By Adam Martin
For those of us who are not wine enthusiasts, the prospect of selecting sparkling wine for a holiday gathering can be intimidating. How do you know the difference between a “good one” and a “bad one”? Do specific types go with certain occasions/foods? How do you select a bottle that will taste good to everyone present, regardless of their familiarity with the bubbly? Or, perhaps more to the point, how do you serve sparkling wine without embarrassing yourself?
Buckle up, everyone. It’s time for a crash course in sparkling wine.
Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine
We begin with the basics: all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
In order for a sparkling wine to be considered Champagne, the grapes used have to have been grown in the Champagne region of France. Hence, the name. However, many non-Champagne sparkling wines are of high quality and very enjoyable. (In other words, you don’t have to shell out for Champagne in order to serve a solid sparkling wine.)
Champagne is not the only regionally distinct sparkling wine. Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine also producedin the champenoise traditional method and comes in varying levels of dryness. Italy produces several regional sparkling wines, as well. These include Prosecco, which is produced using the Charmat method, Moscato d’Asti, which is generally sweeter and has a lower alcohol content, and Trento DOC, a rosé (pronounced rowzay) sparkling wine.
In additional to these well known regional varieties, many vineyards around the world make their own variations of sparkling wine. Right here in Colorado, Varaison Vineyards produces a sparkling wine using the same fermentation method used to produce Champagne, creating a dry version of this toast-worthy beverage.
Be aware, though, that many bottles include the word “Champagne” on the label to indicate that the champenoise traditional method was used during production, but that doesn’t mean the sparkling wine is necessarily Champagne. Read carefully to ensure that you’re buying true Champagne if that’s your intent.
Dry vs. Sweet
Most sparkling wines are white or rosé. Rosé sparkling wines have a pink tint due to the addition of red wine during the production process.
Sparkling wine comes in a variety of flavors ranging from dry to sweet. The driest sparkling wines are referred to as Brut. Brut Natural are the driest of these, then Extra Brut and Brut. Extra Dry is the next step down in dryness, which can be a bit confusing, then Dry, Semiseco and finally, Sweet or Dulce. Those of us not accustom to sparkling wine are most likely to enjoy a sweeter variety.
Vintage vs. Non-Vintage
A sparkling wine made from grapes that were all grown and harvested in the same area during the same year is considered to be vintage. When a wine, sparkling or not, is referred to by a year, generally means its vintage. Among connoisseurs, the importance of vintage is a thing of debate, but one thing holds true for us all: vintage wines are more expensive.
That said, there’s no need to spend the money on a vintage sparkling wine. The vast majority of us wouldn’t know the difference. While it’s not a good idea to go bargain hunting when selecting a sparkling wine, there are plenty of mid-range options your guests are sure to enjoy that will be a little less taxing on your wallet.
Now that we have the basics of sparkling wine down, how do you go about selecting a sparkling wine for your holiday party or the all-important New Years toast? While you may have a few wine aficionados on your invitation list, there’s a good chance you’ll have several vino noobs, as well.
RT Magley, the manager of Twin Peaks Liquor (and a wealth of information about sparkling wines), suggests that you have at least two varieties on hand: one sweet and one dry. This assures that your guests will find something to suit their tastes, whatever their preferences.
Sparkling wine isn’t generally served with food, so if you plan to include a meal, think of the sparkling wine as either an aperitif (a beverage appetizer) and serve it before the food, or pair it with dessert. Have other beverages on hand to go with the meal. If you aren’t serving a meal, it’s perfectly acceptable to serve sparkling wine with finger foods.
A single serving of sparkling wine is five fluid ounces. Most bottles contain 25 ounces of bubbly, so one bottle will serve five guests one drink apiece. If you plan to use sparkling wine only for a toast, when the ball drops, for example, you should know that toasting portions are generally only three ounces. How many bottles you’ll need depends on how many guests you intend to serve and how much you anticipate your guests will drink. If you’re only planning to serve sparkling wine for a toast, you’ll need one bottle for every eight guests.
There you have it—a crash course in sparkling wine. However, even with this information in hand, roaming the aisles of your local liquor store seeking out the perfect bottle (or bottles) can still be scary. Many liquor stores have at least one associate on hand who can pinch hit as a sommelier. (If you’re shopping at Twin Peaks Liquor, be sure to seek out RT.)
Don’t be shy about asking for help, and try to enjoy the process. After all, if you’re buying sparkling wine, you’re most likely getting ready for a party. Make your beverage selection part of the fun, and have a happy (and safe) holiday season.