Quick Sips — 02 December 2012
The pop art of champagne



Champagne and sparkling wines usually make an appearance on special occasions like weddings. But the busiest time for bubbly is during the holidays — and especially New Year’s Eve. But before you run out and buy any liquid sparklers for this holiday season, consider these helpful guidelines:

While some non-French sparkling winemakers label their wines “champagne,” the real thing is produced only in the Champagne region in France. Located about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Paris, the closely regulated Champagne district is home to the greatest bubblies in the world, bearing familiar names like Möet et Chandon, Tattinger, Bollinger and Krug.

Winemakers in the United States call their bubbly “Sparkling Wine.” In Spain the correct nomenclature is “Cava” and in Italy it’s “Prosecco.” Do you have to buy champagne from France to get something good? No. California sparkling wines produced by Schramsberg, Gloria Ferrer and Chandon are quite nice and offer good value for the price, as do the Spanish sparklers from Freixenet.

The driest champagne is labeled “Brut.” “Extra Dry” on the label indicates that the wine in the bottle is somewhat sweeter; those called “Sec” are even sweeter, and the sweetest dessert champagnes are labeled “Demi-sec.” (I know it makes no linguistic sense, but that’s the way it is.)

Champagne also comes in three categories: non-vintage, vintage and “prestige.” I personally prefer non-vintage; they’re made from a blend of several grape harvests so the taste is consistent year after year. Once you decide which vintner makes the style you like, you can be assured you’ll like the wine whenever you pop the cork. Another plus: non-vintage bubblies are less expensive that vintage and much less expensive than prestige.

And don’t forget about rosé wines with bubbles. They’re my personal favorites to pair with a medium-rare hamburger or to enjoy as an aperitif wine. As for “white” champagnes, you don’t have to serve caviar (it’s actually better served with ice cold vodka). Salted nuts and popcorn are perfect complements to sparkling wines.

If you’re not sure which brand of sparkler you prefer, you can use these guidelines for starters: if you prefer your champagne light and delicate, you’ll like the wines from Lanson, Laurent-Perrier and G.H. Mumm. Champagnes that deliver richer flavors include Möet et Chandon, Taittinger, Pommery, Pol Roger and Piper-Heidsieck. The richest, most full-bodied champagnes are produced by Bollinger, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer.

Two more pieces of advice: (1) Few champagnes are meant to be cellar-aged and (2) sipping champagne from a fluted, tulip-shaped glass brings out the best of its flavor and allows the bubbles to rise to the top continuously. In the absence of fluted glasses, a regular wine glass will suffice. Avoid the shallow serving glasses that show up in old movies — and some contemporary wedding receptions; those glasses are best for serving sorbet, not champagne.

One final request: Have a very Happy New Year! And in 2013, try having champagne or Sparkling Wine more often. You don’t have to wait for a holiday. A nice glass of bubbly can turn an ordinary Tuesday night at home into something special.


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