Sparkling wines: A list of faves
We all have champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but there's no need to wait for a big lottery win to turn them into reality. Genuine champagne is expensive, but there are good bubblies from every wine region of the world that don't need to be mixed with orange juice to make them palatable.
Sparkling wine, at any price, is enjoyable if it meets a few simple conditions. First and foremost, it should taste like fruit -- not plastic, cheap perfume, musty old bread or used Band-Aids. That fruity flavour should lean toward apple, pear or peach and have a crisp, lemony acidity in order to give it freshness. In the case of pink champagne, the flavours should emulate ripe strawberries, raspberries, pink grapefruit or pomegranate. Those are the natural flavours of quality grapes, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grown in cool climates like the northerly Champagne region itself. Inferior grapes grown in excessively warm regions cannot produce those fine flavours or provide refreshing acidity. Hot climates yield high-sugar levels that become high alcohol -- anathema to delicacy in fine wine.
Second, decent sparkling wines have teeny-tiny bubbles. Cut-rate fizz is made by carbonating the wine or by transferring CO2 gas in huge vats, which results in big bubbles. The classic method involves fermenting the wine inside the bottle, causing the gases to be absorbed by the wine and to be released in a creamy, fine mousse only upon opening and pouring.
Finally, sparkling wine must be well chilled, otherwise it will explode in foam. It should always be served in a tall, narrow fluted glass rather than a shallow saucer-shape plate on a stem. The reason? A fluted glass slows down the release of the bubbles and extends the life of a sparkling wine once it's been poured. What could be better than that?
Given that “value” is relative -- here are my recommendations for best-value bubblies in 750 mL sizes.
Spanish Cavas, like Codorníu's NV Brut Clasico ($11) and Freixenet's Vintage Brut ($16), hail from the cool sub-Pyrenean region north of Barcelona, where traditional bottle fermentation and hand-riddling are the norm. And, as in almost every other wine category, Australia knows how to do it well on the cheap: Jacob's Creek's NV Chardonnay/Pinot Noir ($14) offers great flavour and smooth balance. OJ optional!
The coolest part of California is the Carneros region, which crosses south of Napa and Sonoma. Domaine Chandon's NV Brut Classic ($28) and Mumm Napa's NV Brut Prestige ($27) are produced to traditional standards by French champagne makers.
The Real Magilla
The Champagne region of France, where the good stuff originates, benefits from a marginal climate and porous limestone soil. Wines like Moët & Chandon's NV Brut Rosé ($66), Mumm Cordon Rouge's NV Brut ($52), Perrier Jouet's NV Grand Brut ($52) and Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin's NV Brut Yellow Label ($59, or $18 for the 200 mL piccolo size) offer richness, delicacy, depth, complexity and exceptional finesse. It saddens me when great bottles like these are wasted to dedicate ships or spray victorious Formula One racers.
For Lottery Winners
Every great producer of champagne offers at least one top-class version, the cream of the crop, a ne plus ultra. Rare, expensive, superbly balanced, with penetrating, luxurious flavours, these are made only in the finest vintages from the smallest percentage of the very best grapes. James Bond liked the Dom Pérignon 1953. I like the Dom Pérignon 1996 (about $180) much better, as well as its feminine peer, Veuve Clicquot's 1996 La Grande Dame (about $172). Both are unimaginably delicious now but will improve if cellared for up to a dozen years.