A Champagne Primer for the Holidays

champagneWe’ll soon be kicking off the holiday season, and what better way to celebrate than with something bubbly. To help you prepare for festive gatherings with family and friends, I share with you this champagne primer from the Whole Foods Market® blog (wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/whole-story):

Champagne or Sparkling Wine? Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled “Champagne.” Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain, Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy and Sekt in Germany. Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers.

For What Price? Yes, champagne can be expensive. Is it worth the extra money over sparkling wines from other countries? Some say “yes” and others “no.” Yet, there’s really no right or wrong answer here—it’s truly a personal choice. Many of these sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and may be a better value.

What Makes Champagne Bubbly? Unless there is specific terminology on the bottle, all champagne and most domestic sparklers are comprised of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the less often used varietal Pinot Meunier. The bubbles are created through a process called “secondary fermentation,” which means they make regular wine first and then re-ferment it with yeast left in the bottle (which is filtered out later). This is why you’ll often get a fresh baked bread aroma from bubbly. Most bubblies are non-vintage or “NV,” meaning they are created from a blend of wine vintages.

How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.

  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apéritif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.

Bubbly Add-Ins. Once you’ve chosen your bottle, here are a few suggested add-ins for customized cocktails. Consider offering the entire selection at your party so guests can choose their favorite flavors.

  • Candied ginger
  • Pomegranate juice and seeds
  • Berries, muddled with mint
  • Orange or grapefruit juice with a twist
  • Sugared cranberries with a sugar- and black-pepper rimmed glass

Whatever you’re toasting with, cheers to the holidays!

A Bit of the Bubbly

champagne1_0_0I found this post by Megan Myers on the Whole Foods Market blog and thought I’d share it with my readers since it is very informative and most relevant to the season.  Enjoy!

No matter the occasion, sparkling cocktails add an extra touch of excitement. When it comes to the New Year’s Eve countdown, something bubbly is a must! But for some, the champagne and sparkling wine section can be one of the most daunting areas of the wine department.

With that in mind, here’s a champagne primer to help get your bubbly supply sorted out in time to celebrate!

Champagne or Sparkling Wine?

Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled “Champagne.” Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain; Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy; and Sekt in Germany.

Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers. Many sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and can be a better value.

How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.

  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apertif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.

Bubbly Add-Ins

Once you’ve chosen your bottle, try a few of these add-ins for customized cocktails. Consider offering the entire selection at your party so guests can choose their favorite flavors.

  •     Candied ginger
  •     Currants soaked in bitters
  •     Pomegranate juice and seeds
  •     Berries, muddled with mint
  •     Pear juice and a rosemary sprig, like in Whole Foods’ Rosemary Pear Bellini
  •     Orange or grapefruit juice with a twist
  •     Sugared cranberries with a sugar- and black-pepper rimmed glass
  •     Fresh pineapple and rosemary for Whole Foods’ Pineapple Rosemary Crush Cocktail

Whatever you’re toasting with, here’s to a happy new year!

Choosing the right Valentine vintage

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Think pink and bubbles for new relationships on Valentine’s Day.

I ran across this article by by Bill Ward of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Sunday’s News & Observer and found it an extremely helpful resource for choosing the right Valentine’s Day wine to share with your special someone. He writes:

Sometimes the best response to a question is another question.

Like when someone asks: What wine should my sweetie and I drink on Valentine’s Day?

In return: How long have you been together?

There really doesn’t have to be much more to it than that. Just think in terms of how long you’ve been a couple.

Six months or less: Think pink. And bubbles. The bloom is still on your relationship, big time, and the beverage of choice should reflect that. If money is little or no object, shell out for the real deal from Champagne, $75-plus for Billecart-Salmon or Pol Roger or maybe half that for Nicolas Feuillatte or Piper-Heidsieck. Or spend a little more on the food and look for something from Alsace (Lucien Albrecht, Zinck, Pierre Sparr) or Austria (Brundlmayer).

One to five years: The bloom might be off the rose, but you’re still sweet on each other, so celebrate with one of those lush, nectar-like wines. Two sweet ones that are well worth a $70 splurge are the Baumard Quarts de Chaume, a chenin blanc from France’s Loire region, or Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine from Ontario. But again, more affordable options abound, from chocolate-infused reds (Trentadue Chocolate Amore or Rosenblum Desiree) to a wonderful Washington riesling (Chateau Ste. Michelle’s “Eroica”) to the gorgeous dessert wines from France’s Banyuls region (Chapoutier, Les Clos de Paulilles).

Five to 10 years: So now there’s a good chance your relationship is as much about looking ahead as looking back. Wine and wanderlust are natural companions: People who enjoy fermented grape juice almost invariably love to travel, especially to vine-laden lands. So as you start mapping out your journey, begin exploring the destination’s bounty: Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany (Casanova di Neri Tenuta, Banfi), pinot noir from Oregon (Ken Wright, Le Cadeau), the under-recognized whites from Australia (Yalumba Vermentino, Brokenwood Semillon).

More than 10 years: Plenty of options here, starting with a vintage bottle from the year of your first date or wedding (if you have a hard time finding one, get a 20-year-old Tawny Port from Dow or Taylor Fladgate and call it a day). Or have the same wine you savored together on a cherished trip, or at a wonderful wedding, or on your best date of late.

Or just open something from your collection that you’ve been hesitant to try, perhaps because it might be too old or too expensive or you just never found the exact right occasion.

A few years back, The Wall Street Journal’s John Brecher and Dottie Gaiter came up with the notion of “Open That Bottle Night,” a time to uncork something that has some significance. They settled on the last Saturday in February for this night, but there’s no reason you can’t move it to the middle of the month and keep it to yourselves.

You might end up loving the wine, or you might laugh about it. Or both.

But really, anything the two of you feel like having is just fine. This holiday and this beverage tend to have too much self-imposed pressure around them as it is. So just have some fun with it.

A few tips to keep your holidays bubbly

Champagne is best served as cold as you can get it without putting it in the freezer.

True champagne comes from the Champagne region in the northeastern part of France, which jealously protects the name “champagne” worldwide. That’s why the phrases “sparkling wine,” “champagne-style” and “méthode champenoise” appear on a lot of non-French labels.

Champagne doesn’t taste sour. Bad champagne does. However, even good sparkling wine can have quite a range from tart to sweet.

The most common style is brut – there is an extra or ultra brut, but you’ll rarely see it, especially in the United States.

Brut has 0 to 15 grams of sugar per liter. Then comes extra sec with 12-20 grams, sec at 17-35, demi-sec at 35-50, doux at more than 50 and also extremely rare. In the United States, you’re usually dealing with brut, a versatile wine for meals, desserts or just quaffing.

Champagne prices range all over the place, such as $15-$22 for a palatable low-end wine to $30-$60 for the better ones without having to sell your first-born to pay for even more expensive ones. If you’re on a budget, look for cava (from Spain) or prosecco (Italy).

What should determine the price is what’s in the bottle. A non-vintage wine, usually denoted by the letters NV on the label instead of a vintage year, is a blend from several different years. Vintage wines are produced from a single year.

Continue reading the full article here.

Bubblies with zing, not ka-ching

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Look beyond France to find tasty, affordable sparkling wine alternatives to Champagne.

To many people, bubbles in wine are synonymous with Champagne, while purists will argue (rightly) that true Champagne comes only from the region of that name in France. Champagne is wonderful, but it has a big problem, and that problem sounds like “ka-CHING!”

Luckily for budget-minded consumers, plenty of sparkling wines offer high-quality celebratory bubbles at a fraction of the price of Champagne. That means there’s no need to scrimp on the gifts so you can spend on the bubbles this holiday season. I’ve found two terrific bubblies that will have you and your guests dancing in the new year for a mere $10 a bottle.

But first, here’s how to find a wine to suit your needs.

Look for “the neighbors.” If Champagne is too pricey but you want to stay French, look for sparkling wines from other regions, such as Alsace, Bourgogne (Burgundy) or the Loire. Those wines are called “cremant,” and they are made by the same method as Champagne, with the secondary fermentation producing the bubbles in the bottle, though they might not be made with the same grape varieties. They often are quite excellent and range from $15 to $25.

Get out of France

Second, look for other countries that specialize in sparkling wines. Spain’s cava and Italy’s prosecco are ideal choices for celebrating any day’s minor victories or just for starting off dinner with a smile. The best-known cava is probably Freixenet’s Cordon Negro, which is widely available, inexpensive and rather cloyingly sweet. Most cavas are dry, often austere; they might be delicate or robust, but they are always inexpensive, ranging from about $8 to $20.

To paraphrase “Animal Farm,” all cavas are good; some are better than others. My favorite from this year’s crop is called Kila Cava, from famed Spanish wine broker Jorge Ordonez. It lives up to its cutesy name for a mere $10 with lively fruit and just enough richness to give it a little extra interest. At that price, it’s worth buying by the case and keeping a bottle chilled for impromptu celebrations.

Sparkling wine is so popular that winemakers around the world produce their own versions. California makes some to rival Champagne in complexity and price, but the real bargains can be found by way of some unexpected places. In Oregon, Argyle winery produces a delightful brut sparkler with an intensity of fruit that reminds me of the Domaine Chandon Etoile from Napa Valley. The Etoile costs about $40, but you can find the Argyle for $25 or less.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/12/18/1715433/bubblies-with-zing-not-ka-ching.html#storylink=cpy

How to give the perfect toast

http://www.virtualme.bizThis little piece appeared in last Sunday’s Parade Magazine. I found these to be practical and witty tips for raising your glass with style, and thought I’d share them here in case you missed the post. They’re provided courtesy of Jon Lovett, a White House speechwriter and winner of the “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” contest.

So you have to give a toast. Oh, don’t be nervous. You’ll probably do great. It’s hard to fail completely. And even if you do, it’s not like people put awkward and embarrassing videos on the Internet, right? So what’s there to be nervous about? Besides, you’ve got a secret weapon: instructions from a magazine.

As a speechwriter, I’m often asked to help with toasts. And I’ve given a few myself. (In fact, if you’re east of the Mississippi and listen closely, you can still hear faint applause coming from the ballroom of a moderately priced catering hall on Long Island… because they haven’t stopped clapping yet.) Based on my experience, if you follow these simple rules, you should be fine.

1. Keep it short. There are no bad 10-second toasts. There are no good 10-minute toasts. No one in the whole recorded history of people talking has ever said, “I wish that speech were longer.”

2. …And sweet. This isn’t the Friars Club, and you aren’t Gilbert Gottfried. No insults. No vulgar stories. We know they’re funny. But your aunt doesn’t. Unless your aunt is Gilbert Gottfried.

3. Test it out. On actual human beings. A mirror won’t tell you that you aren’t as hilarious as you think you are. That’s what friends are for.

4. But most important. Be sincere. And specific. Your sister is more than totally awesome. She’s a role model, an inspiration, a friend who’s really been there for you. A toast is a chance to say what we always mean to say to the people we love. That’s why you’re up there.

5. And one more thing: See that champagne glass in your hand? The one you’re pointing at the guest of honor as you deliver the perfect toast? It doesn’t have to be the first glass you’ve held that night. But it better not be your seventh.

Cheers!