The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

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Bubble, bubble

Taking the toil and trouble out of sparkling wine

Uncorked by Thor Iverson

It's the holiday season -- time for your yearly encounter with sparkling wine. You might uncritically sip some during pre-banquet chitchat, hastily quaff a glass as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, or (if you're in the NFL) enthusiastically dump it on your teammates' heads. But this year, try to stop and smell the bubbly. Sparkling wines are some of the most exciting vinous products in the world. They enhance more types of cuisine than any other wine -- and they're not just for special occasions.

Wine with bubbles: that's all sparkling wine is, and viewing it through that lens will help diminish the accompanying pomp and circumstance. Those bubbles come from a complex series of carefully controlled natural processes (artificial carbonation is used only for the cheapest and most undrinkable examples of sparkling wine). Almost all the world's winemaking regions produce sparkling wine from a wide variety of grapes, with tastes that reflect the place of origin as clearly as still (i.e., nonsparkling) wines do.

Pairing food with sparkling wines is a snap. Caviar and oysters are classic matches, but you'll find that white sparkling wines go well with just about anything in a creamy or heavy sauce (especially shellfish and veal), and all sorts of vegetables, breads, and cheeses. Blanc de noirs, rosé, and red sparklers also do well with simpler fish and white-meat preparations, fruit desserts, and even some of the darker meats (beef and tuna carpaccio are outstanding with any sort of pink or red bubbly). Sweet sparklers are best alone or with fruit desserts.

You may have noticed that we're rather pointedly using the term sparkling wine instead of Champagne. Despite its common usage as a moniker for any sort of bubbly, real Champagne is made only in the Champagne region of France. International agreements have eliminated the use of the word elsewhere, though a few (decidedly mediocre) American producers continue to resist. The desirability of the name is based on the quality; no sparkling wine in the world approaches the heights reached by real Champagne.

Vintage Champagne -- the only Champagne with a date on the bottle -- is made only in good years, and represents the pinnacle of the art. It requires at least five to ten years of aging to reach its full potential; the 1990 vintage is just coming onto the market, and it's outstanding. Non-vintage (N.V.) Champagnes, usually a blend of several different vintages, are drinkable upon release. Reliable and well-known producers include Moët & Chandon, Krug, Perrier-Jouët, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Mumm, and Roederer. Two particularly outstanding wines to try right now are the N.V. Ruinart Brut ($24.99), with a tart lemon-apple finish, and, for a taste of the glories of aged vintage Champagne, the 1985 Mumm Cordon Rosé ($27.99), a bone-dry explosion of red berries. Small, boutique producers can be exciting values (ask your retailer if importer Terry Theise's limited-production Champagnes are available).

A sparkling glossary

Like still wine, sparkling wine comes in many styles, but producers have agreed on a standard lexicon to help the consumer determine what's inside the bottle. Most important are the sweetness levels: brut (dry), sec (slightly sweet), demi-sec (sweet), and doux (very sweet). Cuvée means "blend." Blanc de blancs (white from whites) signifies a white sparkler made from chardonnay grapes, blanc de noirs (white from blacks) refers to white sparklers made from red grapes, a rosé is a pink bubbly made from anything, and noir de noirs (black from blacks) is a red sparkling wine made from red grapes -- and quite rare. You might also run across the terms mousseux (sparkling), crémant (half-sparkling) and méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle, which denote a sparkling wine made using the techniques of the Champagne producers.
Also worth seeking out are French bubblies from the Loire Valley (the N.V. Gratien & Meyer Noir de Noirs Cardinale, at $12.49, is a delicious off-dry cherry-red sparkler) and Alsace. Italy's best-known effervescent export is Asti Spumante, which is usually low-alcohol, sweet, and not very good -- no matter who makes it. On the other hand, Moscato d'Asti, made in the same region, is sweet, only slightly effervescent, and delicious; almost any brand exported to the US is worth a try. For more traditional Italian sparklers, try the N.V. Castello Gancia Brut ($8.99), with full, yeasty apple notes, and the N.V. Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta Brut ($25.99), a bracing, lemon-laced palate cleanser.

Australia makes a lot of outstanding sparkling wine, but very little makes it to these shores. One that does is the 1990 Rosemount Brut ($14.99), a golden blend of berries, apple, and cantaloupe, with a meaty nose reminiscent of great blanc de noirs Champagnes.

Closer to home, California and Washington have improved quality while keeping prices relatively low. Some of the best producers -- Domaine Chandon, Roederer, and Mumm Cuvée Napa -- are linked to houses in Champagne, though Schramsberg and Washington's Domaine Ste. Michelle are also excellent. From Mumm Cuvée Napa, don't miss the refreshing lemon- and vanilla-infused Brut Prestige ($14.99) and the enticingly fruity yet refined and well-balanced Blanc de Noirs ($15.99). Most of all, don't forget that sparkling wines can be enjoyed anytime, not just at formal dinners -- and especially not as communal post-Super Bowl showers.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.



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