Eric Vellend’s Sparkling Wine Primer
While most people open a bottle of bub to toast an august occasion, I’ve long made the case for sparkling as an everyday wine. With frothy effervescence and mouthwatering acidity, it’s remarkably food-friendly, pairing perfectly with everything from raw oysters to fried chicken. Some of the more robust rosés from Champagne can even match red meat. To help fill your flute for our New Year’s Eve menu in the December 2013 issue (pick up your copy on Eastern newsstands November 11 and Western November 18), here’s a primer on sparkling wine.
Read up on the long, complicated process of making champagne, and you will appreciate its hefty price tag. It usually starts with a blend of still wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) from various vintages, a secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce the fizz, careful rotation of the bottles to gather dead yeast cells, disgorging those cells, then topping up the bottle with a dosage of white wine, brandy of sugar to adjust the sweetness. Is it worth the big bucks? In most cases, the answer is an emphatic yes. Champagne is by far the most complex sparkling wine with layers of flavour, bracing acidity and a rich, tangy finish. To quote John Maynard Keynes, “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more champagne.”
My favourite entry-level bottles from the big houses include Louis Roederer, Perrier-Jouet and Piper-Heidsieck. For great value from smaller producers, look for Gonet-Médeville and Gardet. When it comes to the iconic Veuve Clicquot, you are better off spending a few extra bucks for their single vintage champagnes, which are considerably more interesting than their basic bottle.
Fondly known as “pour man’s champagne”, Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, most of which is made in the Penedès area of Catalonia, just north of Barcelona. The most common grapes used in Cava production are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, and it’s bottle fermented like champagne, which, by law, must be referred to as method traditional, so there is no reference to the fiercely copyrighted “champagne.”
Since it’s younger, cheaper juice and a quicker, more automated process, most Cava is under $20. I rarely come across a cava I don’t like. It’s generally dry and toasty with a solid backbone of acidity. It’s a weekday sparkler, to wash away a bad day, or pair with take-out sushi, one of my favourite food and wine matches. My go-to bottle is Segura Viudas Brut Reserva (see above), and keep your eye out for Codorniu Pinot Noir Brut Rosé Cava.
Prosecco, Italy’s famous sparkler, is the darling of restaurateurs, who pour it by the glass and mark it up into the stratosphere. Usually made from Glera grapes, prosecco is produced by the charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in big, stainless steel tanks. Other than price — usually under $20 — the big reason for prosecco’s popularity is that it’s slightly off-dry. Throw in peachy flavours and softer acidity, and you’ve got one easy-drinking sparkler. (Warning: Even when the label says ‘extra-dry’, that’s just by prosecco standards, so there is usually still a hint of sweetness.)
While I would take cava over prosecco any day, I’ve recently enjoyed the basic bottles from Zonin (see above) and Villa Sandi, both of which are under $15.
Other Sparkling Wine
While sparkling wine is made all over the world, the good stuff comes from cooler climates: grapes that get too ripe won’t have enough acidity, which is what give the best bubbles its snap, crackle and pop.
Sparklers made in France but outside of the Champange region are usually referred to as crémant. The bulk of these wines come from Alsace and Burgundy and cost around $20. Like cava, I haven’t met too many crémants I haven’t liked, and I’m especially fond of the ones that come from the Loire and Jura.
On home soil, Canada is producing some world-class sparkling wines. The Niagara’s Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut (see above) is consistently delicious with red berry aromas, frothy mousse and vibrant acidity. In Prince Edward County, Hinterland is making killer bubbles using both method traditional and charmat. Look for it on smarter wine lists in Ontario.
Saving the best for last, the Canada’s finest sparkling wine is made in — surprise, surprise — Nova Scotia. From the Gaspereau Valley, Benjamin Bridge Brut Reserve Methode Classique 2005 is an exquisitely balanced sparkler that sells for around $100, but can go toe-to-toe with grand cru champagnes that cost three times as much. It also makes a great conversation piece on New Year’s Eve.