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Words About Wine
A feature of Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page

What Do You Do
With a Bottle of Bubbly?

By Leigh Pomeroy

© Copyright 1996 by Leigh Pomeroy. All rights reserved.

I Get No Kicks from Champagne--Not!

It happens every year. The holidays roll around, and sure enough someone arrives on your doorstep with a bottle of bubbly.

"Wow!" you say. "Just what I've always wanted!" And for most of you this may be the truth. But for others--too many of us, I'm afraid--the bottle gets stuck in the back of the fridge or on some lonely wine rack somewhere. And the reason? We don't quite know what to with it.

Well, not exactly. Most of us know what sparkling wine is for: Birthdays. Weddings. Christenings. Anniversaries. And of course Christmas and New Year's -- both birthdays of a sort.

Yet, say many Twin Cities area restauranteurs and wine retailers, that concept is unfortunate, because sparkling wine is a wonderful accompaniment to nearly every type of food and can be enjoyed, as it is in many countries, just as a celebration of life.

The Sparkling Wine/Champagne Controversy

Before going further, let's deal with a few terms--very important, especially if you're pouring bubbly for a Frenchman, Frenchwoman, or even a Minnesota francophile. "Sparkling wine" is any wine that has bubbles in it, but only Champagne comes from a legally delimited area of France located in the Marne district, the epicenter of which is about 75 miles east of Paris. To be blunt: Everything else labeled as "Champagne" is not.

Fortunately, virtually all wine producers honor this designation, save for a few non-European producers of less expensive sparkling wines who insist on using the "champagne" name for marketing purposes (and we all know who they are). That is why all the finest producers of sparkling wines in the United States label their products simply as, for example, "Brut" or "Blanc de Noirs".

But what do these terms mean?

Early Champagnes were not all of the high quality they enjoy today. Much of it was made relatively quickly, bottled sweet to mask off odors, and shipped to Parisian night clubs where it was served in broad-rimmed "champagne glasses". The wide mouth of the glasses allowed the not-always-pleasant odors to escape from the wine quickly so that the consumer could get right to the elixir for the desired effect.

When Champagne-making technology improved, some producers found their wines more enjoyable with less sweetness, and they began bottling their Champagnes as "sec", meaning "dry". Yet by today's standards "sec" Champagnes are quite sweet; hence, there are three further designations of diminishing sweetness in sparkling wines: "extra dry" (in fact, slightly sweet), "brut" (dry), and "natural" (very dry). Lately, the term "crémant" (literally, "creamy") has supplanted "sec" in France and California for sparkling wines that are bottled in a sweeter style.

Also sometimes found on sparkling wine labels are the terms "blanc de blancs"--meaning a wine made entirely from white grapes, almost always chardonnay--and "blanc de noirs"--a wine made from pinot noir or pinot meunier. In the case of the latter, the wine may be slightly deeper colored than a blanc de blancs or brut due to its cuv´e of red-skinned grapes.

The Local Scene

So what do you do with a bottle of bubbly? "Champagne, of course, is the traditional celebratory beverage," says David Anderson of France 44 Wines & Spirits in Minneapolis. But if you don't want to save it for that special occasion, both Anderson and Andy Kass of Sutler's Wines & Spirits in Stillwater point to sparkling wines as being perfect for nearly any occasion, with food or without. Sparkling wines are particularly apropos with appetizers before a meal, notes Kass, or as paired with rich seafood dishes, says Anderson, such as fresh salmon or tuna. The natural high acidity and effervescence cut through many flavors, especially oils and creams, that might trip up other wines.

Dessert, however, is another matter. Kass cautions that the sweetness of the wine should match the dish. For example, he recommends for after-dinner events the Scharffenberger Crémant (about $18) from the coolish Anderson Valley located not too far from California's picturesque Mendocino coast. "It goes wonderfully with a fruit tart," he says.

How about chocolate? Kass winces at the suggestion. "Yes, I understand that some people like to pair Champagne and chocolate, but for me the chocolate needs to melt in the mouth. The cold of the Champagne goes in the wrong direction."

Restauranteurs Don Allen of Maggiore in Woodbury and Scott Ida of the Napa Valley Grille at the Mall of America lament that sparkling wines aren't more popular in their restaurants. "The other day," says Allen, "just for a small private party, I served a 1985 Gosset Champagne with lobster over butterfly pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes and garlic. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous." Unfortunately, neither the Champagne nor the dish are regulars on the menu.

Scott Ida has tried special promotions of California sparkling wines during past holiday seasons at the Napa Valley Grille, but has met with little success. "The Twin Cities market is not as into sparkling wines as some others," he says. Nevertheless, he pours Napa Valley's Domaine Chandon Brut and Domaine Mumm Blanc de Noirs by the glass, and proudly offers the 1989 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs and the 1991 Jordan "J", both around $40 on the wine list.

Favorite Champagnes of Sutler's Andy Kass include those from Gratien and Veuve Clicquot. Among domestic sparklers, he likes all four wines offered by Scharffenberger-the Brut; the Blanc de Blancs, "a spectacular Chardonnay," he says; the Brut Rosé, made from 100% Pinot Noir; and, of course, the Crémant. The wines range in price from $14 to $25, depending upon what's on sale.

France 44's David Anderson agrees with Don Allen on the Gosset, particularly the nonvintage Excellence Brut (about $30-$40) and the vintage reserve cuvée called Celebris ($70-$100). Among domestic sparklers Anderson likes Oregon's Argyle Brut ($14-$17) from the Willamette Valley and California's Roederer Estate, a neighbor of Scharffenberger in the Anderson Valley.

Phil Colich of Hennepin Lake Liquors in Minneapolis notes the Argyle and Domaine Chandon wines as domestic favorites, but says a real value in true Champagne can be found in the Tarlant Brut Cuvée Louis ($35-$40)--in quality, he claims, comparable to Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer Cristal, both retailing in the $80 to $120 range.

'Tis the Season to Be Bubbly

The sparkling wine controversy reminds me in a way of a light beer commercial. For the beer the question is "Great taste or less filling?" With sparkling wine it's "Wait for a special occasion or drink it anytime?" The answer, of course, is both.

So with that I'll toast the holidays with a glass or two of bubbly. Now all I have to do is find that bottle that Aunt Marge gave me for my birthday. Let's see. Is it in the basement fridge or did I stick it in a closet somewhere?


Mankato writer Leigh Pomeroy regrets he can't afford to drink nearly as much Champagne as he'd like. His article, reproduced above with permission, appeared in the December '96/January '97 issue of Midwest Home & Design, a publication of Minnesota Monthly and
Minnesota Public Radio.


A Word About 'Words About Wine'

If your love of wine inspires you to want to write an article or essay about the subject, or if you've had a wine-related article published in print that you'd like to share with wine lovers on the Web, I'll be happy to consider placing it on the Web in this new feature of my Wine Lovers' Page.

Although I can't offer to pay for submissions at this time, I'd like to see this feature become a showcase for serious wine journalism and essays in a format longer, more thoughtful, and less transient than message board discussions.

I'll be happy to consider both previously published work (as long as you retain copyright rights) and unpublished work, and while I reserve the right to reject submissions on the basis of content or style, I'll make every effort to be generous in those judgements and err on the side of inclusiveness, in order -- I hope -- to build a good collection of quality Words About Wine. If you'd like to propose an article now or show me one that you've already written, please feel free to send me E-Mail.


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