machine. But true champagne comes from the Champagne region of northern France, where producers have been zealous about protecting their brand.
What makes champagne the world's top sparkling wine? Marketing is the cynical answer. We've all seen those Belle Epoque-era posters showing champagne as the luxurious drink of the upper class.
Winemaking is important, too. In the champagne method, now more commonly called the traditional method (because "champagne method" allows other regions to link their wines with champagne), the bubbles are formed during a second fermentation in the bottle.
Other sparkling wines are made in the Charmat, or bulk, method. Essentially, they are carbonated under pressure with carbon dioxide in large tanks. This is obviously cheaper. Prosecco is made this way, and can be quite good.
2. Vintage isn't (always) important.
Many sparkling wines do not carry a vintage date on the label. They are "nonvintage" wines, or as some producers prefer, "multi-vintage," blending wines from several harvests.
The multi-vintage blending practice developed as a hedge against Champagne's uncertain northern climate, but also because producers wanted to develop a consistent house style. By blending reserve wines from older vintages with the new harvest, they could guard against the excessive ripeness of a hot year or the more anemic wines of a rainy vintage. Some producers use a solera system, similar to what's used in making sherry or aged tawny Port. A solera is a blend of several vintages; each year, a portion is used to add complexity and an aged character to the new blend, while some fresh wine is added. It's rather like a sourdough levain for bread.
Vintage-dated sparkling wines are from better years, or more consistent climates. Vintage champagnes are aged longer to give the complexity that reserve wines add to a multi-vintage blend. They are priced accordingly.
3. Wine is the noun, sparkling is the modifier.
We tend to value sparkling wines for their bubbles and the celebrations they mark. But bubbly is -- first and foremost -- wine. This is especially true of the finest champagnes, which show as much depth, complexity and aging ability as the great Bordeaux and Burgundies.
If you get hooked on champagne, you can spend some glorious days divining the terroir nuances of the Cotes des Blancs, where the vibrant fruit of chardonnay reigns supreme, or the more minerally wines of the Montagnes de Reims, based on pinot noir and pinot meunier. Or the wines of the Marne Valley, where the sandier soils have their own softer expression. If you want to explore the region, start with Peter Liem's masterful work, "Champagne" (complete with topographical maps). And then check your bank account -- this will be expensive research.
4. Because it's not just about the bubbles, it's not just about toasting.
"Bubbles go with everything" is my mantra. (Well, one of them.) Sparkling wine is extremely food-friendly, because the bubbles and acidity refresh your palate. A rich champagne can accompany a fancy meal, while a lighter Spanish cava pairs well with tapas and appetizers.
Bubbles also have an affinity for fat, salt and crunch. Fried chicken, french fries and even popcorn. If you want to be truly decadent, in a wine geek way, try champagne with a Popeye's chicken sandwich.
5. Don't drink it in a coupe.
Does anyone have coupes today? These are the wide, shallow glasses in those Belle Epoque posters. Tall, narrow glasses called flutes are more common now. Flutes channel the bubbles directly to the top. They're great for toasting, but if you want to enjoy your sparkling wine as wine (see above, Nos. 3 and 4), use a tulip-shaped glass.
With these points in mind, I hope you have a wonderful, bubbly holiday season.