In the run-up to New Year’s Eve I should write about Champagne, but I’m not going to. I’m going to write about sparkling wine — or what folks call “champagne” with a small “c,” because no one says “sparkling wine” in real life. There are oceans of good sparklers on the market — many just as good as Champagne, but costing a whole lot less.
What is Champagne, anyway? Well, it starts life as a still wine (i.e., non-bubbly) made in France’s “la Champagne” province. After barrel fermentation, aging and bottling, the wine undergoes a second fermentation — which traps carbon dioxide in the bottle, to be released as bubbles when you pop the cork. Sparkling wines made via this process will have words like “traditional method” or “Méthode Champenoise” on their labels.
Champagne is usually blended from three grape varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — although four other grapes are allowed. The resulting wine is white, or “blanc” in French. A “blanc de noirs” is a Champagne made entirely from black grapes — such as Pinot Noir — while a “blanc de blancs” is made entirely from white grapes — usually 100 percent Chardonnay. Because of the tannins that a “blanc de noirs” absorbs from dark grape skins, it will taste very different from a “blanc de blancs.” Champagne and sparkling wines can be vintage (all the juice dates from one year’s harvest, with the year on the label) or non-vintage (NV — a blend of juices from several harvests, aiming at a consistent “house style”).
Sparkling wine is, basically, fizz made anywhere outside “la Champagne,” even in France. Charles de Fère’s Reserve Blanc de Blancs Brut (NV), for example, is a sparkling wine made in France’s Bourgogne (Burgundy) province. This blanc de blancs blends three white grapes: Chardonnay, Ugni Blanc, and Chenin Blanc, giving it a much softer taste than a 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne. (Ugni Blanc is a mild “blending grape” grown throughout France; it’s possibly the most widely grown grape you’ve never heard of.) Bold aromas of citrus and toast hit your nose as you pour. It’s an ultra-pale gold color, with tiny, sparse bubbles (but nice effervescence when you sip). The flavors are mid-tart, with a definite nutty, caramel note and a dusty dry finish. It softens after opening, with red apple enhancing the flavors.
This sparkler works as either an aperitif or with your first course. Pair it with a pear and endive salad sprinkled with blue cheese and Champagne vinaigrette. You also could use this fizz in Mimosas, because its flavors aren’t strong. (Available at Domke Market; 12 percent ABV; $14.)
Next up is a duo of sparklers from New Mexico’s Gruet Winery. I visited this winery in 2001, after finding a leaflet saying “Discover the Wineries of New Mexico” in an Albuquerque hotel lobby. It sounded like a fine plan, and was!
The Gruet (pronounced “grew-ay”) Winery began as an experimental vineyard in 1984, when Gilbert Gruet — whose Champagne house Gruet et Fils had produced fine French Champagnes since 1952 — visited New Mexico and decided to plant vines after talking to European winemakers who were already growing grapes there. His winemaker son Laurent and daughter Nathalie then relocated to the state, producing their first wines in 1987 and selling their sparklers after two years of aging, in 1989. The winery follows strict “Méthode Champenoise” rules — logical, given the family legacy.
Gruet’s Non-Vintage (NV) Brut is light, easy drinking and easy to find in stores. Made from the three classic Champagne grapes, it has a faint gold color with tiny, chaotic bubbles and sharp, citrus aromas (no hint of oak or toast). The taste is largely citrus, with fresh pineapple and good acidity. Light, enjoyable and uncomplicated, this is a good “walk in the door, pick up a glass” bubbly. (Wine shops and better grocery stores; 12 percent ABV; $13.)
Gruet’s NV Brut Rosé is a step up, with a gorgeous orangey-salmon hue and streamers of small bubbles. Its aromas are softer than the NV Brut, with just a hint of strawberry. Strawberry follows through in the flavor, along with red currant and a tiny bit of toast — richer than the aroma suggests. The finish is dry and palate-cleansing. Overall, the Rosé is more balanced than the NV, like a more mature sibling — classy and refined. (Better wine shops; 12 percent AVB; $18.)
Nyetimber 2007 Classic Cuvee is a delicious vintage sparkler, blending Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. It’s produced on a 152-hectare estate in West Sussex and Hampshire in — yes, really — England. Nyetimber’s color is deeper gold than other sparklers, with larger bubbles and fuller body. Deep flavors of ripe citrus and toast mingle with fine acidity and dryness. To me, it’s more like drinking a rich white wine than what most folks think of as “Champagne.”
Nyetimber’s founders planted their first vines in 1988, in sandy and chalky soils similar to those of Champagne; today it’s regarded as one of England’s finest wine producers. Its wines are crafted from 100 percent estate-grown, handpicked grapes, with “Méthode Champenoise” fermentation. The Queen serves Nyetimber to visiting dignitaries and I enjoy it with almost everything (including potato chips). (Available on line; 12 percent ABV; $45.)
If you like your sparklers a bit sweet, or maybe for dessert, then Ornella Morlon’s NV Moscato Spumante — the Italian word for sparkling wine — is for you. Although sweet, this fizz made since 1982 by a husband and wife team in the Veneto region of Northern Italy is a layercake of flavors with a fresh (not sticky) feel. Its color is palest gold and its aromas are pure Muscat grape — like cotton candy made from white stone fruits, or maybe white-grape gummy bears.
There’s a mint leaf hiding among the lemon meringue pie (with crust) flavors and a hint of flint on the finish. This amazing wine wants either sweet or salty partners to match or balance its sugar. I’m thinking cheesecake, at one extreme, or chicken-pesto pizza (yes to black olives) at the other. A cheese plate with pecorino Romano also would be fine. (Distributed by A&G Beverages to local wine shops and restaurants; 8.5 percent ABV; $15.)
Happy New Year!!