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 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


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

Festive wines for festive times

http://www.virtualme.bizAs we all know, the holidays are a festive time — and festive wines are required. Sparkling wines, rich Cabernet, sexy Syrah and crisp Chardonnay will delight you and your guests. In the November/December issue of Cary Living Magazine, April Schlanger (owner of Sip…A Wine Store in Cary, North Carolina) offers these suggestions:

’08 Frogs Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, California
A classic Rutherford Cabernet can make any holiday gathering extra special. Aromas of cassis and currant combine with a mineral tone and a touch of warm spices. Rich black cherry flavors are enhanced with notes of pomegranate, spice, cedar and green olive.

NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, France
Billecart-Salmon is one of the few remaining champagne houses to be owned by its original family. Lovely bubbles with aromas of honeyed apricots and freshly baked biscuits. A blend of 45% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.

’09 Sant’Evasio Brachetto, Italy
Brachetto will make any dessert seem extra special. This semi-sweet, ruby-red bubbly has bright cherry and strawberry flavors. This wine is more floral than others, giving it an added dimension.

’08 Stemmler, Pinot Noir, Sonoma
Looking for a sexy wine for those intimate celebrations? This Pinot Noir will not disappoint. Beautiful ripe strawberry, raspberry and intense black cherry and plum aromas mingled with hints of cola, forest floor and earth. The wine is fleshy, sleek and spicy, with copious wild berry, black cherry and strawberry flavors, good grip and a sustained well-balanced finish.

’10 Lioco, Sonoma Chardonnay, California
This is the perfect wine to serve at your next intimate celebration. Aromas of fresh Meyer lemon, lime leaf and river stones. The wine is round with lovely flavors of lemon drop candies and green pear.

’06 Qupe “Bien Nadico Hillside” Syrah, California
Made from the southwest-facing, low-yielding hillside at Bien Nacido Vineyard, the grapes for this wine have the winemaker’s special touch. About 10-15% of the juice is barrel fermented ‘en saignee’, which adds a toasty mocha complexity. The wine is aged for 20 months in 60% new Burgundy barrels.

I can’t wait to try April’s suggestions.  What are your favorite wines for the holidays?  I’d love to hear your recommendations.