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Popping the Cork

A guide to getting bubbly for your holiday celebrations

Sam Holden

By Mary K. Zajac | Posted 12/23/2009

When I was a child, no holiday table was complete without a bottle of wine with a foil-wrapped cork, a pop, and a sparkle. Often times, it was Paul Masson Crackling Ros? (yes, like the Neil Diamond song), pink and p?tillant. On New Year's Eve, it was giant bottles of golden Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante. My parents were gin drinkers with no knowledge of wine, and my mother confesses that they made their choices based on the recommendation of someone at the local liquor store (it wasn't a "wine shop"). And even though my sister and I were probably the only ones who really liked the sweet, fizzy sparklers, (and I should remember the buzz from the one glass we were allowed to sip, but perhaps it's telling that I don't), they were a mandatory holiday purchase. Sparkling wine suggested something special and sophisticated, something out of the ordinary, something required on Christmas as much as cookies for Santa and roast beef for dinner.

I, like much of the drinking public, still wholly buy into the celebratory specialness of sparkling wine, and in the years I worked in a fine-wine shop, I came to recognize the sheepish looks that accompanied folks standing in the sparkling wine aisle bewildered by choices before buying their annual bottle of Cook's or Korbel or Asti out of habit. While choosing any wine can be overwhelming for folks, it seems that sparkling wine confuses the most. People think you have to pay a lot for bubbles, that it's all called champagne, that it's always sweet, that it will always give you a headache (that depends on how much you drink, folks). And so, my holiday gift to you, a sparkling wine primer in four easy steps. Cheers.

1) Champagne is not a generic term for sparkling wine.

Some basics. Champagne, the wine, is named for Champagne, the region in northeast France where the wine is made. Only wine made in Champagne may be technically called champagne; everything else is sparkling wine. Champagne is made from either chardonnay or pinot noir grapes or a blend of both, and may be white or ros?, dry or sweet. Bottles marked brut are dry; extra dry has some sweetness to it, and demi-sec is full blown fizzy nectar.

Unlike most still wines, much champagne is labeled NV or non-vintage and only bears vintage dates in years when harvest conditions are judged to be extraordinary; otherwise, each champagne producer or "house" blends the current year's harvest with wine from previous years to create their signature style, which can be elegant, lean, and racy like Taittinger or bold and biscuity like Bollinger. This doesn't mean that non-vintage bottles aren't delicious, but it does mean that you'll pay more for vintage or high-end champagne because there's less wine produced. Consider that Louis Roederer Brut NV can run around $40, while its Cristal can be well over $200 a bottle.

Aside from showing more complex flavors than other sparkling wine--champagnes can show a spectrum of notes from apples and lemons to toasted nuts to yeasty brioche--vintage champagnes also age well.

Try: Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee NV ($65), Louis Roederer Brut NV ($40), Champagne Taittinger Brut ($35). (All prices are estimates and may vary from store to store.)

2) It doesn't have to be champagne or expensive to be delicious.

Dry sparkling wine made from a variety of grapes is produced all over the world, and while the flavors are more straightforward--more citrus and clean apple, rather than yeasty and complex--they offer plenty of delicious (and affordable) choices. From Italy, try Prosecco. In Spain, the sparkler is cava. In many regions of France, you'll find bubbly wines labeled "cr?mant" (e.g., Cr?mant d'Alsace) made from regional grapes like Riesling. Many American producers like Domaine Carneros and Roederer Estate in California's Anderson Valley employ the classic m?thode champenoise to make excellent bubblies, and you'll also find chardonnay-based sparklers coming from Australia.

Try: Zardetto Prosecco ($15), 1 1 = 3 Cava Brut ($15), Albert Mann Cr?mant d'Alsace Brut ($22), Roederer Estate Brut NV Anderson Valley ($20), Graham Beck Brut ($17).

3) Sparkling wine can be pink or red as well as white.

White, red, ros?--all is possible with sparkling wine. Reds are notably juicy, though with a few notable exceptions, most red sparklers are sweet (see below). But Australia is producing dry sparkling shiraz that's as festive (and gorgeous) as its white counterparts, and traditional Italian Lambrusco is frizzante (slightly less fizzy than spumante), dry, and can be a refreshing, funky pour at a table. Look for ros? cavas with tart berry overtones, as well as quality dry ros?s from Oregon, California, and yes, even New Mexico.

Try: The Chook Sparkling Shiraz ($18), Gelsomina Lambrusco Mantovano ($13), Mont Marcal Cava Ros? ($18), Argyle Brut Ros? ($57), Gruet Ros? ($15).

4) Sweet is OK.

Let's say it up front: There is no shame in liking sweet bubbles. They can be refreshing, pretty, and delicate, and they pair better with desserts than dry wine. And if you scan the rows of demi-sec champagne in your wine shop, you'll also immediately learn that sweet does not equal cheap.

Outside of France, the Italians excel at light, sweet bubblies, both white and red. Moscato d'Asti, a white sparkler, is low in alcohol, light and frothy, with the essence of white flowers and honeysuckle (a wine colleague once commented that this is what angels must drink). Sweet sparkling Italian reds include Brachetto D'Acqui from the Piedmont as well as sparkling versions of the grape, malvasia. Gruet Winery in New Mexico makes fine, affordable sparklers including a demi-sec.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Demi-Sec ($50), Mo?t and Chandon Nectar Imperial ($50), 2008 Saracco Moscato d'Asti ($17), Icardi Brachetto ($15), La Sera Malvasia ($16), Gruet Demi-Sec ($15). ?

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