Bubble, Bubble Everywhere

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Sifting through the sparkling wine clutter this holiday season

by Courtney Cochran

It never fails: the holidays arrive yet again and you still have no idea how to tell your Prosecco from your Cava. When to serve vintage versus non-vintage Champagne? You're clueless.

With all the stress that comes with the holidays, worrying about your sparkling wine selection seems like an unnecessary burden. Happily, help is here when it comes to the sparkling wine thing. Read on for the low-down on some of the most popular styles of sparkling wine, so that this holiday you can really mean it when you insist that - ahem - you're quite certain a sparkling Chenin Blanc is just the thing to pair with your honey-baked ham.

A Quick Bubbly Primer

Champagne - Sparkling wines from the Champagne region in France made in the traditional "méthode Champenoise," which includes a second fermentation inside the bottle (trapping CO2, a natural by-product of fermentation - hence the bubbles!).
Sparkling Wine - The catchall term used to describe sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region; most bubblies made in California are labeled "sparkling wine."
Cava - The Spanish version of Champagne; these are made in the traditional method.
Prosecco - Sparkling wines from the Veneto region of Italy.
Crémant - The term used to describe French sparkling wines made in the style of Champagne but outside the Champagne region.

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The Real Deal - Champagne

Sometimes only the real thing will do. Champagne - which must hail from the prestigious Champagne region in northeastern France to bear the name - is without a doubt the real deal, but its different manifestations can be confusing. Allow me to clarify:

Non-Vintage Brut Champagne - By far the most widely available kind of Champagne, non-vintage blends are made from grapes from several different years' harvests and comprise nearly 90% of all Champagne made. These are the sparklers you see in supermarket aisles and fine wine shops alike, and they're usually priced between $25 and $35 a bottle. And because they're made from several different years' harvests, don't expect to find a year stated anywhere on the bottle.

These dry, medium- to full-bodied wines are ideal for pairing with salty starters like nuts and cheese boards, and also work deftly at the table throughout a meal thanks to Champagne's signature high acidity.

Vintage Champagne - Made only a few times each decade in the best (read: warmest) years, vintage-dated Champagne is rare indeed, and carries a price tag to match. Priced at $50 a bottle and way up, vintage Champagne boasts a full body and round, nutty taste that complements rich, elegant dishes like lobster, quail and even roasts. Thanks to its laser-sharp acidity, vintage Champagne is also the go-to bubbly for high-end briny foods such as oysters and caviar.

Dishes with piquant or assertive flavors (think cranberry sauce, anything with wasabi) should be avoided, however, as they will overpower vintage Champagne's inherent delicacy. Instead, when tucking into these trickier dishes reach for non-vintage Champagne, whose youth and forward fruit flavors can cope with just about anything that crosses the table.


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Prestige Cuvées - With prices that start at $100 and famous names like Cristal and Dom Pérignon, prestige cuvées are the golden children of the Champagne family. And although they make up less than 5% of total Champagne production, they're responsible for the lion's share of the region's, well, prestige.

A precise definition of prestige cuvée doesn't exist, but essentially they're the flagship, highest-end bottlings from Champagne houses. And as with luxury clothing lines (known in the fashion world as couture collections), prestige cuvées establish the producers' reputation for luxury and quality, while their non-vintage counterparts (in the clothing world, the ready-to-wear lines) maintain the houses' bottom lines.

Prestige cuvées often carry a vintage year, although some do not. They tend to be extraordinarily elegant and will benefit from some time in your cellar - where their complex flavors can continue their evolution - before enjoying. When you do finally pop the cork on a prestige cuvée, be sure to savor it. Like the wine itself, moments like these are rare indeed.

Champagne Look-Alikes - Crémant & Cava

French bubbly made in the same manner as Champagne but outside of that hallowed (and pricey) region, Crémant may just be France's best-kept secret. Crémant packs the yeasty complexity of Champagne but foregoes the laser-sharp acidity and stony minerality of its more famous countryman. This means that Crémant - like Champagne - pairs well with a wide variety of dishes, but briny items and anything too assertive should be avoided.

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Crémant labels bear the name of the region within France from which they hail, and these include areas include Alsace, Bourgogne, Limoux and Loire. By way of example, a bottle from Alsace will be called "Crémant d'Alsace" while one from Limoux will read "Crémant de Limoux." Prices start at $15 a bottle and rarely top $30, making these outstanding Champagne substitutes for value-minded shoppers.

Cava is the Spanish word for "cellar" and also what we call Champagne-style sparkling wines from northeastern Spain, near Barcelona. Because it's much warmer along Spain's Mediterranean coast than in crisp Champagne, these wines are softer and fruitier than their French counterparts. They're best matched up with salty starter items, grilled fish and light meats. And with prices that start at a wallet-friendly $6 a bottle, these are also the best bubbles for mimosas.

Look for more on Champagne variants in an upcoming article.

The Italian Job - Prosecco

Prosecco hails from northeastern Italy, near postcard-perfect Venice. These are relatively low-alcohol (they often clock in at just about 11% alcohol, compared to 13% and up for most other wines), lightly fizzing delights that are perfect with cheese courses and vegetable- and fruit-driven dishes. Prosecco tends toward floral and melon flavors and ranges in style from fully dry to medium sweet. If you're set on drinking a completely dry (AKA brut) bubbly, watch for the words "Extra Dry" or "Extra Brut" on the bottle.

California Cuvées

When venerable Champagne producer Louis Roederer set out to establish a sparkling wine operation outside France, he looked no further than California's northerly Mendocino County, where the climate is similar to that in Champagne. Now, Roederer Estate and several other bubbly producers make world-class sparkling wines in the area, some of which have even been dubbed as good as the real deal.

As with Champagne, non-vintage brut bubblies make up the lion's share of California houses' production. And while these widely available wines are consistently good, I'm particularly fond of more rare California Blanc de Noirs (literally, "white of blacks") bottlings, which are made exclusively with dark-skinned grapes and boast a lovely blush of color. Because they're made with dark grapes, these are some of the most full-bodied bubblies and pair beautifully with rich meats including pork and game.

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Adventurous Alternatives - Sparkling Chenin Blanc & Shiraz

Sparkling Chenin Blanc is a little-known, medium sweet bubbly from Vouvray in western France that's oustanding with sweeter fare and cheese boards. Because cheese is terrifically salty, sweet sparklers act as a foil to the salt and make an unexpectedly harmonious pairing. Honey-baked ham, with its candied notes, is another shoe-in with sweet sparklers from the Vouvray area. Talk to your wine merchant about helping you locate one of these charmers, as they're somewhat rare in the US.

For those who'd like to add a pop of color to the holiday table, sparkling Shiraz from Australia is an excellent choice. Technically dry but with Shiraz's trademark fruit-forward character, sparkling Shiraz pairs well with cured meats and roasts. With its deep ruby red color, there's nothing prettier for the table, or for toasting the New Year. Santé!

Author's Picks

Non-Vintage Brut Champagne - Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve, $38

Vintage Champagne - Bollinger "Grande Année" 1999, $119

Prestige Cuvée - Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2000, $250

Crémant - Jean Philippe & Francois Becker Crémant d'Alsace Non-vintage, $15

Cava - Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava Non-vintage, $8

Prosecco - Zardetto Prosecco Non-vintage, $13

California Blanc de Noirs - Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2004, $36

Sparkling Chenin Blanc - Philippe Foreau Vouvray Moelleux "Clos Naudin" 2005, $65

Sparkling Shiraz - Hardys Sparkling Shiraz Non-vintage, $20

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