From the wine…
Makes me happy…
Makes me feel fine…
Since we’re well into the holiday season, what better beverage to celebrate with than
Champagne? From a well-aged Tete de Cuvee like Cristal or Dom Perignon to the minerality of a
Blanc de Blanc to the richness of a Blanc de Noir or the fragrant fruit of a Rose… What? A nice
bottle of Champagne a little out of your price range? Or perhaps you don’t mind spending a
little during the holidays but realize that that one bottle of Krug won’t go very far with 20
guests. Then how about purchasing some of Champagne’s foreign cousins, sparkling wine?
What’s the Difference?
For starters, “true” Champagne is only produced in the 76,000 or so acres in two regions in
Northern France. Even within France, any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region
cannot be labeled as Champagne. And of course, just because a sparkling wine is made within
the region and is “true” Champagne, it doesn’t mean it will be of exceptional quality. There is
one big difference with Champagne. Because the name is readily identifiable, true Champagne
usually carries a higher price tag even if the quality is the same as an American, Spanish or
Italian sparkling wine. And if you’re hosting a party for 20 to 30 guests, that price difference
can be quite a wallet breaker.
How About Sparkling Wine?
Other than the “name”, the same quality and production methods can be found in sparkling
wines outside of the Champagne region. The best sparklers from America and Spain also are
made in the Methode Champenoise or “in the method of Champagne” though you won’t see it
listed as such since Champagne also has a monopoly on designating sparkling wine as produced
in the Methode Champenoise. Even if other sparklers in Europe use the same methods of
production, they have to label their sparklers as produced in the Methode Traditionnelle which
follows the same procedures. Basically, still wine is bottled with added yeast and sugar that
creates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Since the bottles are sealed, the carbon dioxide
formed during fermentation dissolves in the newly formed wine (and bubbles come out of
solution when the bottle is uncorked). Most of the best Californian sparkling wines are
produced in this manner – of course, many of the Golden State’s sparkling wine house are
offshoots of their famous French founders. The same goes for Cava from Spain where the only
difference in Spanish sparklers are the grape varieties which use Xarello, Parellada and Macabeo
instead of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
There’s also Prosecco from Italy which is made using the Charmat process where the secondary
fermentation occurs in large stainless steel tanks. This process is a lot cheaper so even good
Prosecco only costs a fraction of what a good traditionally produced sparkling wine would cost.
However, the Charmat process isn’t just to reduce production costs, the Charmat process allows
the finished sparkling wine to retain its fruity and fragrant qualities which would dissipate with
the longer processing of the traditional methods.
Then there’s one of my new favorites, sparkling sake. And since both sparkling wine and sake
have a place at the Tatsumoto holiday table, why not combine the two? Still one of the
beverages of choice with sushi and sashimi but now also with the effervescence to cleanse the
palate of richer flavors and textures. So along with being a perfect partner to amaebi sushi, the
effervescence in the sparkling sake can also refresh your palate after consuming those fried
amaebi heads. Or tempura. Or refresh your palate after rich ankimo or uni. And there are several
houses that produce a sparkling sake like Mizbasho, Shirakabe Gura’s Mio and Gekkeikan’s
Doesn’t have to be Straight Up
Since these non-traditional sparklers usually don’t carry a king’s ransom for a price tag, you also
won’t feel the pain if they are mixed with other flavors like…
Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup
I first saw this several years ago at my neighborhood gourmet shop. About 11 flowers are packed
in syrup that’s meant to adorn the bottom of a sparkling wine fluted glass. The syrup sweetens
the wine a little and the vivid red color enlivens any toast. Add a green garnish and you have
Christmas in a glass. I normally fill the glass with Prosecco which usually is off-dry anyway.
The French 75
Combining two of my favorite libations, gin and sparkling wine. Add a couple of dashes of
simple syrup (equal parts of sugar dissolved into water), 1 part lemon juice, 2 parts gin and shake
over ice until cold and frosty. Add to a fluted glass then top with 4 parts sparkling wine with a
lemon zest twirl to garnish. I usually use domestic sparkling wine like Domaine Chandon or
Mix 1 part pear brandy and 4 parts pear nectar over ice until cold and frosty. Add to a fluted
glass then top with 5 parts Prosecco. Off-dry (slightly sweet) Prosecco works better than dry
Add 1 tablespoon of crème de cassis to the bottom of a fluted glass. Top with chilled sparkling
wine. I prefer domestic sparkling wine but Prosecco also works for this libation.
You can substitute almost any fruity type of liqueur for the crème de cassis such as framboise
(raspberry liqueur), Midori (melon liqueur), Extase (orange liqueur with cognac) or strawberry
liqueur (add a strawberry garnish).
Add 1 tablespoon each of St Germain (elderflower liqueur) and Soho (litchi liqueur) to a fluted
glass. Top with sparkling sake.
The Everyday Libation
So while Champagne is usually associated only with special occasions and celebrations, there’s
no reason to just limit it to a once-in-a-great-while type of libation. And perchance cost is the
main reason you’ve limiting your “cork popping”, look to Champagne’s affordable and lesser
known cousins that can also be enjoyed on their own or crafted into festive cocktails. So as Don
Ho might have said…
Make me warm all over…
With a feeling that I'm gonna
Love sparklers till the end of time…