WineLine No. 24
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Nov. 28, 2002

Holiday bubbly

Dear Friends:

Holiday season is upon us, so wine writers across our fair land are scribbling their annual paeans to Krug, Dom, and all the other têtes de cuvée of Champagne. So now, even as I inflict my own holiday bubbly article on WineLine readers, I'm going to start by airing two complaints about this cliché.

First of all, people who can afford even to contemplate dishing out all that dough for Cristal and other top Champagnes know which ones they want; they aren't waiting for me or any other wine writer to tell them which tastes better this year. So these articles are a waste of a reader's time.

Second, thinking of sparkling wine only at holiday time (and maybe at Valentines Day or wedding season) reinforces the perception that bubbles are only for celebrations. Restaurants are notorious offenders, in that they typically stock only one or two labels of bubbly and charge exorbitantly. And very rarely are bubbles offered by the glass.

Shame on us. Instead of waiting for a celebration to prompt that cheerful pop of a champagne cork, why don't we turn every day into an event?

This need not be expensive. Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco are delicious, moderately priced (even cheap) alternatives to Champagne. Like their pedigreed cousins, they make fine aperitifs with crisp acidity that cleanses the palate and stimulates the appetite. And the bubbles are a sure-fire mood lifter.

So here's a challenge to restaurateurs: Why not greet your diners with a complimentary glass of bubbly when they sit down or wait at the bar for their table to be prepared?

I hear the "ka-ching" of mental cash registers calculating just how much this would cost.

But look at it this way: How many times have customers walked out of a restaurant feeling they did not get their money's worth, either because the waiter was not obsequious enough (or too snobby) or because the wine was too expensive or because of who knows what that was, quite possibly, beyond the restaurant's control?

I'm convinced that when many diners splurge on a "fancy" restaurant, they expect to be gypped or insulted. They may not realize what goes into such an expensive meal, and their unreasonable suspicions prove to be self-fulfilling. I've heard countless complaints from restaurant owners or staffers who read Internet chats and reader "reviews" trashing their establishments for poor service or high wine prices, seemingly without any understanding of the costs incurred by restaurants taking the extra step to do things right.

So why not take one more step?

A complimentary glass of Cava, Prosecco, or Champagne can soothe ruffled feathers when loitering diners keep later arrivals cooling their heels at the bar. Why not invest a glass in every diner's meal? The wine will stimulate the appetite and lift the mood while the diners read the menu. They will be happier, more likely to enjoy themselves, and maybe even willing to splurge a little extra on the meal or the wine. (I speak from experience ...)

This would create tremendous good will and word-of-mouth advertising. And it would insulate the restaurant against a diner who arrives in a bad mood because of a late crisis at the office or difficulty finding a parking space.

"Warm Dom is Better than Cold Bud." - A Not Too Ancient Proverb

So enough of the editorializing. Here are several sparkling wines of various styles that can easily spruce up our meals, at home or away, at holiday time or any time.

Cava: The sparkling wine of Spain is linked in many consumers' minds with Freixenet Cordon Negro, a slightly sweet party wine in a black bottle that can be found everywhere for about $6. But Cava has a variety of styles that have a common theme - value. Try the richer, yeasty Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad ($20 retail), or the whimsically named 1+1=3 Brut Nature 1999 ($15). The latter might fool some Champagne lovers, as it is 90% Chardonnay with the balance from the native Spanish Xarel-lo grape. And you'll be hard-pressed to find a Champagne at this price with so much elegance and style.

Prosecco: Italy's dry sparkling wine is lighter in texture and alcohol than most, and although it is generally not made by the traditional methode champenoise, it bears no resemblance to the bulk plonk that used to give us New Year's Day headaches. Ahem. A current favorite is Mionetto Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($13), a lively, crisp and flavorful bubbly perfect for cleansing your palate and lifting your spirits.

Champagne: The king of bubbly, even the most "common" non-vintage brut Champagnes, are among the most food-friendly wines. But some of them can be a bit, shall we say, aggressive. Enter Besserat de Bellefon, new in the U.S. market, which is produced in the crémant style: Lighter in the dosage that stiffens the wine, this results in a finer mousse and lighter, palate-tingling texture. And it's extremely food-friendly. American tasters may be underwhelmed at first if they're looking for gusto; these wines offer finesse and elegance. Three are now available in the States: the Cuvée des Moines Brut ($35 suggested retail), a rosé ($40) and a blanc de blancs ($60). The rosé is the most enticing, an ideal accompaniment to slow-roasted salmon or baked fish.

California: Champagne may be the King Of Bubbly, but California should not be ignored. It's just different, okay? There's nothing wrong with that, and everything to be applauded. And the styles can range across the spectrum here, too. Take Sonoma County's Iron Horse Winery, producers of a wide range of full-throttle sparkling wine, impeccably made, that will make you look at your empty glass and wonder what it was you just tasted. Their "Wedding Cuvée" 1997 ($28) should not be limited to the special occasion the name suggests. A fine Blanc de Noirs, it is a jubilant expression of Pinot Noir (80%, with the balance Chardonnay.)

California can give you finesse, too, and none does it better than Domaine Carneros. These sparklers, deftly crafted by winemaker Eileen Crane, will beguile you in the glass, almost defying you to taste them as they toss a new aroma or nuance from the glass. The 1998 Brut Cuvée ($25) is an ideal mate to Asian-accented foods, with hints of citrus, nuts and spice. Complex and a great value for the price, it provides an antidote for the misperception that "Champagne" is only for the elite and an invitation to make today and every day a special occasion.

And on that note, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, and I thank you for reading and supporting Dave McIntyre's WineLine over the past year.

Dave McIntyre

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