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Now’s The Time For Sparkling Wine; Here’s What You Need To Know

This is the most wonderful time of the year, when the sound of wine corks popping is heard everywhere you go.

The last three months of the year, particularly December, are the busiest time for sparkling wine sales. About 40 percent of all sparkling wine is sold in October, November and December. Leaders in the food and beverage industry estimate Americans drink about 360 million glasses of sparkling wine on Dec. 31 alone.

So, the odds are good you will be drinking or buying sparkling wine in the next week or two. To help you find your way through the maze of sparkling wine available, we offer here a guide to sparkling wine and some tips on how to appreciate it.

Though most Americans think of sparkling wine as primarily for celebrations such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, weddings and graduations, it can be enjoyed any time. Sparklers pair with almost any kind of food, and can be used before dinner, or paired with desert. Sparkling wine also makes a fine gift for friends, family or employees.

The only wine that can be called Champagne is produced in the French Champagne region. It is the most popular sparkling wine in the world, but there are others, such as Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, Sekt from Germany, Cap Classique from South Africa and various Crémants from French wine regions. There also are plenty of American sparklers, from the Finger Lakes region of New York to New Mexico to California.

Scroll down to see sections on:

–Glasses & Gear

–How To Open a Sparkling Wine Bottle

–Sparkling Wine Around the World

–A Primer on Sparkling Wine.

Champagne is made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The other sparkling wines can be made from just about any grape.

About 22 percent of all Champagne sales in the United States take place in December, and the figures for the other sparklers should be comparable. This is an unusual year because of all the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, so that percentage could be even higher for 2020.

Whether your budget calls for a bottle of Cold Duck or you can splurge on Dom Perignon, you should be opening one of those bottles regularly, not just on New Year’s Eve. Sparkling wine makes every meal a festive occasion, and most dry sparkling wines can pair well with every meal, from spicy Latin or Asian to burgers to fancy French meals.

Sparkling wine sales have been growing for a couple of decades, but they took a big hit earlier this year because of the COVID shutdowns and a tough economy. Graduations, weddings and other celebrations became low-key affairs, so there were not many big toasts. Champagne producers say they have lost an estimated $2 billion in sales this year, so they reduced production for the 2020 vintage.

As people got used to celebrating at home, sales have picked up, but there are still concerns about volume of sales until restaurants get back to normal.

Sparkling wine was a favorite gift that Santa left in some people’s stockings.

Here are some sparkling wines that would be great on your table, or under someone’s Christmas tree.

Scharffenberger Brut Rosé, $26. It is a pale salmon color with integrated aromas of fresh raspberry jam and wild strawberries on a cream covered pastry base. The flavors are layered, round, fresh, fruity and long. From Mendicino.

Champagne Bollinger, James Bond 007 Special Couvée gift pack, $79. The limited-edition gift packaging features the silhouette of Bond actor Daniel Craig, alongside his beloved Aston Martin DB5. The wine is spectacular, rich and harmonious, with deep reserves of flavor. Bollinger Champagne has appeared in 15 Bond films.

Biltmore Blanc de Noir, $35. One of my long-time favorites from Asheville, N.C. Made from pinot noir, this fruit-forward wine offers flavors of cherries and strawberries. Infused with earthy minerality, 

Biltmore Blanc de Blancs, $35.  All chardonnay, classic straw in color with bright aromas of green apple, clean minerality, and fresh-picked pineapple. Finishes with a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel along with flavors of Bosc pear and light yeasty ciabatta notes. 

Inman Family Brut Rosé, $68. Small lot, made from 100 percent pinot noir from a Russian River Valley winery known for its pinot noir. Balance and elegance.

Frank Family Rouge, $55. A striking crimson red with lively aromas of bing cherry and rose petal and bright flavors of ripe cranberry with hints of nutmeg and creamy vanilla.

Frank Family Blanc de Blanc, $55.  Fresh and vibrant, with a rich structure and creaminess that brings balance and intensity to the flavors. Beautiful bouquet marked by floral and citrus notes, long finish with minerality and effervescent fruit.

Noble Hill Blanc de Blanc, $27, South Africa. Crisp citrus aromas, delicate bubbles, creamy, well-rounded structure. Made in the Cap Classique, or traditional, style. All chardonnay.

Molo 8 Lambrusco Mantovano, $13. Sparkling Italian is a great food-friendly wine. The bouquet is persistent and fragrant with hints of black cherries and wild berries. On the palate the wine is aromatic, fruity and pleasantly sweet.

Sosie Sparkling Red Wine, “A Moment of Weakness,” Sonoma County, $35.  Made from 100 percent syrah grapes. Relative to other sparkling wines, the riper style of fruit, dry enough to qualify as Extra Brut. Festive in the glass with red fruit berry characteristics,  savory notes of bacon and a lovely acidity. 

Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace Brut, $27. Equal parts chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc, aged three years before its release. Flavors of plum and lemon in a creamy fizz, with hints of minerality, something Alsatian wines are known for.

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, $27. Strawberry and cherry aromas with crisp strawberry flavors, touched with some minerality. Rich and balanced, with a dry, crisp acidity and a creamy texture.

Dopff & Irion Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, $22. The bouquet of red berry fruit and citrus, lively, round, and elegant on the palate. Dry, elegant finish.

Domaine Mittnacht Frères Crémant d’Alsace Brut, $23. Slightly toasty, with notes of brioche and wild yeast that support flavors of crisp green apple and cool, refreshing minerality.

Domaine Camille Braun Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, $22. Beautiful pale pink, expressive nose of cherries, strawberries and red fruits. Round, soft finish. All pinot noir. A good introduction to French sparkling.

Graham Beck Brut, South Africa, $17. This was served at both Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and Barack Obama’s presidential win. Limey fresh fruit on the nose and a rich creamy complexity on the palate.

2016 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Méthode Cap Classique, South Africa, $25. This was South Africa’s first traditional method sparkler, produced in 1971. An elegant light straw color with fresh primary notes of Granny Smith apple and white stone fruit, with citrus flavors.

Boschendal Brut Rosé, South Africa, $28. This brut rosé is mostly pinot noir, with a touch of pinotage and chardonnay. It displays notes of red berries and cherries, with complexity and depth.

Champagne Palmer, $60. Complex aromas of citrus, pear and apricot lead to tantalizing citrus and apricot flavors that linger. A buttery brioche flavor, with citrus, pear and apricot aromas.

Golden straw yellow color and a lively palate with bright fruity aromas of apple, pear, white peach and citrus.

Moët & Candon Rosé Impérial, $60. Pink and amber color, with lively bouquet of red fruits and a palette that is intense with juicy berries.

Ferrari Brut, $27. All chardonnay grapes from the Trentino mountains in Italy. Golden apple and yeasty notes.

Ferrari Brut Rosé, $36. Blend is 60 percent pinot noir, 40 percent chardonnay. The taste is dry, clean and elegant, but with the freshness of wild strawberries and sweetness of almonds. 

Adami Prosecco, four versions, all of which are delicious and bargains:

NV “Garbel” Prosecco DOC Treviso Brut, $16. Tart with a crisp, fruity finish.

NV “Bosco di Gica” Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Brut, $20. Creamy mousse, balanced and elegant. Great with fish and seafood.

NV “Dei Casel” Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry, $20. Smooth, crisp and fruity, perfect for an aperitif.

2018 “Vigneto Giardino” Valdobbiadene DOCG Rive di Colbertaldo Asciutto, $22. Fruit forward with a velvety mouthfeel, good food wine, perfect with a fruit salad or dessert.

Cleto Chiarli Premium Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Italy, $15. Festive fizzy red, ripe fruit with a dry finish.

Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico Valdobbiadene Superiore, $19. Selected as the top wine for Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines for 2019.

Two types of sparkling wine bottle closers to keep in the carbonation.

Champagne Taittinger Prestige Rose, $63. Crisp red fruit tastes.

Charles Heidsieck Rosé Reserve Champagne, $80. Pale pink color with fragrances of strawberry jam and peaches. Strawberry, raspberry and blackberry flavors in a creamy mouthfeel.

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, $24. Rich, lush. Aromas of stone fruit, vanilla, toast and bright citrus with vibrant flavors of citrus, pear and green apple balanced by crisp acidity and a lingering aftertaste. French Champagne house making wine in Napa.

Gruet Brut, New Mexico, $15. Aromas of green apple and citrus mineral notes. Bright, crisp acidity complimented by a touch of yeast on the delightfully long finish.

J Cuvee 20 Brut, California, $38. Nuanced aromas of toasted almond, followed by notes of Braeburn apple, dried cranberry and ginger snap. Flavors of lemon meringue pie.

Mionetto also makes a range of nice Proseccos from the fun Il brand, $12, to their Luxury Collection, $20.

Saint-Hilaire, $17. Oldest sparkling wine in France, created by Benedictine monks more than 100 years before sparkling wine was made in Champagne.

If you like sweeter sparkling wine, two popular brands are Rosa Regale, $20, and Mamamango, $10.

Highest volumes of sales are generally among the lower-priced sparkling wines such as LaMarca Prosecco, Verdi Spumante, Cupcake Sparkling, Ruffino Sparkling, Freixinet and Barefoot Bubbly.

Vilarnau Brut Reserva, $15 and Vilarnau Rose Brut Reserva, $16, are delicious cavas made in the traditional méthode champenoise. And, adding a little nod to its Catalan roots, Vilarnau wraps the bottles to reflect the avant-garde imagery of Antoni Gaudí, with vibrant, colorful designs that make the bottle look like it costs so much more.

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Two types of flutes flank a tulip glass.

Glasses and gear:

For years the flute has been the standard for serving sparkling wine, but now there is a move to use tulip-shaped glasses. The flutes work well because you see the bubbles make a long trail from the bottom of the glass to the top. They encourage fizziness and development of bubbles. But they don’t leave any room to sniff the aroma. The wine is funneled to the back of your palate, creating a longer finish.

The tulip shape with a narrow base has other advantages. It directs the flow of wine onto the tip of the tongue, emphasizing the wine’s fresh fruitiness while tempering its high acidity and bringing out its aromas.

The coupe is wider and shallower, and almost never used for sparkling wine anymore. Bubbles are released too quickly. It is a nice vessel for dessert.

You can reseal the bottle if you don’t drink all the wine. There are devices that hold the carbonation in. They work by pushing in a plastic cork and clamping metal flaps over the lip of the bottle. In a pinch you could always cover the top with plastic wrap and hold it on with a rubber band. Always store leftover sparkling wine in the refrigerator.

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How to open a bottle of sparkling wine:

Be careful when opening a bottle of sparkling wine. The bubbles create a lot of force and can propel the cork out at a high speed.

Remove top half of the foil, exposing the wire cage that holds the cork in place. The cage is called an agarfe.

Hold the cork down with one hand while using the other hand to twist the wire loop counter clockwise until the cage loosens.

Discard the wire and gently pull up the cork while twisting the bottle in the opposite direction until you get that satisfying “pop.” Never shake the bottle, never point it at someone else or yourself.

Cork and cage from a sparkling wine bottle.

Experts and show-offs use a technique known as sabering. It’s fun to watch, but I don’t recommend trying it. Start with a well-chilled bottle of sparkling wine. Remove the wire cage. Select your saber (a long, thin knife works just as well) and place it on one of the seams of the bottle, which should be facing you. Then quickly slide the tool along the seam all the way to the top of the neck, and hit that lower lip part of the bottle. That should break off the top part of the bottle and send out a rush of wine and bubbles.

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Sparkling wine from different regions:

Sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France is called Champagne. It is always made in the traditional method with a second fermentation in the bottle.

French producers outside of the Champagne region make plenty of excellent sparkling wine called crémants. These include Crémant de Bourgogne, Alsace, Loire and Limoux, among others, and are made with the same technique as Champagne but generally use regional grape varietals. 

Prosecco comes from northeast Italy, made from the glera grape. It is the fastest growing segment of the sparkling wine market. Prosecco is ranked either DOC or DOCG, with DOCG being the higher quality. These are good for sipping by themselves, or mixed in a cocktail. Usually medium acidity and fresh fruit flavors.

Trentodoc is another Italian region producing excellent sparkling wine. This area is Trentino-Alto Adige, a beautiful area of hillside vineyards in the foothills of the Dolomites, where crisp fruity chardonnay – and to a lesser extent pinot noir and blanc – is widely grown just for making traditional method fizz under the regional brand, Trentodoc. The result is something lovely, nutty, creamy and more overtly fruity than Champagne, as well as very good value.

South Africa produces Cap Classique, the term used to describe Champagne style traditional method fizz from the Western Cape. They usually are bolder than what you would find in classic Champagne.

Cava is the sparkler produced in Spain, and has long been popular in the United States. It usually is dry with citrus and apple flavors and medium acid. Traditional grapes used are macabeo, xarello and parellada. Cava is the source of fantastic value traditional method sparkling wine, loaded with all its appealing creamy, toasty characters.

Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine and is surprisingly hard to find. While it started with grapes grown all across Europe and carbonated in Germany, producers are refining their methods and making top-level sparkling wine. Labels will contain one of three designations:

Deutscher Sekt must be made from German base wine and can be made in a tank or bottle fermentation.

Deutscher Sekt b.A. must have a minimum of 85 percent of the grapes sourced from one of Germany’s 13 wine regions.

Winzersekt must be made by traditional bottle fermentation, with a minimum of 9 months on lees. Most winemakers far exceed that length. The wine also comes from 100 percent estate-grown fruit and the label must state grape variety and vintage.
Bottlings may be based on pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot meunier, muskateller or traminer, though Riesling shows particular popularity

Great Britain has jumped into sparkling wine production as global warming has made the climate friendlier for grape growing. British fizz is marked by a lighter, fresher style.

American sparkling wine is made throughout the country, from New York to New Mexico to California and Oregon. Many try to use the same grapes as Champagne, but there are many local variations as well. Prices also can vary widely.

Sparkling wine also is part of the boom in canned wine, including 175 and 300 ml. cans.

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Here is a quick primer about sparkling wines and why you should care about them:

The bubbles come from carbon dioxide, which can come from natural fermentation either in a bottle or in a large tank. Some cheaper sparkling wines inject the carbon dioxide directly.

With Champagne and other sparklers made by the traditional method, the bubbles come from a second fermentation in the bottle. This is the result of residual sugar left after the initial fermentation and sometimes extra sugar added at the time of bottling. Yeast eats the sugar and produces carbon dioxide.

A sparkling wine closer ready to seal a bottle.

The Charmat method uses pressurized stainless steel tanks to inject the carbon dioxide into the wine, much the way soda becomes carbonated. These bubbles are larger and generally don’t last as long as bubbles made from the traditional method.

Although sparkling wines usually have a lower alcohol content, it is thought the bubbles help alcohol reach our bloodstreams faster so you might get drunk faster.

When buying sparkling wine you need to know which style you like. Dry sparkling wines have a zesty acidity that makes them particularly suited to food. They can be great with any course of the meal. Sweeter sparkling wines are better with dessert.

You can determine the sweetness of a sparkling wine by what’s on the label. Wines produced within the European Union must include this level, and wines produced elsewhere usually follow this practice.

What gets confusing is the word “brut,” the word for dry. From driest to sweetest, the ranking is brut natural (or brut zero), extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec and doux.

There are seven ways to make sparkling wine, but only two primary ones: methode traditionnelle and Charmat. The methode traditionnelle includes 13 steps before the wine lands in your glass from picking the right vineyard site, to assembling the blend to riddling (rotating and tilting the bottles in slight increments) to cellar aging. It is an ancient, labor-intensive process, but the result is like nothing else you can drink.

The second fermentation that creates the bubbles throws off sediment which has to be removed from the bottle by gradually tilting the bottle upside down, freezing the sediment and removing it. Then a “dosage” of wine and sugar is returned to fill up the bottle.

Great Champagnes spend another 2-3 years in the bottle developing complexity, creaminess and subtle dough flavors.

With the Charmat method the wine is placed in large pressurized stainless steel tanks with sugar and yeast. Fermentation creates alcohol and carbon dioxide, which the pressure keeps in the wine. The yeast is filtered out and the wine placed in bottles. Some tanks can produce 100,000 bottles at a time.

The Charmat method usually takes less time and is less expensive. That’s why mass produced wines such as Cold Duck use the Charmat method.

Many sparkling wines are also identified as “Blanc de Blancs” (wines made from Chardonnay grapes), “Blanc de Noirs” (wines produced from black grapes), or rosé or pink sparkling wine/champagnes. With a rosé the color often comes from brief skin contact from red grapes.

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