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Sip & Savor: Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

Dec 07, 2015 12:07PM ● By Cate Reynolds
— By Chris Lawson of Fishpaws Marketplace

A great way to brighten up your holiday season is with wines that sparkle! But sparkling wines with masses of tiny festive bubbles are not just for toasting the New Year. People are not slow in finding occasions to get together over a glass of sparkling wine or Champagne. Beyond diplomatic events, official functions, weddings, and ship launches, they can also be found at picnics in the park, dinner and cocktail parties, and sporting events. And we all know you can jump start any party simply by greeting each guest with a glass of sparkling wine. And you don’t need a special occasion to open a bottle of sparkling wine because sparkling wines are fabulous with food! Sparkling wines and Champagnes make excellent aperitif wines when served with snacks and canapés and are also excellent served with dinner or dessert depending on the style of the wine.

The “Champagne Method”

Sparkling wines and Champagnes come in varied styles appropriate for any event. All Champagnes and many California sparkling wines are made from only three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Using a precise, laborious, time consuming, and expensive process known as the “Champagne method,” base wines are meticulously blended, yeast and sugar are added, the wine is bottled, and a second fermentation occurs in the bottle. The wine is then aged on the lees in the bottle and each bottle is precisely turned in a process known as riddling. After aging, the cork is removed from the bottle, a small amount of wine and sugar is added to each bottle and the bottles are recorked. The gases that were formed during this process are now trapped in the bottle and dissolved in the wine only to be released as bubbles when the bottle is opened. As you can see from this very brief discussion of the Champagne method, a lot of work goes into getting those tiny bubbles into your glass.

Styles of Sparkling Wines

Wines produced by the “Champagne method” from all three grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay are crisp and elegant with styles that vary by the proportion of each grape variety in the blend. Wines made from more or all Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes (both red varieties) are full bodied and robust, muscular with a sustained bouquet and a sturdy structure. Some are powerful with smoky, earthy, or woody aromas or concentrated with aromas of bread dough or biscuit pastry. Full-bodied sparkling wines and Champagnes naturally complement almost any food from foie gras and truffles to holiday turkey, roast beef, or chicken.

Sparkling wines and Champagnes made with the emphasis on Pinot Noir are romantic, fleshy, smooth, and well-balanced with delicate aromas of rose petals, spices, and honey. Refined and subtle they are perfect when served with desserts. This category includes Rosé and ‘demi-sec’ Champagnes and sparkling wines. And you don’t need to confine them to dessert. Serve them with biscuits and fruit tarts for an elegant tea.

Brut or Blanc de Blanc sparkling wines and Champagnes made with mostly Chardonnay grapes are crisp and light, racy with delicate aromas and quick, lively bubbles. Serve these wines with light delicate foods such as fish or shellfish, lobster, or crab. They are perfect with caviar and also complement fresh desserts like sorbet.

Serving Sparkling Wines

Here are some tips for serving Champagnes and sparkling wines.

Serve Champagne well-chilled but never ice cold. Over chilling hides the aromas and flavors in sparkling wine. Serve at 45–48ºF. You can chill a bottle of sparkling wine in 20–30 minutes by plunging the bottle into a bucket with a mixture of water and ice. Of course you can always chill a bottle in the refrigerator; it will reach proper serving temperature within three or four hours. Never put sparkling wine or Champagne in the freezer. The pressure in a bottle of sparkling wine is almost three times that in your car tire. Putting these wines in the freezer can cause the bottle to explode.

Always serve sparkling wines in tulip shaped glasses or flutes. Glasses of this type keep the bubbles lively longer and concentrate the aromas of the wine. Never serve in the shallow, wide rimmed glass often seen at wedding receptions. These glasses allow the bubbles and aromas to dissipate quickly. Be sure your glasses are well-rinsed of all traces of dishwashing liquid and allowed to drain dry. Any trace of soap can soon diminish the bubbles in the wine leaving it flat. What you may think is a problem with the wine is usually a problem with the glasses, and soap is the number one culprit. Fill glasses no more than two-thirds full.

Opening a Bottle of Sparkling Wine

Open a bottle of sparkling wine by first gently removing the foil cage and wrapping the bottle with a cloth. Put your hand over the cork and keep it there. Keeping your hand on the cork, hold the bottle by the base and turn the bottle not the cork. This gently eases the cork out of the bottle and you won’t spill a drop. Keep an opened bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine with a special stopper used exclusively for these types of wine.

How Much Will I Need?

For a toast, provide one bottle for every ten guests. For dinner, count on one bottle for every two–three guests. For a cocktail reception, one bottle will serve three–four guests. Happy holidays!