Twinkle, twinkle, flutes of fizz

(written for the the Los Altos Town Crier; December 11, 2013)

’Tis the month of celebration, so crack open some bubbly. You can rely on the sparkling stuff’s ability to turn ordinary occasions into revelries.

With the December calendar jam-packed with social get-togethers, there’s more reason than any other time of year to pop corks and let the fizzy flow. I like to have a glass of sparkling wine when I join friends on a hunt for the perfect tree, deck the halls with loved ones, toast the year’s success with colleagues or open gifts with family.

More sparkling wine is sold during the month of December than any other time of year, so it’s a good time to learn a bit about the world of bubbles. While Champagne may be the point of reference by which all sparkling wine is judged, all that fizzes is not Champagne. There are, in fact, a wide world of frothy options on the market today. And buying outside of the Champagne realm provides opportunity to find great value and variety.
Sparkling Wine 101

It’s rumored that upon accidentally inventing Champagne, Franciscan monk Dom Pérignon announced, “Come quickly. I am drinking the stars.” The truth is that Pérignon was not the first producer of the carbonated wine, and his poetic proclamation was more likely concocted by a 19th-century advertising firm, but imagining that the first drinker of Champagne had a celestial experience is not difficult to believe. Champagne, with its perfect chains of bubbles and gorgeous texture, is an experience full of twinkle and bliss.

The magic of Champagne comes from the secondary fermentation in the bottle. Secondary fermentation is not unusual in wine making, but having it take place in the same bottle the wine is sold in turns the carbon dioxide, which is usually released as a by-product of the fermentation process, into bubbles. Because this process is associated with the Champagne region of France, it is known as Méthode Champenoise.

Champagne is almost exclusively made with three grape varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (to cover all grounds, very rarely Champagne is also made with Fromenteau, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier grapes). Two of the traditional Champagne grape varietals are red wine grapes, though you wouldn't know it by looking at Champagne's classic color. Gently pressing the juice from the grapes results in white wine. Recall that red wine gets its color from maceration -- the process of leaving grape juice in contact with the grape skins. Juice from all wine grapes is vitrually the same pail greyish color. Pink sparkling wine has grown in popularity over the last few decades. I'm a big fan of rose-hued sparkling wines. The color in these bottles is achieve by adding some still red wine during the bottling process. This time of year, the rosy color can add to the bubbly appeal, plus it’s great with seafood.

Oftentimes you won’t find vintage years on bottles of bubbly. That’s because the wines are blends of several years. Blending allows the winemaker to craft the perfect assemblage. The vintner adds sugar and yeast to the still wine and then bottles the mixture, leaving it to ferment. The yeast will feast on the sugar for roughly eight weeks, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Champagne comes in a number of styles depending on the sugar level of the wine. These designations, listed in order from bone dry to mega sweet, are Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-sec and Doux.

Tradition and rules governing wine designation insist that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France be called Champagne. Méthode Champenoise, however, is used with great success by sparkling-wine producers around the world.

There are fantastic options for sparkling wines being made here in California. Big French producers have had labels in the U.S. for decades. Moët is behind Domaine Chandon, for example. And “all-American” options are available, too. I like Breathless Sparkling Wines from Sonoma. Made with great skill and passion, the three sisters behind the label are creating wonderful wines starting at $25. Other stellar Bay Area producers include Iron Horse and J Vineyards

Cava, which is also made in the Méthode Champenoise style, comes from a region around Barcelona. Cava represents some of the best value out there. A bottle of cold Cava is ideal for appetizers such as cured meats and salty snacks. These wines are made with grapes native to Spain, so don’t expect the experience to be identical to drinking Champagne. But a good Cava is creamy, bright and fruity. In addition, for approximately $15, you can get one of my favorites, Castellroig Brut Cava, which has plenty of mineral and graham cracker aroma qualities.

Italy’s contribution to the sparkling-wine market is prosecco. The ultra-crowd-pleasing wine is made using the Charmat Method, also known as the Italian Method. In the Charmat Method, the second fermentation takes place in large steel tanks rather than in the bottle. Look for bottles in the $15-$20 range and you’ll be delighted by the fine bubbles and intense aromatics. On the palate, prosecco delivers pear, apple, citrus and nutty qualities.

Sparkling wine is versatile when it comes to food and wine pairing. Just think, it's a wine that goes equally well with Sunday brunch and wedding cake. I like to call it the little black dress of wine pairing for it's all-purpose nature. Plus, drinking sparkling wine is a wonderful way to learn more about your wine preferences. When you're drinking bubbles, pay attention to how the wine feels in your mouth, how the front of your palate experiences the sweet attributes of the wine, while the back of your tongue enjoys the acidity present in sparkling wine. Noticing these things will help you dial in your palate and increase your understanding of the magic that is wine. And let's not forget how fun it is to make cocktails that include sparkling wine. Below I share my Raspberry Sparkler cocktail.

Raspberry Sparkler Prosecco Cocktail
For filling cups with cheer, my easy Prosecco cocktail comes together in minutes flat.
  • 1 bottle Prosecco
  • 1 cup raspberry vodka
  • 1 cup raspberry sorbet
  • Rosemary sprigs (optional)
In large pitcher, whisk all ingredients together, then divide into six flutes. Garnish with sprig of rosemary, if desired.


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