Supposedly after sampling a recent vintage of still wine that had unexpectedly undergone a
secondary fermentation process in the bottle, the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon exclaimed
“Come quickly, I have been drinking stars!” Moet et Chandon purchased the property in the late
1700s and in 1921, named their Tete de Cuvee after the famed monk who discovered champagne.
Since the discovery of champagne, generations have been popping champagne corks at weddings,
graduations, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and any personal milestone. I personally have been
known to pop a cork “just because”.
Sparkling Wine Doesn’t Have to Cost a King’s Ransom
If your champagne of choice is older vintage or Krug, then it will cost a pretty penny. However,
there are also many houses that offer “real” champagne for less than $50 per bottle, many less
than $20 per bottle. By “real” champagne I mean the sparkling wine produced specifically in the
Champagne region of France.
At my obligatory stop to Trader Joe’s during my annual California pilgrimage, I always see many
champagne selections less than $20 per bottle. They offer Mumm, Montaudon, Roederer and
other labels that are quite affordable.
They also offer many other sparkling wines – while not technically champagne – that are very
good and rival many of the French Champagne houses.
California alone produces several sister versions of their French counterparts. Mumm, Chandon,
Taittinger and Roederer are all entrenched in California using American fruit combined with
French technique for Napa “champagne”. There are many other California wineries that either
offer a sparkling selection or are totally devoted to sparkling wine. Even the Spanish company
Freixenet, set up a California operation in the form of the Gloria Ferrer Winery.
Therefore, I encourage you to visit your local wine shop or big box retailer to explore the world of
Brut, Extra Dry or Blanc de something?
The basic terminology goes like this: A Brut is the driest form of sparkling wine. It usually doesn’t
have any detectable sweetness and is the perfect food-friendly sparkling wine. An Extra Dry wine is
a bit of an oxy-moron. It is slightly sweet though can still pair with certain types of rich, oily
foods. A Demi-Sec is sweet and as such is usually served with, or as dessert itself.
What about the Blanc de something designations? A Blanc de Blanc means only white grapes were
used in production or Chardonnay in most cases while a Blanc de Noir (my personal favorite)
means only red grapes were used so it’s usually a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The
Brut, Extra Dry and Demi-Sec designations are usually a blend of all three grapes.
What to Eat With Sparkling Wine?
First food that comes to mind is fried food. I know this sounds weird – for lack of a better term
but French fries and potato chips are simple, good partners with sparkling wines. Of course, since
they both carry a heavier fat burden than other foods, I usually seek better renditions of the two.
Any French fry made by a devoted chef of the fried potato –first that comes to mind in the Bay
Area is that Belgian fry shop in Ghirardelli Square, though the folks at the Golden Arches do know
a thing or two about the pomme frite.
My favorite chip is the Reduced Fat Cape Cod brand though by stating it, I’ll probably be banned
from Maui by not proclaiming their version as king.
Why fried foods you ask? The acidity and effervescence of sparkling wine is the perfect palate
cleanser when eating a lightly, oil cooked food. It does this the way tannins in red wine work by
cleaning the palate when consuming heavier red meats. By itself, the constant acidity of the
sparkling wine may tire the palate. When balancing the acidity with the appropriate food, both
the food and wine continue to excite the palate.
Sparkling wine also compliments seafood very well, especially richer seafood such as oysters and
clams, fattier raw fish such as otoro, hamachi and salmon and seafood served in richer sauces. The
same rationale applies to seafood as to fried foods. Interestingly, theses are exactly the types of
foods I have on both the Eve and New Years Day…along with sparkling wine. Cosmic karma neh?
Opening a Bottle
For the uninitiated, opening any bottle of spakling wine looks like a scary proposition. Are the
contents within worth the risk of a glass-infused forearm? I really don’t want to redesign my
ceiling with wine corks…or put out Aunt Mabel’s eye on New Years Day.
It’s actually very simple. First, chill the bottle for at least three hours – I usually chill overnight.
Second, peel off the foil wrapper just past the cork and wire cage. Third, while covering the cork
with a toweled hand, undo the wire cage by unraveling the wire. Fourth, point the bottle away
from Aunt Mabel (and any other guests). Finally, while holding the cork in the same towel
covered hand, gently twist the BOTTLE (not the hand) with the other hand and slowly pull the
cork out (the internal bottle pressure will assist by “pushing” the cork out. It should release with a
minor “pop” or fizz.
What you don’t want is a recreation of a World Series victory with most of the contents
showering your kitchen. I prefer the contents going into my mouth instead of covering the floor.
For the daring, experienced sparkling wine drinker, try “sabering” your bottle open. This should
only be done with young sparkling wines (old bottles don’t fracture nicely and run the risk of
shattering). A blunt-edge sword or knife is sharply tapped against the lip of the top of a YOUNG
bottle of sparkling wine that has its cage and foil already removed. When done properly, the bottle
fractures at the lip (with cork still in glass). Any small glass fragments are usually expelled by the
small amount of wine that exits the bottle. This does take more experience (and nerve) and I
would only try this initially with the requisite protective gear (such as eye protection, heavy duty
long sleeved wear and heavy duty gloves).
Sparkling Wine Mixed Drinks
For those who still don’t care for “plain” Blanc de Blanc or vintage variety, sparkling wine cocktails
aren’t limited just to Mimosas or orange juice and sparkling wine combinations. A dash of Crème
de Casis or currant liquor gives you a Kir Royale. Chambord makes it a Royal Kir. Because sparkling
wine has a nice acidic backbone, any sweet liquor adds that slight touch of sweetness that can
perfectly compliment a sparkling wine. Midori gives it a vibrant green tinge and melon perfume or
a dash of banana liquor and Grand Marnier with a strawberry garnish makes an adult breakfast
“smoothie.” The key is your imagination and not using an expensive sparkler – I find that Korbel is
perfect for these cocktails.
Sky’s the Limit
For those with unlimited budgets or want that special celebratory bottle, the Gochiso Gourmet
Bollinger Grand Annee 1990
Any Krug – vintage or nonvintage
Charles Heidsieck Rose 1985
Charles Heidsieck Brut 1990
De Venoge Brut 1990
Whatever the occasion, add sparkling wine to your repertoire of food – yes, wine should always be
considered part of the meal and not just a liquid sedative. Since prices have lowered (since the
passing of the Millenium), consider it as you would a Chardonnay or Cabernet. It makes the meal
that much better…and life that much better. Pop a cork “just because!” Shinmen Akemashite
Omedetou Gozimasu for a great 2004 from the Gochiso Gourmet!
I Have Been Drinking Stars!