According to many store displays one would think the holiday season was in full swing with Christmas just around the corner. Still Thanksgiving is coming soon and it’s a good time to consider those holiday wines that will serve until the sound of champagne corks popping announces the New Year. In fact, sparkling wines and champagne are synonymous with the holidays and are discussed below.
Sparkling Wine and Champagne
Sparklers fill many needs around the holidays. They are always festive, adding sparkle to any party, and pair great with appetizers, main courses and desserts. The best sparklers use the champenoise or traditional method; performing the second fermentation in the bottle. The bubbles are more intense and smaller, yielding a sensual mouthfeel, like a gossamer meringue.
Many domestic sparkling wines approach those of France’s Champagne region in quality, but often don’t produce the yeasty, baked bread flavors of classic Champagne. However, they are usually more approachable on the palate and generally cheaper. Many sparklers are defined as “NV” meaning non-vintage, which really should be multiple vintages as more than one year’s harvest is used. This allows a Champagne or sparkling wine producer to create a “house blend or style” for their base wines. Vintage-dated sparkling wines are always more expensive.
Champagne, of course only comes from the Champagne region of France, but produces some of the most sought after wines in the world. Since prices can be high for many of these wines a good alternative is the many French cremant sparkling wines. These wines are made using the same traditional method and often the same classic grapes as Champagne.
For example, a cremant de Bourgogne is a sparkling wine from Burgundy. Since the two classic grapes of both Champagne and Burgundy are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir a cremant offers quality at a lower price. Pinot Meunier, the third Champagne grape is much less common in other sparkling wine blends, however. The Loire Valley and Alsace also make fine sparklers. And a magnum of a French cremant sparkling wine is a lot easier on the purse.
Speaking of champagne magnums, be aware there is a premium for larger format bottles. A 750ml bottle of Veuve Cliquot “Yellow Label” at one store goes for $40, but the magnum (1.5L) goes for $117 and the double magnum (3 liter) is $350. If one is trying to impress, a magnum or double magnum does that, but so does the price. Alternately, an array of four 750ml Veuve Cliquot bottles in a bucket of ice would save $190 over a double magnum. Minus the ice, of course.
Cava, the sparkling wine of the Penedés region of Spain uses different grapes; parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo as well as Chardonnay, but also uses the champenoise method for the second fermentation. They represent good value and a magnum of Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut is cheaper than two 750ml bottles. Now that’s a magnum even Dirty Harry could love.
New Mexico Sparkling Wines
When deciding on sparklers for this holiday season, New Mexico’s own Gruet offers some of the best value and widest selections anywhere. Gruet currently offers six NV wines and three vintage-dated wines. For Gruet’s 25th year, a new NV sparkler, Blanc de Blancs 25th Anniversary wine is also available. For the Rosé lover, Gruet offers a NV Rosé and a 2010 Grande Rosé that are perfect pairing partners for a holiday dinner and their jewel-like colors will brighten any Thanksgiving table.
Food pairing wines for the holidays
The easiest wines to pair with food are balanced with lower alcohol, less tannins in reds, good acidity and mouthfeel. A balanced wine has the elements of acidity, aroma and bouquet, palate, tannins and sweetness working together. For example, a wine with alcohol out of balance generates heat on the palate that can blur or overpower food. A wine with low acidity is flabby and does not integrate with food. Think of acidity as the bonding element between the food and wine.
Sparkling wines have good acidity, the lilt of carbonation to refresh and reinvigorate the palate, notes of citrus, pear, apple, melon and the velvety mouthfeel of a fine *mousse. That is, at least partly, why so many holiday dinners and celebrations begin and end with them.
*Mousse: French term for the actual effervescence, froth, foam or sparkle of Champagne and sparkling wines.
Opening Sparkling Wines
Unless one is celebrating their team’s World Series win and must coat each player with liberal amounts of Champagne, insuring that none of the bubbly ever reaches their mouths, here are a few tips to avoid an inadvertent spray of bubbly dowsing your guests.
- Chill it, don’t spill it. Only open a warm sparkler if launching a cork into space is a desirable goal.
- Always keep one hand on the cork and cage until the cork is removed.
- Twist open the cork cage, about six turns, holding the cork in place.
- Hold the bottle at a 45o angle, keeping the cage over the cork for extra grip surface.
- Stabilize the cork and turn the base of the bottle. The mechanical advantage of the wide base makes this easier than twisting the cork. A groaning sound might be the cork or someone straining over a too-tight cork.
- Continue holding the cork as it eases out of the bottle. Done successfully only a small squeak, not a loud hiss should occur.
- Continue holding the bottle at a 45o angle for a few more seconds before serving.
- Unless one enjoys glasses foaming over their table, pour slowly. Tilting the flute also helps contain the foam.
- Avoid using the traditional champagne “Marie Antoinette” shaped glass. Like its namesake it quickly loses its head.
- Some pourers place a thumb in the punt (the depression at the base) but many sommeliers do not. Never try this with a double magnum unless it’s a magic trick.