Sparkling wine is commonplace on New Year’s Eve, but getting to the bottom of where it comes from and how it’s made can be daunting. We asked James Beard Award-winning wine and spirits expert Jordan Mackay to tell us everything we ever wanted to know about bubbles (but were a bit afraid to ask).
While drinking sparkling wine should really be a year-round obligation, opportunities to consume it rise exponentially during the last six weeks of the year. Basically the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is just one long bubbly fest.
But while all sparkling wines have one very obvious thing in common, they are not all the same. First, remember: Sparkling wine is indeed wine and should be treated as such. Evaluate it as you would any still white or red. Qualities like balance, concentration and texture are just as important. Flutes are lovely and festive, but consider serving more complex sparklers out of white wine glasses to better appreciate the aromas of sparkling wines.
When it comes to sparkling wines, Champagne really is the king. It’s the most expensive, most venerated and often the most complex and delicious of sparkling wines. However, this is not always the case, so be open minded. Truly wonderful bubbly is made world over—in red, white and pink—and from a dizzying variety of grapes, styles and methods.
Methods of production run from the traditional one, known worldwide as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionelle, to other, less nuanced methods of getting the bubbles into the wine. In the Champagne method, the secondary fermentation which creates the bubbles takes place within each individual bottle of wine. It’s by far the most painstaking process, producing the wines with the most potential complexity and allure. Other methods are faster, cheaper and less painstaking and thus the wines (and bubbles) are often not as fine.
Sparkling wine grapes range from the strange sounding Xarel-lo (zjar-ell-oh) of Spain to the Prosecco grape of Italy to Riesling in Germany and even Shiraz, the familiar red grape of Australia. Varieties from France not made in Champagne are often called Crémant and can be delicious, as in Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) or Crémant de Loire (Loire Valley).
In Spain, sparkling wines are called Cava. They vary in price, grapes and origin, though most come from the area around Barcelona, and all are made in the Champagne method. Most Italian sparklers we see are Prosecco, the name of both the grape and the resulting wine. Prosecco can be wonderful, but it’s not made in the Champagne method and can thus be somewhat simpler. German and Austrian sparkling wine is called Sekt and is often made from Riesling or Grüner Veltliner (Austria). Of course, some very fine sparkling wine is made here in the U.S., usually from the same grapes and with the same method as Champagne.
As I reminded above, sparkling wines are wines, great with food at the table. Don’t think you have to drink them by themselves; indeed, when it comes to pairings, sparkling wines often can where other wines fear to tread.
For instance: soup. It’s hard to pair a liquid with a liquid. But when one has pleasantly prickly little bubbles, it can create a pleasing contrast. Conversely, a sparkling wine’s texture echoes the crispiness of battered and fried foods, such as fried shrimp, tempura vegetables or french fries. Sushi, so suave and smooth, is another great pairing option, as is all manner of fish, shellfish and seafood. Powerful sparklers can even pair with poultry, duck and pork. Don’t be afraid to try!
So, cheers. Here’s to bubbles and plenty of festive pops! during your entire holiday march.