Bubbly wine gives me the chills. Not bad chills, but the excited kind of ohmigawd-I’m-so-freakin’-excited chills. Anticipating the heady cork pop, I know I’m in for at least some tongue-zinging fun, and the follow-up fizz has a childish snap and crackle reminiscent of earlier years. These might be the reasons sparkling wines — the generic term for bottles with bubbles — are synonymous with New Year’s Eve and celebrating. Ringing in the New Year the traditional way involves toasting with French Champagne, Spanish Cava, Italian Spumante or U.S.A. sparkling. Only a bubbly will do.
So what makes sparkling wine so special? First of all, it’s a pain to make so it carries a higher price tag. Birthing bubbles involves making regular wine, then taking it one step further to initiate a second fermentation that creates the fizz. Second of all, the American public has decided that sparkling wine is special. In Spain, for instance, starting a meal off with Cava, their local sparkling wine, is common — it cleans your mouth, rustles up appetite, and ends a day off with a cool buzz. Ever hear of us doing that? Nope. We think sparkling wine has to be saved.
Not only does sparkling wine go bad quicker than other wines, it tastes better fresh. Sure, there are some vintage-dated bottles that definitely improve with age, but most of us aren’t shelling out those bucks. Most non-vintage sparklers are meant to be consumed within the first two years after release from the winery. Bubbly is ultrasensitive to light and heat and needs to be stored on its side. If these conditions aren’t met, some say the flavor will deteriorate within 24 hours. Not to alarm you, but that non-vintage Mumm Cuvee Napa you’ve been saving since your trip out West five years ago should be on your list to drink ASAP.
So it’s time to drink up and toast to whatever strikes your fancy. These few pointers will send you on your sparkling way.
Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine vs. Cava vs. Spumante?
Officially, only wine produced in Champagne, France, can employ the name “Champagne.” To reach the quality of Champagne, foreign sparkling wine producers use France’s Méthode Champenoise (translation: “made in the method of Champagne”), a complex process that generates natural bubbles inside the bottle, as opposed to a tank. By law in Spain, all Cavas must use Méthode Champenoise to produce their sparkling wines. The U.S. and the Italians are freer to make the bubbles using a tank instead, but I can’t say those are better, only cheaper.
What does Brut mean?
Very dry, crisp sparkling wine. There are three labels indicating varying levels of sweetness:
Brut: the driest available
Extra Dry: slightly sweeter
Demi-Sec: the sweetest
What’s the deal with Vintage and Non-Vintage Champagne?
Non-Vintage (NV) indicates that a blend of juice from two or more years was used, a very common practice in sparkling wines. Winemakers sometimes “declare a vintage” when they feel the wine is exceptional. But beware: it frequently adds mucho dollars to the cost, but not necessarily enjoyment.
Sergio Mionetto Spumante Extra Dry A touch of sweetness in this Italian sparkler. Savor the apple cider tastes in this beauty. Great for a before-dinner warm-up or with spicy food. $14. 4 stars.
Perrier Jouet Grand Brut NV Delicious peach, toast, with a hint of lime on the back end. Best stuff in this price range. $30. 3 1/2 stars.
Segura Viudas Aria Amazing Cava that continues to get better year after year. Tart without being too acidic and blooming with rich citrus. For the price, you really can’t go wrong. $10. 4 stars.
Pearly Bay KWV Celebration Made from the muscat grape in South Africa, this semi-sweet sparkler is for those who can’t stand the dry stuff. Oozes with honey and fragrant roses in the mouth. Simply delicious. $8. 3 stars.