One great food wine

Why you can't go wrong with bubbly
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

Here's a well-kept secret that shouldn't be: There's a sensational wine that goes with a huge range of foods, can be found just about everywhere, and isn't even expensive. The wine? Sparkling.

It's a fact ― bubbly pairs with a broader range of foods than most of us realize. It's one of the best all-around choices for cheeses, southeast Asian dishes, Italian pastas, spicy Latin food, seafood, and even meats like chicken, veal, and pork.

Why don't more of us know this? Maybe it has to do with our (unfortunate) proclivity to drink bubbly only on special occasions. Or maybe it's because many of us (wrongly) assume that sparkling should be served only as an aperitif. But after years of studying the compatibility of sparkling wine with a vast array of foods, I'm convinced ― bubbles are a food lover's best friend.

The reasons? First, sparkling wines are naturally crisp, and that acidity cleanses the palate. A sip of the wine makes you ready for the next bite of food, and that bite makes you want another sip of the wine ... it's the perfect seesaw. Sparkling wine's refreshing bolt of acidity is especially effective in counterbalancing the dense creaminess of dairy foods (like cheeses) or foods prepared with oil, olive oil, or cream (such as many Asian, Italian, and French dishes). It's also a great counterpoint to salty and smoky foods (like, say, smoked salmon).

Second, sparkling wine has a vibrant texture. Ever wonder why beer tastes so good with everything from barbecued ribs to stir-fried prawns? All those cold bubbles set up an enticing contrast to the food. Try either of those dishes with sparkling wine, which is even more effervescent, and I think you'll be amazed.

Third, sparkling wine is clean and pure. It's not made with oak, so there's no sweet, toasty flavor of wood to get in the way of a match with the likes of cold Dungeness crab or even a quesadilla with guacamole.

Food friendliness aside, some people assume that sparklers are just too pricey. They probably haven't been to a wine store lately. You can get a terrific West Coast bubbly for the price of a modest-quality Chardonnay. And best of all, bubbles go on sale this time of year. While you're at the shop, buy a sparkling-wine stopper so you can recork the bottle and enjoy the wine again and again over the next week or so.

BEST BUBBLES IN THE WEST

Domaine Carneros Brut 2000 (Carneros, CA), $24. Light, brisk, and frothy. Great with goat cheese and seafood.

Gloria Ferrer Brut 1992 (Carneros), $32. Medium-bodied, fresh, and lively ― a terrific all-around sparkler. Try it with roast chicken, grilled salmon, and creamy cheeses.

Gruet Brut nonvintage (New Mexico), $14. If you spot this surprisingly delicious sparkler from ― of all places ― New Mexico, snatch it up and try it with spicy dishes.

Roederer Estate Brut nonvintage (Anderson Valley, CA), $20. Rich and creamy, with lime, custard, and almond notes. Wonderful with duck, pork, or other substantial fare, including richer cheeses.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1999 (Napa Valley), $30. Citrusy but rich at the same time. Delicious with scallops, crab, and many Asian dishes.

Sunset's Wine Club