By Jill Erber
I’d like to propose a toast… Wait a minute. It’s time to rethink how and when we select, drink, share and pair sparkling wines.
Everyone knows sparkling wines are one of the great treasures of the wine world, but this style has become almost too precious. Typically reserved for holidays and other special occasions, sometimes hosts will offer a quarter-glass just for a ceremonial toast. When else would you offer guests a quarter glass of anything?
Henceforth, let us agree that sparkling wine should not be used sparingly and is not just for special occasion sipping.
First, some background on our beloved bubbly
Sparkling wines were invented by French monks some 500 years ago. While using the same grapes as many still wines, the process is a bit different. As any wine ferments, yeast converts sugar to alcohol and emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct. With still wine, fermentation occurs in a barrel or tank, so the CO2 dissipates. In contrast, sparkling wines are fermented in sealed systems – pressure tanks or glass bottles. The resulting CO2 “dissolves” into the wine, only to be released in the form of cheerful bubbles upon opening.
The pinnacle of sparkling wines, French Champagne, is famous for the complex flavor and delicate effervescence that results from a second yeasty fermentation in the bottle. Other sparkling wines, like delightfully crisp Italian Prosecco, are fermented in the barrel or tank and then bottled with their bubbles, but without a second fermentation. Still others are artificially pumped full of CO2, just like soda, resulting in harsher, more volatile bubbles. Not surprisingly, those are the least expensive, but also the least respected.
The amount of labor, degree of delicacy and regional pedigree of any sparkling wine is directly related to its availability and price. True Champagne, produced only in the tiny northern-French region of the same name, has such name recognition and worldwide demand that its price puts it out of reach of most for daily drinking. Happily, some non-Champagne wines like Spanish Cava and French Crémant mimic this traditional method of preparation, resulting in stunningly similar results, but at a fraction of the cost. In other words, there are so many lovingly prepared, high-quality alternatives out there, one should never be without bubbly in the fridge.
Wait, it comes in pink?
Just when we thought sparkling wine couldn’t be any more festive, we encounter sparkling rosé. Like still varieties, these rosy sparklers are left to rest on the grape skins to absorb color, flavor and structure. Possessing round flavor and vibrant color, sparkling rosé simply cannot be beat on the wow scale. Nothing makes “just because” feel more special.
Now that we’ve explored the “how,” let’s get to the “when”
Almost no wine on earth pairs better with food than sparkling wine. That is because crisp acidity and “scrubbing bubbles” clean the palate with every sip, making each bite taste like the first. Nuanced flavor development means that bubbly will enhance other flavors without overpowering them. Sparkling wines can range from neutral to full-bodied, from white to pink to red, from completely dry to quite sweet. This means that various well-chosen bubblies can carry you through an entire meal, from delicate starters to heartier fare to dessert.
Regardless of style or pairing partner, sparkling wines must always be served chilled. Tall, slim flutes are ideal for sipping, as they keep bubbles contained and prevent sloshing. But I will admit that there is nothing more devil-may-care than drinking bubbly from a widemouth coupe glass. I urge you to try it at least once.
You cannot top bubbly’s celebratory spirit or festive feel. Especially at this time of year, sparkling wine enhances any holiday gathering. But don’t let your enjoyment stop there — drink bubbly with abandon and every day will feel like a celebration, as it should.
Happy holidays, and cheers to you and yours.
The writer is owner and “Cheese Lady” of Cheesetique.