Wine Observed: Wines for Celebrating

Vermont Food & Wine

I am drinking the stars!
               —Dom Perignon

Wine Observed: Wines for Celebrating

by Marty Ramsburg

Champagne and other sparkling wines are some of our favorites. They have long been associated with celebrations and that seems natural. After all, how can one help but feel cheerful when holding a stem with all those beautiful, lively bubbles forming elegant threads as they race to celebrate their own liberation?

We start many of our get togethers with sparkling because we feel that having good friends, and spending time together, is cause for celebration.

There are myriad sparkling wines, from Champagne to Prosecco, Cava, Cremant and nearly countless other sparklers. While Champagne remains the gold standard, Mike Steinberger, wine writer for Slate magazine, has observed that, “the quality threshold [for Champagne] really begins at about $35 these days”—and read $40 for Vermont. But there is more to sparkling than Champagne, i.e., those sparkling wines produced within the Appellation de Controllée (AOC) of Champagne in northern France. We love Champagne, but we can hardly afford a bottle with any regularity, let alone buying multiple bottles to share across many guests who are raising a glass to toast to the enduring love of the bride and groom. If you want those guests to finish that glass, rather than just put it down after the toast, here are some more affordable, but delicious, options for sparkling wines.

Chardonnay-Pinot Noir Sparklings — The grapes from which Champagnes are generally made are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The two Pinots are red grapes, but because the juice is not left in contact with the skins, most champagnes are clear. Many countries, including the United States, make sparkling wine in the same method as Champagne and using the same grapes. In fact, several Champagne houses have operations in California, including Moet and Chandon (Domaine Chandon), Tattinger (Domaine Carneros), Mumm, and Roederer (Roederer Estate).

Don’t overlook Gruet, a French Champagne producer that has pioneered New Mexico. In the US, Australia, and South Africa (Graham Beck) wines made from Champagne’s grapes usually rely exclusively on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  They too are made Brut, or dry, and can be made as blends of Chardonnay and Pinot, or exclusively from Chardonnay (Blanc de Blancs) or exclusively from Pinot Noir (Blanc de Noirs). These well-made, delicious wines generally run from the mid- teens up to $25. One problem: you’ll have to buy extra to accommodate those heretofore skeptics who want another glass!

Cava  — Spain makes its own version of sparkling wine. Usually made from the grapes Parellada, Xarel-lo, Macabeo and occasionally Chardonnay, Cavas have tremendous acidity with earthy, minerally, and citrusy flavors. Like other sparkling wines, Cava is made in a range of sweetness, from Brut Natura (bone dry) to Brut, Extra-Dry and Semi-Secco (fairly sweet).  Because of the high acidity of the grapes that comprise Cavas, we find that Extra Dry allows the fruit to show while toning down the bracing acidity. One of the Cavas that we carry, Poema, sells for just $11.99 per bottle and has converted many bubblephobes into believers.

Prosecco  — Many people associate Prosecco with brunch and Mimosas, but a good Prosecco is also very satisfying on its own. Made in the hills to the north and west of Venice, Prosecco uses the Prosecco grape that expresses flavors of peach and almonds. Prosecco also tends to be softer (less obviously crisp on the finish) than Champagne or Cava, so is a good place to start for those who don’t care for the acidity and effervescence of most sparkling wine. It is made either slightly fizzy (frizzante) or fully sparkling (spumante), and for those who prefer still wine, the frizzante-style may be a good alternative. Prices vary along with quality, with most Prosecco producers now making a range. In our experience, Zardetto Brut (not the regular Cuvée), Bisol’s Crede, and Bellenda make lovely spumante, dry Proseccos that always transport us back to Italy and therefore transform moods to indulgent and celebratory. Riondo’s Prosecco is made in the frizzante-style with a bit more residual sugar.

Marty Ramsburg is co-owner with Frank Larkin of Windham Wines, one of Vermont’s premier wine and beer retailers. Next door is their Wine Gallery, a unique venue for special events and guided wine and beer tastings. 802 246-6400 Tues-Sat, 11-7p, 30-36 Main Street, Brattleboro, Windhamwines.com.

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