Beyond Champagne: A New Year's Guide to Other Bubbly
Writing about bubbly around this time of year is such a cliché, isn't it? It's true that sparkling wine sales spike around the holidays, as people prepare to toast the incoming year—and, perhaps, bid a festive good-riddance to the outgoing one. But, before we dance on 2010's grave, it's time to talk fizzy wine.
Instead of simply suggesting what to fill your flute with New Year's Eve, I'd like to take this time to offer a different outlook on bubbles. Sure, they're great for toasting major events, like the end of a year filled with Tea Partiers and spilled oil. But they're also great for sipping—with snacks or without—year-round. So, with this requisite roundup of sparklers comes a resolution to pop a cork not only on the 31st, but maybe again on some random Tuesday in January or movie night in March. After all, what else can you pair with popcorn?
Not to be outdone by Europe, America has created its own breed of effervescent wine (and been duly wrapped on the knuckles for daring to call it champagne).
Champagne is still the most recognizable of the sparkling wines. But, if bubbly is going to become your new go-to aperitif, you'll want to look further than northern France to keep yourself quenched. For an everyday, food-friendly fizzy wine, it's best to err on the dry side. Because bubbles, like spicy food, zap the taste buds (the effect is what we perceive as cleansing the palate), most sparklers are dosed with sugar, which is referred to as dosage. Dry (brut) wines have less dosage; Brut Nature has no dosage at all. And not to make you self-conscious during this caloric time of year, but lower dosage can mean less sugar, which may or may not address one of your other resolutions.
Thanks to large producers like Freixenet and Codorníu, the Spanish sparkling wine known as cava has become a household name. Made with the méthode champenoise, or "Champagne method," it uses the indigenous Spanish grapes Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Parellada, although bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot noir can now be found. Segura Viudas, which is owned by Freixenet but marketed separately, makes a crisp Brut Reserva that can be found for less than $10 and certainly won't do your bowl of popcorn a disservice. Parés Baltà, a much smaller producer that farms its grapes organically, offers a great value Brut Cava for around $15. Break this one out, with its notes of zingy fruit and minerality, for next Friday's toast or, as Ross Bingham of The Natural Wine Company in Brooklyn suggests, with fish tacos.
Of course, France is where sparkling wine was born. And, while Champagne was the originator, it certainly doesn't have the monopoly on bubbles. Just about every winemaking region in the country has a sparkler, often referred to as crémant. The Loire's fine bubbles are aptly called fines bulles and are largely made of Chenin Blanc, which results in a rich, aromatic spumante. Domaine Roches Neuves's Bulles de Roche Saumur Brut also includes a small percentage of Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc for added acidity and structure. It retails for little more than $20.
If you weren't aware that Riesling could fizz, were you ever out of the loop. Crémant d'Alsace can be stony and bracingly crisp at once. The organic Albert Mann is a 50-50 blend of Pinot Blanc and Riesling that retails for about $22. It's zesty and fruity, rich yet refreshing, whether on its own or with samosas (pairing Alsatian wines with Southeast Asian food has become so widespread that it too by now has become a cliché). A friend in the wine business once told me she liked to serve the Albert Mann to fool her friends, who might mistake it for Champagne.
Not to be outdone by Europe, America has created its own breed of effervescent wine (and been duly wrapped on the knuckles for daring to call it champagne, as though the word were a mere generic synonym for sparkling and not a French winemaking region to be revered). Taittinger's American outpost, Domaine Carneros, in Napa, has vintage bottlings made from organic grapes. The 2006 Brut, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that retails for around $20, is yeasty and toasty if a little fat (let's call it jolly). Domaine Ste. Michelle from Washington State is another winery specializing in sparkling wine. Its Brut is bready and lightly honeyed, and can be found for under $10.
I like a bubbly like this one, redolent of par-baked dough, with a simple snack of apple and cheese slices or potato chips (a.k.a. the Marilyn Monroe pairing). But it's also a pretty good match for a cup of kindness and a midnight kiss.