Friday, December 16, 2011

10 Must-Have Sparklers for the Holidays

Every year folks ask for recommendations on great wines suitable for gift-giving or an extra-special occasion.  For me, few things are as elegant and celebratory as sparkling wine.

That said, it’s important to remember that all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.  

True Champagne blends three grapes: Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir (red), and Pinot Meunier (red), all from the Champagne region of northern France (about a 11/2-hour drive northeast of Paris).  

However, sparkling wine is made all over the world—from the United States to Italy to Spain (and practically everywhere in between).  As a general rule, Méthode Champenoise (“the Champagne method”) is the phrase you’re looking for on the sparkling wine’s label.  This tells you, among other things, the wine has undergone a second fermentation in the bottle, producing millions of tiny bubbles.

Spain’s easy drinking Cava (KAH-vuh) is made in the Champagne method and may just be one of the best values around—it can often be found for less than $12.  The most notable Italian sparkler, Prosecco (Pro-SECK-oh), is a fun-loving wine with loads of fruitiness, a touch of sweetness, and soft bubbles.

Pop The Top:
Sparkling wine should be well chilled—30 minutes in ice water or 3 hours in the refrigerator should do the trick—and served in slender, flute-shaped glasses.  

Before you can pour it, though, you have to get the bottle open.  Despite what you see in the movies, the proper way to open sparkling wine does not involve firing the cork across the room with a loud pop.  Rather, in a controlled fashion, let the pressure of the bottle gently release the cork with an ever-so-slight hiss. 

Here's how: 
1. Loosen, but don’t remove the cage, keeping your thumb over the top at all times.  This’ll help you grip the cork for more control.
2. Hold the bottle at a 45˚ angle.  With your thumb over the cork, slowly twist the bottle in one direction while holding the cork firmly.
3. Allow the pressure inside the bottle to gently push out the cork.

Jones Is Hungry Picks:
The market is loaded with terrific sparkling wines from all over the world—here are a few of my favorites:

Using the traditional Champagne method, but a blend of Spanish grapes, creates a rich, mid-weight wine with plenty of complexity.  Two years of bottle aging adds a layer of richness to this creamy sparkler without the added price at checkout.

Blanc de Noirs
Blanc de Noirs (“white from blacks”) is made from the clear juice of red grapes (typically all Pinot Noir). While there’s no pink tint to the wine, it’s fruitier and more full bodied than regular Brut.  Like the still wines under their Chateau label, Domaine Ste. Michelle knows how to deliver quality and value.

Moscato d'Asti
The traditional Christmas wine in the Piedmont region of Italy, Moscato d’Asti is more like a sparkler-lite (with less bubbles than it’s peppier cousin spumante). However, the fresh, fizzy (frizzante), lightly sweet qualities of this frothy, low-alcohol wine make it one of the most festive sippers around.

Made using the Charmat method where wine quickly undergoes a second fermentation in large tanks, rather than the slower, in-bottle Champagne method.  This speedy step creates a refreshing, easy-drinking sparkler that’s loaded with ripe fruit flavors. No brunch-time Bellini is complete without it.

Non-vintage (NV) Brut is by far the most popular, food-friendly style of sparkling wine. With ripe apple and citrus flavors, this California offshoot of French Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck has a touch of elegance usually reserved for pricier offerings.

When French sparkling wine is made outside of Champagne, it’s called Crémant.  But we’re talking the same classic production method, the same high quality grapes, and often at a fraction of the price.  This crisp, all-Chardonnay sparkler from Burgundy delivers real bang for the buck.

“Grower Champagne”
This is the hot, new category in the world of Champagne, epitomizing the notion of keeping it local.  Often referred to as “farmer fizz” by those in the know, these top-notch wines are handcrafted by small, family-owned wineries—and Aubry is one of the best.  You pay a few bucks more, but the craftsmanship is unmistakable.

Blanc de Blancs
Blanc de Blancs (“white from whites”) is 100% Chardonnay and the lightest style made in the classic Champagne method.  With green apple and melon flavors, Schramsberg is a few bucks more than non-vintage Brut (which blends in Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), but it’s a well-crafted wine and solid value if you’re looking for something a bit more refined.

Don’t confuse this rich, full-bodied sparkler with a sweet blush wine, because they’re light years apart. With regal Moët & Chandon parentage (of Dom Perignon fame), étoile uses a small amount of Pinot Noir for its rosy hue.  You pay for the limited production and extra bottle aging (in this case, five years). But it’s worth the splurge.

True vintage Champagne is rare, which is always reflected in the price, but it doesn’t always translate to superior quality over its non-vintage brethren. Gaston-Chiquet is a tasty exception delivering both a delicious wine and a great value.


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  1. Fantastic post. I have read many articles but such type of innovative information found no where. This is fabulous

  2. Wow, Scott -- this is awesome! Thank you. I will definitely impress my friends tonight! :-)