From the ceremonious uncorking of the bottle to a fizzy build-up in the glass, bubbles are often linked with celebratory events, whether it’s New Year’s Eve, a birthday bash, or a special anniversary.
Wine directors at restaurants are trying to rewrite that imbibing tradition by encouraging customers to consider Champagne, cava, brut, Prosecco, or sparkling wine any day of the year.
“They’re still in that special-occasion, celebratory wine category,” says Daniel Pernice, sommelier at Osteria Mattone and Table & Main in Roswell, Georgia, and formerly of The Modern inside the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “I’m all about getting them at the forefront.”
Paired with non-pretentious edibles like fried fish, bar snacks, and comfort foods, the options are endless, each capitalizing on the wine’s high levels of acidity. In fact, salsa is among winemaker Tom Tiburzi’s favorite food matches. (Tiburzi is the winemaker at Domaine Chandon, a sparkling wine producer in Napa Valley, California.) So are capers, either tossed in a salad or part of a Mediterranean-themed fish dish. Yet another of his favorite pairings is a glass of sparkling wine with either oysters or calamari.
If the wine is left for a time on the lees during the aging process, says Tiburzi, it leads to compatibility with mushrooms or dark, broody sauces. “Sparkling wines, in general, are a good pairing with food as they have a good amount of acidity. The structure helps to build stronger food,” he says, adding that the wines can also stand up to spicy foods.
The chalky minerality and notes of toasted brioche that are found in most sparkling wines pair well with crustaceans such as shellfish or lobster, says Pernice. “It can also cut through the richness and not make the palate fatigued.”
Vonda Freeman, wine director at Indigo Road, a restaurant group in Charleston, South Carolina, where fish is a restaurant staple, has noticed increased interest in sparkling rosé wines from France, a less-expensive option than Champagne counterparts. Still, she believes it’s important to include well-known labels on a wine list, such as Taittinger, along with Grower Champagne—a new buzzword where grapes are grown on-site at the winery—selections that “give more of a sense of place,” says Freeman. And she notes Spanish Cavas for providing tremendous value at less than $35 a bottle.
Champagne Tastes on a Beverage Budget
Having a range of price points is also crucial to developing a solid bubbles program. After all, you don’t want to steer people away with an assumption you only carry bottles priced at $200 or more.
“You’ve got to be versatile and open-minded. Branch outside of the multi-million-dollar labels,” says Pernice, noting it can be cost-prohibitive, too, to carry only Champagnes. Instead, he offers diners a Cremant d’Alsace from a small family-run producer in France and Franciacorta from Lombardy, Italy.
Whereas at The Modern he routinely had six sparkling wines by the glass, it’s been a tougher sell in the Atlanta suburb because of the connotation that bubbly beverages just go with celebrations. “I’m rooting for sparkling wines and I’m hoping to create a movement for them in Roswell,” he says.
Similarly, Kyle Cerami, manager of RM Champagne Salon, which opened in Chicago in 2012, says, “I don’t have the budget for Champagne and I know a lot of people who come to RM Champagne Salon don’t either.” His sparkling-wine selection spans 15 countries, from a sparkling Gruner Veltliner (Austria) to Lambrusco (Italy). Grower Champagne is another focus of Cerami’s, with budget-friendly prices between $90 and $110 a bottle.
“You don’t think of pairing Champagne with a burger, but if you find the right flavor you can do it,” says Cerami, especially if topped with Roquefort cheese. But he also includes classic choices like lobster and oysters, which are flown in daily. Erasing customer perception that a Champagne bar should be fancy and snooty is his primary goal. “People are surprised at how simple it can be. With the style of service we have, it’s very laid-back. Wine books are intimidating, with words that are hard to pronounce. The servers are there to guide you and find the right bottle for you. Education is a huge part of what the staff does.”
Schooling in proper terminology for Champagne is also a large focus at the Champagne Bureau in Washington. Legally, a bottle of sparkling wine cannot feature Champagne on its label unless it was made in Champagne, France, a battle the bureau fights almost daily.
“Champagne is protected better legally in China than it is in the United States,” says Sam Heitner, the bureau’s director. “It’s about truthfully communicating to the consumer.” Wines produced before 2006 in the States are allowed to continue to use either “California Champagne” or “American Champagne” on their labeling, although some domestic wineries, like Gruet Winery in New Mexico, have readily complied with the law.
“The change in American psyche within the last 10 to 15 years has been phenomenal. Restaurants have been at the forefront of educating consumers,” says Heitner. Still, the bureau hosts tastings for the trade around the U.S. and creates in-store displays to further drive home the point that Champagne only comes from Champagne, France. Despite economic downturns since 2006, the bureau reports that imports to the U.S. have spiked. “They’re not just buying it for a big celebration, they’re buying it for other moments, too,” says Heitner.
Choices for glassware are evolving as well—while slender flutes were once the only choice, today wine bars pour bubbles into a variety of glassware, including stemless glasses or Mad Men-inspired coupe goblets.
“Quite often, I’ll actually ask for my Champagne or sparkling wine to be poured in a Burgundy wine glass,” says Tiburzi. Yet there is no mistaking the beauty of sparkling wine bubbling within a flute. “Tall flutes show the bubbles wonderfully,” says Tiburzi.
No matter what glassware is chosen, sparkling wines are a perennial favorite for diners. “It’s got that palate cleansing on the finish. It’s almost like it’s the first bite all over again,” says Freeman, noting that sparkling wines will pair with Thai food, a beet salad, oysters, French fries, fish and chips, and shellfish alike, easily pleasing a table of varying orders. “It’s never going to overpower anything.”