Sparkling wine's reputation for celebration is also its downfall. Beverage of choice for the best moments of our lives — relationships sealed, houses warmed, new years rung in — it is associated mainly with special events in our minds. For dinner, we turn to still wines, debating over the potential of this or that red to pair with (gasp) halibut or the like.
This is a shame — not the fact that we're having a fine time when we're sipping sparkling wine, but that in our excitement we fail to notice that its bubbles are delivering fascinating flavors. In fact, we forget that sparkling isn't one kind of wine. "I'd like a glass of Champagne" is an even vaguer request than "Could I have a glass of red?" That sparkling wine might be made exclusively from white grapes, all from red, or a mixture.
The two primary grapes are the Burgundy greats — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (some lesser players tag along). And the names of three out of four of the main dry sparkling-wine styles give away the color: blanc de blancs (white of whites), blanc de noirs (white of blacks), and rosé (pink, and highly respectable); the fourth, and most common, style — brut — is made up of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
A recent sip of just-fermented Chardonnay destined for bubbles at Domaine Carneros by Taittinger reminded me that distinct varietal characteristics are the substance in the flute — in this case, bracingly tart citrus, nuances of pear. And a sparkler-paired lunch with president and winemaker Eileen Crane inspired mutual mourning over the fact that many people accept a glass of bubbly at the beginning of a festive evening, happily sip it with appetizers, then abandon it when the main meal appears.
Party season upon us, we speculated about which sparkling wines would go well with traditional entrées — roast turkey and beef, for instance. Back in Sunset's kitchen, a panel tested those imagined pairings, trying the four main sparkler styles with each of the holidays' main roasts, plus cracked crab for Christmas Eve. As one panel member put it, "When you get to the point of fatigue, you just wait for the bite that wakes you up." And many bites did. That crab and blanc de blancs, for instance (Chardonnay in any form is the creature's best partner). Beyond that, Pinot Noir flavors were the key — in brut with turkey and in blanc de noirs with duck, pork, lamb, and beef. The surprise was that fruity dry rosé went well with almost everything.
Holiday meals are an especially good place to start sticking with sparkling wine. Cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes can present a serious still-wine challenge. But effervescence keeps your taste buds alive. And Crane adds that, for West Coast versions, if you're willing to pay anything over $20, you're almost sure to get something good. That's less than most great still Chardonnays cost. Plus you get lively flavor matches and the joy of bubbles together.
Here are our favorites among the main sparkler styles, plus a slightly sweet one (a growing trend).
Classic brut is the most widely consumed type of dry bubbly. Try Roederer Estate Brut nonvintage (Anderson Valley, CA), $20. Complex, creamy, and citrusy. A great all-around sparkler.
Blanc de blancs is generally very crisp. Try Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs 1998 (Carneros, CA), $55. The winery's best, Le Rêve ("the dream") is sensational — pristine and elegant.
Blanc de noirs is rich and full. Try Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs nonvintage (Carneros), $18. Rich baked-apple and custard notes. Very satisfying — tastes like it costs more than it does.
Rosé pairs especially well with food. Try Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2001 (North Coast, CA), $35. The elegance of a golden sparkler mixed with the fruitiness that comes from red grapes.
Extra-dry is slightly sweet and soft on the palate. Try Chandon Riche extra-dry nonvintage (California), $17. If sparkling wines are usually too crisp for you, here's one that's downright mellow. — Karen MacNeil-Fife