By Michael Williams
Summer is here, and we’re all enjoying the sun. There are outdoor events, pool parties and lazy afternoons relaxing with friends. We all know that wine habits shift to whites and rosés this time of year, but I want to stand on a table and proselytize for sparkling wines.
Perhaps it is wise to establish why you should bother with my opinion. Everyone, I think, has had the experience of a droning sommelier talking past or over them. I’ve made a career out of – mostly – not being that guy. I remember my first mentor in this industry reminding me constantly to not get so worked up about spoiled grape juice or to first pair wine with people before trying to pair it with food. I learned a long time ago to measure my success more by how happy my guests were and whether they came back than by the number of certifications or awards I could accumulate. So, I’ve worked to find the best wine for every person I’ve served or, more recently, helped in the shop.
Anyway, back to sparkling wines. We all know that opening a bottle of great Champagne is the traditional way to celebrate a great victory. But what about the little triumphs? Finishing the dishes, sending the kids to camp, treating yourself to a concert under the stars or just getting through the day – these all deserve a bubbly reward. If, like almost everyone, Champagne just isn’t in the cards for that crazy Thursday when your greatest accomplishment was not screaming at anyone, then I have a wonderful secret to share. You have options that are within reach. Here come some elevator pitches.
Crémants are traditional method wines – meaning they’re made the same way Champagne is – from all over France, Luxembourg and even Germany that can approach Champagne prices, but mostly sit in the $18-$30 sweet spot. They’re nearly always dry, like Brut or Brut Nature, and are easier to enjoy than the serious stuff with its brioche and savory flavors.
Sekt from Germany and Austria, while a little more toward the top end of the price sweet spot, really over-delivers in terms of flavor and varietal character, being made from high acid varietals.
In addition to being the cool kid sparkling wines, Petillant Naturel wines from the Loire Valley can go a bit far in expressing “natural” character, but the best examples are fresh and taste exactly like a perfect summer day.
Cava, despite a reputation for being cheap and having neutral bubbles – I’m looking at you, Freixenet – is a downright ridiculous value. Delicious, refreshing, and truly flavorful Cava can be had for well under $30 if you go to the right place to get it, and that does not include the supermarket.
Finally, I’ll ask you to expand your idea of what to include in the category of “sparkling.” We’re in Virginia and, if you don’t know it, the Commonwealth has one of the richest traditions of apple growing in the Americas. There are loads of old orchards filled with heirloom naturalized apple varieties that can’t be found anywhere else. There are cider makers in Virginia taking full advantage of this and making truly world class and delicious dry and slightly off-dry ciders from them.
As far as recommendations for specific bottlings, I encourage you to find an independent, locally owned wine shop near you, go in, and tell them you want sparkling wine.
When they ask what occasion it’s for, tell them it’s to celebrate another day of (relative) sanity. Watch how happy that wine professional is to help you select the perfect bottle and know that you’re forging a new alliance with someone who lives in your community. I can also promise you that small shop has better wine than what you’ll find on the shelves of a national or regional chain supermarket. If you want to support the local economy and support small artisans around the world, then your local wine shop is one of the best places to do just that.
Now go get your bubbles!
The writer is manager/ sommelier at Le Vintage.