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A sparkling season

Taking the trouble out of bubbles

by Thor Iverson

"It's an opportunity to exercise your sparkling wit," was how my editor presented this assignment to me. (When she recovers from the severe beating she received from everyone within earshot of that comment, I hope she'll be pleased with the result.) But while she's convalescing, here it is: the ultimate guide to sparkling wine. Well, okay, as ultimate a guide as the Phoenix has space to run.

Wines can made to sparkle in all sorts of ways, although adding club soda in the privacy of your kitchen isn't what we have in mind here. Real sparkling wines are usually the result of a special fermentation inside the bottle, which creates a taste completely unlike that of a wine with forced carbonation. The classic taste common to almost all sparkling wines is a yeasty, breadlike aroma and flavor that comes from this process, and the complete lack of it (especially in an inexpensive sparkler) sometimes indicates that some other, lower-quality method was used.

Wait . . . what about those inexpensive sparklers, anyway? Good luck finding one that's worth your time. The labor and materials necessary to make high-quality sparkling wine are expensive, and that expense is dutifully passed on to the consumer. And sparkling wines from certain regions (like Champagne, in France) also have a sort of prestige tariff (designed to stroke the considerable egos of the big-name producers) added to the cost. Hey, it could be worse: you could have to pay by the bubble. (Who'd count them, I wonder?)

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Sparkling wine can be made from any grape in the world, but in most places it's made from chardonnay, pinot noir, or a mixture of the two. Other popular grapes for sparkling wine include pinot meunier, chenin blanc, riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, and shiraz. However, this is information the bottle won't usually give away. Sometimes the only way to tell what's in the bottle is by deciphering some foreign words that may or may not be printed on the label. Phrase one is blanc de blancs, which means "white from whites" and indicates a white sparkling wine made entirely from white wine grapes, such as chardonnay. Blanc de noirs, on the other hand, means "white from blacks" and indicates a white sparkling wine made from 100 percent red wine grapes, such as pinot noir and pinot meunier. Noir de noirs, which you'll rarely see, is a red sparkling wine made from red grapes, and rosé (a/k/a rosato or rosado, depending on the country of origin) indicates a pink wine made from at least some red grapes (food coloring doesn't count).

Also important is the sweetness level, indicated by even more-foreign terms. You'll usually encounter brut, which means "dry" (but is actually almost-but-not-quite-dry, gosh darn those waffling French linguists), and demi-sec, which means "off-dry." Extra brut is "extra dry," while sec (or seco or secco) and doux are sweeter wines you'll rarely see here in the States (but be careful, because "sec" actually means "dry," and is used that way by some producers . . . hey, don't blame me, it's not my language). Finally, even the number of bubbles can be measured (see, we told you they'd find a way to charge for it). A wine with a little less mousse (a silly wine-geek term for fizziness) is sometimes referred to as crémant, though nowadays the latter term is normally used to refer to sparkling wines that happen to be something other than Champagne.

And that is an important distinction, one that otherwise-serious wine lovers often miss. Champagne can legally refer only to wine made in the Champagne region of France (whether sparkling or not). Unfortunately, this hasn't prevented many winemakers (mostly American) from appropriating the name to give their (inevitably low-quality) bubblies a better image. But Champagne is unlike any other sparkling wine, and to use the name where it is not appropriate is as silly as calling all beef "filet mignon" just because that's the most famous cut.

Almost all sparkling wines should be served well chilled, in tall, thin flute-style glasses rather than wide bowl-shaped ones, as the latter will cause the bubbles to fade quickly. However, older or more prestigious sparklers can be served a bit warmer. Sparkling wines go with almost all foods -- really! -- and their relegation to parties and pre-dinner toasts is a sad waste of this most versatile of wines.

Finally, if you're in the market for sparkling wine, remember the Alamo . . . no, wait, sorry . . . remember the millennium. At the turn of the century (whether you celebrate it on the last day of 1999 or 2000 -- the smart ones among us are taking no chances and partying it up every December 31 until we run out of wine), there will likely be more sparkling wine consumed (or poured over people's heads) than at any other time in the history of the planet. What this means for the consumer: buy early, or get left out in the cold. The better the wine you're looking for, the more likely it'll be long gone by mid-1999, so use what follows as a guide to your holiday shopping, and do that shopping quickly. And remember that if you drink enough sparkling wine, you might not even mind hearing that damn Prince song for the 5000th time come December 31.


Despite all the pretenders labeled "champagne," there is absolutely no substitute for the real thing. True Champagne is the most complex and compelling expression of bubbly wine in the world. There is simply no way to understand the mystique surrounding sparkling wine without tasting a top Champagne.

Unfortunately, those top Champagnes are expensive. Really expensive. We're talking at least $50, and usually closer to $75 to $100 (or more). Which, sad to say, causes the vast majority of these top Champagnes to become little more than trophies: rewards passed among lawyers and agents and CEOs for winning a case or closing a deal. Are these bottles wasted? Depends on the recipient, I guess.

So anyway, what are we underfunded consumers supposed to do if we want a taste of these wines? Short of knocking off a convenience store -- or a wine shop -- there are only two ways. One, suck it up and spend the money; damn it, sometimes you just need to splurge on the good stuff. (Who needs to eat? Car payments . . . big deal!) Or two, find a tasting where these wines are being poured. It shouldn't be too hard, because wine shops tend to pour top Champagnes at their pre-holiday weekly tastings, since that's when people are most likely to buy them (hey, you don't think it's a coincidence that this article is appearing now, do you?).

So what are these so-called top Champagnes, and what do they taste like? The latter is impossible to answer: every producer has its own distinctive house style. But the former can be summed up in three words.

Word one: vintage. Most Champagne is nonvintage (usually abbreviated NV by us lazy wine writers), which means that it's blended from the grapes of various harvests. Vintage Champagne is like almost any other wine in that it comes from the grapes of a single year. But since the Champagne region is at the extreme northern edge of reasonably pleasant winemaking climates, the grapes rarely achieve the state of ripeness necessary to make decent wine. Therefore, vintage Champagnes are produced only in exceptional years (though greed has caused a lot of producers to redefine "exceptional" to suit their marketing needs . . . and the desire of the winery president for a new BMW), which makes them fairly rare.

A regular vintage Champagne can actually be had for a lot less than $50, but now we come to words two and three: prestige cuvée (a/k/a grand marque). Most Champagne houses produce a range of "regular" wines, as well as a wine made from their best grapes that's given some special name (and an appropriately outrageous price). Combine vintage and prestige cuvée and there you have those $100 Champagnes that are some of the best-tasting quaffs on the planet.

So what should you buy, now that you've won the lottery or inherited a nice trust fund courtesy of your dead uncle? Just about any vintage Champagne is a good buy and a "reasonable" deal given its inherent quality, though the best deals come from the lesser-known producers. Look for small-producer bottlings imported by German and Austrian wine legend Terry Theise, which will seem a massive bargain compared to other Champagnes. However, even the big names really step up to the plate when it comes to vintage bubbly. These wines are delicious young but truly come into their own after at least 5 to 10 years of age (in perfect cellar conditions, that is; if you lack such conditions, drink 'em young). The '88, '89, and '90 vintages were all released by most houses, and all have their considerable merits, but the '90s are the ones to secure before millennium fever hits your neighbors and they start playing that song by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

The prestige cuvées are even more reliable, which is heartening given the price. The names you're most likely to see are Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Moët & Chandon Dom Pérignon, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Krug (so prestigious it doesn't need a special name), Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, Louis Roederer Cristal, and Bollinger Grande Année. What you'll taste will be anything from a toasty lemon and yeast cocktail in wines made primarily from chardonnay to a meaty, raspberry-and-almond hammer blow from those wines (like Bollinger Grande Année) made mostly from red grapes. But whatever the style, the dominant impression will be that of restrained power, of massive potential ready to explode from the glass at any moment. These wines are stunning for about a year after release, and then they shut down and become impenetrable and almost tasteless for a long time, emerging as the triumphant wines they were designed to be a decade or more later.

For nonvintage Champagne, again look away from the big producers (with the exception of Bollinger, Ruinart, and Taittinger), and look instead to Theise-imported small-producer wines (the Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru is a tremendous deal at just over $20, so good I served it to 200-plus people at my wedding). Good ones will combine strong bubbles and apple-tinged yeastiness with a creamy peach and citrus flavor, but without the brooding weightiness of the prestige cuvées and vintage bottlings.

But Champagne is not the only part of France that produces sparkling wines. Just about every winemaking region makes a crémant, but the one you're most likely to encounter here is crémant d'Alsace, made from the region of northeast France known for its spectacular and long-lived white wines. Made from a mixture of traditional grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir) and regional grapes (pinot gris, pinot blanc, riesling, etc.), these wines fall into two very distinct types. Type one is the inexpensive (less than $15) bottle, which is a tart and citrusy wine made for uncritical swigging at your next party, and actually almost impossible to find here. Type two ($15 and up) is a more serious, steely, minerally wine that just doesn't taste good at all in its first few years of life. Give it some time (at least five years, maybe more), and it will fill out and take on a creamy yet stony flavor that is utterly compelling. Look for anything from producers Dopff au Moulin, Dopff & Irion, Mann, and Sparr.

Other regions whose sparkling wines make it here include Burgundy (often from the Mâcon; look for one from Thevenet, which will be tart and peachy and highly acidic), the Loire Valley (sparkling Vouvray from just about any producer sneaks up softly and quietly and then delivers a hard mineral edge that makes it captivating, and there's a great $18 Noir de Noirs from Gratien & Meyer that will surprise your wine-loving friends), and the Jura (the Clavelin Chardonnay Brut-Comté is odd when first opened, but with some air it develops a very dry apple/pear flavor that will win you over). It's rare, but hardly impossible, to find a non-Champagne bubbly for more than $20.


The Italians make an awful lot of incredible wine, but their basic sparklers leave a lot to be desired. Not because they're bad -- they're often excellent -- but because they're frequently little different from Champagne, and not much of a bargain either. One exception is the extremely dry Prosecco, which is neither creamy or yeasty, but cleanses the palate with a very high acidity and a strong citrus and apple flavor. Carpenè Malvolti makes a beautiful version for less than $15.

However, the Holy Grail among Italian sparklers is the balance of sweetness, fruit, and acidity found in the very low-alcohol Asti bubblies. Asti spumante is something most Americans experience very early in their drinking lives, usually with profoundly negative results (justly deserved, as the wine is frequently little other than sweet). But the real gem is Moscato d'Asti, a fruity, floral, lightly fizzy, and refreshing wine that's great by itself, but also pairs well with fruit desserts. Sip some before dinner on a hot summer day (or in front of the fire), and you'll be transported to Italian heaven (say hello to Louis Prima while you're up there). Look for wines from Rivetti and Coppo, though it's hard to go wrong in this category. You'll spend $5 to $15 for all but the most luxuriously packaged wines.


Thanks to huge producers like Cordoníu and Freixenet (you've had their Cordon Negro in the black bottles, right?), Spain's contribution to sparkling wine has something of a low-rent image. But Cava (made like Champagne, though from indigenous Spanish grapes) can be a deliciously different drink, full of nutty aromas and flavors and a lighter fizziness that makes it a perfect sipping wine. Look for the NV Marques de Gelida Brut (a steal at less than $10) for drinking tonight, or the more intense 1992 Leopardi Brut Reserva (around $20) if you want to cellar something.


Sometimes nasty and rubbery, sometimes noble and austere, sekt is the German sparkling wine that isn't always German (sometimes it's made from non-German grapes). However, Deutscher sekt is indeed German sparkling wine, and a variation that can be phenomenal from good producers. It's hard to find here (thankfully, the bad kind is nearly impossible to find), but if you can track down wines from Henkell, Deinhard, Kupferberg, or Müller, buy them (the price will be ridiculously low for the quality) and enjoy their sharp mineral tang.


Australian still (nonsparkling) wines tend to be big and fruity, so it's something of a surprise that their sparkling wines are so restrained. Yet two that make it to our shores are just that. One, the NV Seaview Brut, is an incredibly enticing, citrusy bubbly that will transport you to the surf on the Aussie coastline (figuratively speaking, of course; if we see you standing outside in your Bermuda shorts and holding a surfboard at this time of year, we'll pretend we don't know you). And the other, a vintage Rosemount Brut (look for the '91 or '93), combines this fruity freshness with the classic Champagne qualities of cream and yeast.

There is, however, another kind of sparkling wine that is uniquely Australian: sparkling shiraz. This blood-red explosion of overripe strawberries, cherries, and spice is unlike any other sparkling wine in the world, and it would be the perfect wine for any goat sacrifices or black masses you have on the holiday itinerary. Some producers combine it with a little sparkling cabernet sauvignon to try to restrain the wine's exuberance, but it's a futile gesture. Styles range from off-dry to bone-dry, and prices rarely top $25 in this country, but the wine is so rare here that I'd recommend buying anything you can find and giving it a shot. If you hate it, use it for the ultimate sangria. But once you learn to like it (I have), you'll wonder why it's not more popular . . . even with goats.


The US makes great wine. That said, it's an utter mystery why our efforts to make great sparkling wine are such miserable failures. Well-known, heavily funded operations from Champagne and Spain have sunk millions into state-of-the-art facilities and grapes in California, but as a group they have very little to show for it.

That doesn't mean, however, that there are no good American sparkling wines. Oregon's Argyle is making my favorites, flavorful and yeasty wines with the acidity and structure to age, but the lip-smacking fruitiness to drink now, at prices a few dollars less than the exceedingly average mass-produced nonvintage Champagnes. Close behind are Roederer Estate (owned by the Champagne house of the same name), Mumm Cuvée Napa (ditto), and the quickly improving Pacific Echo (big shock here: they're owned by Veuve Clicquot). What you'll get from these and other good-quality producers is an extreme fruitiness and easy-drinking style that emulate the classic California ethos. Prices range from the mid-teens to the low $30s.

However, the real excitement in sparkling wine might be coming from our own backyard. Westport Rivers, on the Massachusetts seacoast, is making a line of sparkling wines that get better every year, combining the up-front fruit of American bubblies with the structure and aging potential of the best from France. They're not quite there yet, but they have the climate, the grapes, and the ability to be a sensation if they can put them all together (and hold the line on prices, which are a tad high for what they're putting in the bottle). If they get it right, by the time the millennium arrives we might have more than the change in dates to celebrate; we might have the wines that'll make Massachusetts a nationally known winemaking region. Plus, we'll have locally produced bottles to break over the head of any DJ that even thinks about playing that damn Prince song.

Thor Iverson, wine critic for the Boston Phoenix, successfully carbonated 95 percent of his blood doing the research for this article. He can be reached at wine[a]phx.com.

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