, Gloucester, MA

December 17, 2008

Looking for those 'bargain bubbles' during Champagne season

Food & Wine

All that bubbles is not Champagne.

Only sparkling wine from "Champagne" — the most northern wine growing region of France — can use the name. Everything else is sparkling wine.

Champagne, however, is the standard against which all bubbly is measured.

Because the region is cool, on the northern fringes of the wine growing climate, the grapes grown there fully ripen in only about half their growing years. Champagne made from those exceptional crops are not blended with any other year and have the vintage in which they were grown printed on the label.

They are expensive. They have to be — yields are small. The process is elaborate and costly and the wine needs aging before release to develop the wonderful complexity of Vintage Champagne. In off years, when the crops are less than ideal, the wine is blended into what have come to be called non-vintage Champagne and therein lay the bargains.

Non Vintage Champagne is more accurately called multi-vintage because of the blending. For simplicity sake let's say that in one year the summer was too hot and the grapes over ripened, the sugar content was too high and the wine a little too sweet. The following year was cool and the wine too acidic. Another year to wet, the wine was thin, next season too dry, you get the point. However, if those wines are blended to balance the sugar and the acid and the richness with the lean, you get a balanced delightful beverage with all the complex characteristics of good single Vintage Champagne at half the price, Voila, Happy Holidays.

Non-Vintage, (NV) Champagne is a great addition to a holiday celebration. Americans tend to think of Champagne as a cocktail wine but Champagne is an excellent accompaniment to food, particularly holiday party food. Look for non-vintage Brut, the driest of this category Champagne to accompany light appetizers and hors d'oeuvres. Enjoy them with stuffed mushrooms, smoked shellfish, oysters, crab dip, ripe cheeses or assorted nuts, especially almonds.

Good non-vintage brut shows bright crisp fruit, palate cleansing acid and a pleasant finish of minerals and often roasted almonds. They retail for $30-50 or more.

Historically, many producers blended all their Champagne. Non-vintage bubbly from these producers can be as pricey as vintage Champagne but why bother? Save those for single bottle intimate occasions.

Speaking of off years, our economy seems to be as cyclical as the weather over the chalky hills of northern France. Some years there is just too much money and some years there is a long dry spell. You might even call it a drought. Even in the driest years, a little bubbly can lift help lift your holiday spirits. To avoid adding the insult of the dominant Euro to the injury of a bad economic vintage year, look west to Sonoma, Washington or Oregon for some bargain bubbles.

From Oregon look for names like Argyle, Elk Cove, Soter or Domaine Meriwether. From Washington look for Mountain Dome or Domaine Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley. Sonoma has a long list of great producers including Domaine Chandon, Gloria Ferrer, J, Piper Sonoma, Schramsberg or Iron Horse. The advantage to returning home to the States for your holiday bubbles is the very real possibility of drinking Vintage quality wine for non-vintage prices while feeling confident that either the classic Brut or Brut Rosé will be dry, food friendly wine at a reasonable price.

Champagne is made in a very specific way. The wine is fermented, aged, bottled, dosed with sugar and yeast in the bottle, recorked, aged again, disgorged, recorked again and aged again before it is ready to drink. The procedure is called Methode Champenois and obviously it is time consuming and expensive. Methode Champenois is used to make the wine previously mentioned as well as the sparkling wine of Spain called Cava.

Cava can also be a terrific bargain, sometimes even a better value than its American cousin. Frexienet made by the folks from Gloria Ferrer is one of the better known along with Castellblanch, Segura Viudas, Castillo Preralda, Huguet and Codorniu. The list of Cava producers is long. I have found that Cava tends to be a little sweeter than I like with food. Make sure the Cava is labeled brut and ask your local wine merchant for his advice

We've only touched the tip of the sparkling wine iceberg. Virtually every wine region in the world makes a bubbly good for the holidays. It would take a lifetime to try them all so you had better get started.



Jack Felber is a regular Times columnist. He and his wife, Marcia Felber, are proprietors of The Olympia Tea Room, a Wine-Spectator-recognized harborside restaurant in Watch Hill, R.I.