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!

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

Wine’s winter wonderland

http://www.virtualme.bizEating and drinking in season is nothing new when talking about making the most of the plentiful produce in the peak of summer, but the concept can — and should — carry over to cooler months as well.

Wouldn’t you rather have a warm bowl of butternut squash soup than a BLT with pathetically green, under-ripe tomatoes? When the city is frozen over, doesn’t a hearty serving of deeply flavorful braised beef short ribs sound more appealing than a light, citrusy ceviche? Of course it does.

On a cold day, choosing just the right wine can be every bit as pleasing as warming yourself up with soul-satisfying comfort food. In the Winter 2011 issue of Wake Living Magazine, Jeff Bramwell, co-owner of The Raleigh Wine Shop, offers a few of his favorite bottles to uncork while cool weather prevails.

Perfect pairings

The wines of Burgundy, both red and white, seem to be at their best throughout the holiday season. Whether it’s the archetype of Chardonnay paired with Thanksgiving dinner or roast chicken and root vegetables, or the pinnacle of elegant Pinot Noir matched with a slow-roasted bone-in ham, these wines have a unique ability to enhance an already special time of year.

Other popular mid-winter classics like pot roast, meatloaf and pork tenderloin are great excuses to reach for the bold, spicy Grenache- and Syrah-based wines from the Rhone Valley in France, or big, structured reds from California.

Malbec from Argentina — one of the most popular wines over the past few years — would be equally at home with any of these dishes, but there’s another South American specialty that deserves your attention: Carmenere. This almost-forgotten Bordeaux varietal made its way to Chile more than 100 years ago, though until the mid-1990s it was thought to be an especially flavorful expression of Merlot.

Carmenere is a difficult grape to get right because it can be plagued with under-ripe green bell pepper aromas, but at its best it has tons of character and offers great value, much like its more well-known Argentine counterpart. Bramwell says he’s a particularly big fan of the Terra Noble Gran Reserva, which is akin to some of the far more expensive wines from this grape’s original home.

Solo sipping

Not every wine needs to be enjoyed with food, however. Sometimes there’s nothing cozier than curling up with a glass of wine by the fireplace. The ideal wine for such an occasion is Amarone from the Valpolicella growing area in northeastern Italy. This unique wine typically is made from a trio of red grapes that are allowed to partially dry out on straw mats prior to fermentation. By decreasing the water content of the grape, the resulting wine has an incredible richness, fairly viscous texture and flavors of plums, figs, dried cherries, and cloves.

For a more wallet-friendly version of this luxurious wine, try a Valpolicella Ripasso, which is made in the same region using the same grapes. In crafting Ripasso, winemakers take the used grape skins from the production of Amarone and combine them with their basic Valpolicella, introducing some of its richness to the blend in the process. With their silky textures and hearty, warming flavors, Bramwell says he can’t think of a better way to drink during cold winter nights. Come to think of it, neither can I!

What are your favorite winter wines?  I look forward to hearing your recommendations.