The Christmas and New Year’s holidays are a perfect time for bubbles, whether they’re in the form of Champagne or one of the many good sparkling wines produced these days. The wine experts at Jacques Scott talked about some of the options for this holiday season during a lunch at Calypso Grill.
Here in Cayman, Champagne and sparkling wines are always in season. But as popular as bubbles are at the many weekly Sunday brunch offerings, cocktail parties, wine dinner receptions and special occasions of all kinds, they’re even more popular at festive gatherings during the December holiday season.
Champagne is the king of sparkling wines, but today there are many very good, less expensive options from a variety of wine-producing regions. Depending on the event and the food service, there’s a sparkling wine or Champagne for every occasion.
Over the last decade, Prosecco has became the hottest sparkling wine on the market. Made from the grape formerly known as Prosecco and now known as Glera,this sparkling wine comes from hilly areas of the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Unlike it’s sweeter cousins in Piemonte – Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti – Prosecco these days is often made in a dry brut style. As a result, Prosecco is a versatile sparkling wine that can be enjoyed by itself, as an accompaniment to a meal, or in a cocktail like a Bellini or Mimosa. Although Prosecco prices have started going up in recent years, it is still about half the price of most brut Champagnes.
Zardetto Prosecco Brut Treviso DOC ($23.99) is a good option for a variety of holiday gatherings, from festive cocktail parties to brunches.
It has aromas of white peach, citrus and tropical fruits.
Jacques Scott Wine Sales Manager Lee Royle said he liked the style of Zardetto Prosecco.
“It’s a fresh, lighter style,” he said, noting that because it is made with the Charmat method where the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle, it is less bubbly than Champagne. “If you don’t want to splash for Champagne, it’s a good option; it’s a good Prosecco.”
Wine sales professional Sarah Howard said Zardetto Prosecco would be perfect for a holiday party.
“It’s fresh and not super serious; it’s fun and bubbly,” she said.
Predictably, the Zardetto Prosecco was a fine pairing with Calypso Grill’s scallop Florentine, as would have been any of the dry white sparkling wines and Champagnes tasted over the lunch.
Sparkling wines can only properly be called Champagne if they are produced in the Champagne region of northeast France. But this doesn’t mean that great sparkling white wines with Champagne-like qualities aren’t being produced elsewhere.
Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvee ($33.99) is one such product.
Located in the Carneros area of southern Napa Valley, Domaine Carneros was founded in 1987 by Claude Taittinger of Taittinger Champagne fame. Here, the sparkling wines are produced using the Old World Champagne-making methods, which include secondary bottle fermentation. Eileen Crane, the president and founding wine maker of Domaine Carneros, is considered the foremost sparkling wine maker in California.
Domaine Carneros’ estate vineyards were all certified organic in 2008, the first sparkling winery in the United States so certified. Its Brut Vintage Cuvee is made with 60 per cent Pinot Noir grapes and 40 per cent Chardonnay, giving it aromas of white flowers and apple pie. On the palate, it has flavours of citrus fruit with tones of saltiness and good acidity, making it a good pairing with cheese and creamy sauces, seafood, poultry and Asian cuisine.
Royle noted that Champagne in general pairs well with many foods and he gave this wine pairing advice:
“When it doubt, go with bubbles.”
One ingredient that is notoriously difficult to pair with Champagne – or wine in general – is asparagus, which is exactly what the Calypso Grill served next. However, one of the reasons asparagus isn’t wine friendly is because it is often served with a vinaigrette sauce. White asparagus is less of a problem with wines than green asparagus, so when Calypso Grill served a white asparagus basket with a creamy sauce, the Domaine Carneros provided a decent pairing.
There are reasons why Champagne is Champagne and not mere sparkling wine. Part of it is the same reason why Burgundy is Burgundy and not mere Pinot Noir – terroir. Just like the climate and soil conditions in the Burgundy region of France impart certain characteristics on the grapes used to make the wine that comes from that region, so it is with the grapes in Champagne. The chalky soil and the cool summer temperatures keep the grapes from becoming overripe and allow them maintain high levels of acidity, a necessary ingredient in good sparkling wine.
So unique is the wine growing region that other sparkling wines from France can’t be called Champagne, even if they’re made in the exact same way with the exact same variety of grapes.
The other reason Champagne differs from many other sparkling wines is the regulated varieties of grapes that can be used in its making and traditional method of production – which is what gives Champagne the small and plentiful bubbles it is known for. This method – called méthode champenoise in French – involves a secondary alcoholic fermentation that occurs in the bottle by adding some yeast and sugar. As the sugar is consumed by the yeast, it produces carbon dioxide in the capped bottle. The lees – the sediment materials left over from the secondary fermentation – are then removed by turning the bottle upsidedown so that they settle in the neck. The neck is then frozen, the bottle uncapped and the ice containing the lees ejected. The bottle is then closed with a specially-shaped corks held on by the wire cage that keeps the carbonated wine inside.
Because of the yeast used in the secondary fermentation, Champagne also takes aromas of baked bread, toast or brioche, adding to its complexity.
For lunch at Calypso Grill, two different white Champagnes were tasted: Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($59.99) and Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve ($62.99).
The Louis Roederer Brut Premier is a blend of 40 per cent Chardonnay, 40 per cent Pinot Noir and 20 per cent Petit Meunier. This non-vintage Champagne, which doesn’t get as much marketing exposure as some other top brands, made Wine Spectator’s list of top 100 wines in the world in 2009 based on “quality, value, availability and excitement”.
Royle is a fan of Louis Roederer, which has a more delicate, lighter style than some other Champagnes, making it perfect for cocktail-party gatherings with canapés and as an accompaniment with lighter foods.
The Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve is a blend of the same grapes as the Roederer, but with 30 per cent Chardonnay, 30 per cent Pinot Noir and 40 per cent Petit Meunier. It has a richer, fuller style than the Roederer. This is an ultra elegant, complex Champagne that is excellent with many foods, with aromas of white flowers and fresh fruit. It is rich and creamy on the palate with flavours of peaches and pears.
Both the Roederer and the Billecart paired well with the cracked conch, marinated conch and conch fritter platter, and in general, Champagne is a good match with seafood, especially shellfish.
“Here’s what I like about Billecart,” said Howard. “It’s good juice, but you’re not paying for the marketing; you’re paying for the quality of the juice. It’s my staff pick in the [retail] store throughout the holidays.”
Although there’s no such thing as red Champagne, there is pink Champagne and during the holidays it adds a nice touch of festive colour at holiday gatherings.
Taittinger Prestige Rosé ($68.99) not only adds a bright pink colour to a table, it also adds a unique taste profile. It is made from a blend of the classic Champagne grapes, with some Pinot Noir still wine – 15 per cent of its volume – added, giving it aromas of red fruits like raspberries, cherries and black currants and a similar flavours.
Because of its red grape characteristics, the Taittinger Prestige Rosé paired very well with the roast wild boar with truffle wine sauce, a dish that might have overpowered the white sparkling wines and Champagnes.
“I love rosé Champagne,” said Howard. “This could have been the wine for the whole meal and we’d be happy.”
The Calypso Grill finished the meal with a classic English dessert, Treacle Tart with custard. A rosé sparkling wine from the Loire Valley in France, Marquis de la Tour Brut Rosé ($21.99), was served with it. Although the term “brut” means a sparkling wine cannot contain more than 12 grams per litre of residual sugar, the grapes used in the Marquis de la Tour Brut Rosé – Cabernet Franc, Carignan and Grenache – leave it with very fruity aromas and flavours that make it seem sweeter than it is. Dessert might not be the most ideal pairing for Champagne or sparkling wine, but on this day, the Marquis de la Tour was by far the best with the Treacle Tart. With many holiday dishes taking on some sweetness or flavours of exotic spices, this would be a good – and affordable – option for an entire meal, or for a easy-drinking aperitif before a meal.