New Year's Guide to Bubbly

Bubbly at its BestWe Sniffed, Sipped and Savored Every Drop, All to Bring You Our Comprehensive Guide to  Sparkling Wine  By Wendy O. Dixon

Weddings, anniversaries and New Year’s Eve — these are the most common occasions for breaking out a bottle of bubbly. The pop of the cork, followed by the salute of the glass, sends cheers, best wishes and congratulations like no other wine. And while sparkling wine sales skyrocket during the holidays, there’s now such a huge variety of reasonably priced fizzy wines that you can — no, you must — try a few, and enjoy the bubbly any time of year.

“There’s a sparkling wine for any occasion, and one that will pair well with any food,” says John Morris, director of wine education at Wine World in Destin and Panama City Beach, and a certified specialist of wine by the Society of Wine Educators. “It’s ideal for our coastal cuisine (seafood) and the wine of choice for sushi. It also pairs well with rich creamy cheeses as a foil to the richness of the cheese, and is the perfect apéritif (a wine used to stimulate the appetite).”

Even though most people tend to pour all sparkling wines into the Champagne category, only sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France (north of Burgundy) can properly be called by that name. It was in that region where sparkling wine was first produced, and it is the most famous. French sparkling wines produced outside of the Champagne region are labeled “mousseux” or “crémant.” Though the French do know their wine, other nations also produce sip-worthy bubbly. Spain’s version is called Cava. Italy’s is Prosecco or Spumante. German and Austrian sparkling wine is called Sekt. And American wineries label it as sparkling wine.

Because of the stellar reputation Champagne has, it tends to be more expensive than other sparkling wines.

“This has resulted in a misperception that Champagne is better than other sparkling wines,” says Yvette Pavone, wine expert and owner of the Purple Grape wine bar in Panama City. “People who don’t know much about sparkling wine tend to buy Champagne because they think it’s the best, but that’s not true.”

Don’t assume you need to impress your friends with a bottle of Dom Perignon (which retails for around $140), Pavone explains. Other experts agree. Wine guidebook “The Wine Trials 2010: The World’s Bestselling Guide to Inexpensive Wines,” features blind taste tests for wine experts and sommeliers who declare Domaine Ste Michelle Brut, a $12 Washington state sparkling wine, to be the winner, beating out Dom, Champagne’s star, two years in a row.

Sparkling wine gets its carbonation from a second fermentation process, which can take place in the bottle or in a pressurized tank. This causes natural carbon dioxide gas to get caught inside, resulting in bubbles.

“Look at the label,” Pavone explains, “If it reads ‘methode champenoise’ you can know it’s been fermented the same way as Champagne, directly in the bottle with tender loving care.”

Other sparkling wines are fermented the second time in a steel tank, which is less costly. “But they are still very good,” says Pavone, who served Barefoot sparkling wine ($9) at her wedding.

An indication of quality is in the amount and size of the bubbles. Tiny bubbles mean better quality, Pavone says. Beyond the bubbles, sparkling wines have different amounts of sugar, resulting in a range of very dry “brut” styles to sweet varieties. “Brut confuses people,” Morris explains “because they may think extra dry is dryer than brut, but it is actually less dry.”

Sparkling wines are typically made from either one grape (chardonnay), a blend of two grapes (chardonnay and pinot noir) and sometimes a third grape (pinot meunier). Cava is made primarily from macabeo, parellada and Xarel-lo grapes.

“My favorite sparkling is one that comes from only one grape,” declares Pavone, whose preferred one is made exclusively from chardonnay and is called ‘blanc de blancs’ (white from white). Try Argentina’s Pascual Toso Brut ($16) or California’s Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($38), both made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes.

For those who like a little berry flavor in their sparkling wine, try a rosé — a sparkling wine that gets its pink or salmon color from the red grape, most often pinot noir. The color also adds a little romance to sparkling wine and has notes of cherry, strawberry and raspberry.

Sweet wine drinkers have fallen in love with Italy’s Moscato d’Asti — a crisp, sweet sparkling wine made from the muscat grape, which has become hugely popular in the U.S. It is lower in alcohol than dryer sparkling wines (around 5-6 percent versus 12 percent for dryer wines) and pairs well with sweet foods like fruit salad and desserts. “A common mistake is to pair a brut sparkling wine with dessert,” says Morris. “Moscato is terrific with wedding cake.” Try Castello del Poggio Moscato Provincia Di Pavia ($15) or Beni di Batasiolo Dla Rei Moscato d’Asti ($16).

With hundreds of sparkling wines to choose from, it can get overwhelming. How do you pick a bottle to drink with chicken and rice dinner Tuesday night? What will you bring to a New Year’s Eve party? What do you serve to hundreds of wedding guests? Most wine stores have an educated staff that can help you decide on the right sparkling wine for any occasion and any budget.

“We help by looking for the price-to-quality ratio,” says Chan Cox, owner of nine Wine World shops along the Emerald Coast, who suggests French sparkling wine Kraemer Blanc de Blancs Brut ($9) as a go-to sparkling wine. “It’s a terrific wine and by far the best value.”

Gayhart suggests that sparkling wine novices “might want a little lighter bodied, not as dry, champagne and should consider an extra dry or demi-sec.”

Those with more experience drinking the fruit of the vine should consider the properties of the wine they like in general. “Say you drink cabernets and merlots — you probably have a palate that’s more in tune with a drier wine, so a brut-level champagne would be a good choice,” he advises.

Want to impress your lover with an intimate date? Cox recommends Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Rosé Champagne ($70), paired with a juicy filet mignon.

“This is an elegant, sexy wine that leaves you feeling good,” agrees Huey Greene, general manager at Wine World Grand Boulevard at Sandestin. “If you want a nice late-night wine, this is it.”

When considering food pairings, Morris recommends you not stress about it. “People get awfully hung up on what to serve with certain dishes, and some pairings do have a certain synergy,” he says. “But the bottom line is to drink what you want with what you eat.”

Whatever sparkling wine you choose, Pavone says to also appreciate the color, the bubbles and the aroma, all important components in the beauty of the wine. “You must use a beautiful glass,” she advises. “It enhances the entire experience.”

If you haven’t finished your bottle, you can save leftover sparkling wine with a metal champagne stopper, available at most wine stores. The bubbly will last one to two more days.

Whether you’re a serious sipper or a sparkling wine dummy, we’ve got you covered. We procured a crew of wine experts and wine enthusiasts who tried dozens of bottles of sparkling wines from France, Italy, Spain, Argentina and America. Most of the wines are moderately priced. All are recommendable and readily available. It was a tough job, but we wouldn’t want to let you down. So we tasted and tested, sipped and swirled, all to bring you our review of the sparkling wines we tried.


The Evolution of Champagne Stemware

The original Champagne glass — a short, shallow saucer — is rumored to have attained its shape when Marie Antoinette, queen of France during the late 1700s, had the glasses fashioned from casts of her breasts so courtiers could toast to her health from them. It was only in the last 30 years that the flute — a stem glass with a tall narrow bowl — became the glass of choice due to its ability to keep sparkling wine’s effervescence for a longer period of time than a saucer. 


A Sparkling Wine Primer

Advice from John Morris, certified specialist of wine:

Store it — Store sparkling wine at 45-55 degrees, or 60-65 degrees if storing for longer than one year.

Chill it — Sparkling wine should be served very cold (40-45 degrees). For the perfect chill, put the wine in an ice bath (ice and water) about 30 minutes before drinking.

Open it — When opening a bottle of bubbly, remove the foil (most bottles have a tear tab), untwist the wire hood to loosen it, but do not remove it. Place a folded cloth napkin over the cork and wire hood. Point the top away from yourself and others at a 45-degree angle, bracing the bottom of the bottle against yourself and twist cork and bottle in opposite directions.

Fill it — To enjoy sparkling wine at its fullest potential, use a flute, which preserves bubbles better than wide, shallow glasses.

Pour it — Slowly pour sparkling wine gently into the flute, about halfway to three-quarters full.

Drink it — Cheers!


Drink Like a Celebrity

If you want to drink like George Clooney, Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio and Oprah Winfrey, try Armand de Brignac (“Ace of Spades”) Brut Gold, an ultra-luxury prestige cuveé that sells for $300. Produced entirely by hand by only eight people in Champagne, France, and pressed from a balance of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier wine, Armand de Brignac Brut Gold was rated the No. 1 Champagne in the world in a blind taste test, according to Fine Champagne magazine.

Each opulent metallic Champagne bottle is handcrafted, paperless and features two “Ace of Spades” insignias and four hand-applied pewter labels. The striking bottle is presented in a black, lacquered wooden case embossed with the Champagne’s royal crest. Each case is lined in velvet and fitted with an engraved nameplate, reflecting the splendor and grand style of the Champagne within.


To see our Comprehensive Guide to Sparkling Wine please check out our latest digital edition of our Dec/Jan issue.