Holidays, and every day, bubbly wines and Champagne complement gourmet meals or enliven traditional fare.
The sound of bubbly being uncorked is as closely linked with the winter holidays—from New Year’s to Valentine’s Day—as gift exchanges and sweet treats. But even with the long-held tradition of festive sipping, a restaurateur’s continued challenge is to get customers to think outside of the box with food pairings. When deciding what to eat with Cava, Brut, Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti, sparkling wines, or Champagne, common matches are oysters, slices of cake, foie gras, and seafood-focused appetizers—all foods that are typically reserved for special occasions.
In recent years, however, there has been a turning of the tide, and burgers, popcorn, potato chips, and salads are ordered with a flute of sparkling wine.
For many wine professionals, sipping bubbles with just about anything has always been a core belief. “I consider sparkling wine to be a year-round wine. It’s not just once a year, as a toast. We need to keep on pushing that,” says Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate in New York City. “It’s a huge issue … to consider sparkling wine just for the holidays. It is very American.”
Sommelier Madeline Puckette, content producer of the education site WineFolly.com and author of Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, counts Lambrusco with sliders among her favorite pairings. It’s one she stumbled upon years ago while eating at the Skillet Diner in Seattle, and one she won’t ever forget.
And that’s not the only surprising selection she’ll sip with a wine that’s commonly associated with special occasions. “My favorite foods to pair with sparkling wines are chili, especially if you get some Cheddar cheese on top, and fish tacos with sparkling Riesling,” Puckette says.
Along those lines, and with a similar zest to make sparkling wines more approachable, Tony Rossi, director of wine at C Chicago—an 8,000-square-foot restaurant that opened in the spring—likes to offer both affordable and highbrow options. Eighteen sparkling wines spanning all price points are on the list, and five are offered by the glass.
“When building the list, I want Champagne, and then I look at wines from other regions [that are made using] Champagne methods,” he says. “It’s not just a celebratory wine. It’s a wine that just happens to have bubbles.”
“Prosecco provides an amazing value, but I also have a wine from Franciacorta, Italy, for $50 a bottle or $17 a glass, that is made by Méthode Champenoise,” says Rossi, who likes to home in on grower-producers because of their hands-on approach with the wine’s enology and viticulture. Among his favorites from France are Champagne Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs and Champagne Chartogne-Taillet St. Anne. But he also likes to carry domestic options from California: Roederer Estate Brut (Anderson Valley, Mendocino County) and Schramsberg Vineyards’ Blanc de Blancs (Napa Valley).
Yet he’s not shy about featuring top producers with cachet, like past vintages of famed Champagne producer Krug. “There’s more diversity in Champagne than people realize. A wine like Krug that’s been aged up to 20 years produces a really rich texture. It’s such a great food wine. You can have Champagne with every course—even roasted chicken,” Rossi says.
To that end, and with an eye on appealing to all price points and palates, the waitstaff at C Chicago are trained to coax diners into unexpected, everyday pairings to either ring in a new year or celebrate a relationship. One entry point is by sharing knowledge of the wineries. “We love stories. Just pouring the wine is only part of it. I especially like comeback stories [about wineries],” Rossi says.
Another technique Rossi likes to use to delight guests who order sparkling wine is to abandon the flute and adopt a surprising option for glassware, but one that works. For instance, he likes to pour bubbles into wine glasses meant for Riesling.
Sparkling wines also aren’t just resigned to the appetizers and main course. For a sweet, final note to an amazing meal, the demi-sec notes of Champagne can’t be beat, Puckette says. This suggestion will often encourage diners to spring for dessert, elongating their time at the table, and building an even greater memory of the occasion.
Special day or not, wine specialists are continually seeking options that challenge the expected status quo. “I always offer four sparkling wines by the glass at any given time,” says Lepeltier, of Rouge Tomate. “I really believe in organic, biodynamic, and natural farming and winemaking.”
For these small, lesser-known producers, she’s not shy about looking beyond the Champagne region and deeper into France. “You find a lot of high-quality sparkling wines made using the same traditional method, either called Cremant, or using a regional AOC name like Vouvray,” says Lepeltier, who cites Crémant d’Alsace and Crémant du Jura among her favorites. Some of her favorite Loire Valley producers of sparkling wine—using Chenin Blanc grapes—include Domaine Vincent Careme, Domaine Huet, and Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine. “They are a bit more aromatic because of the Chenin Blanc itself, and can age very well,” she says.
Spanish sparkling wines are another popular, low-budget option appearing more and more frequently on wine lists—albeit their introduction is certainly not new. “Cava is a great place to look for that creamy, nutty style,” says Puckette, who will also hunt down good Riserva (aged for a minimum of 15 months) and Gran Riserva (aged three years before release, the same as Champagne). She’s also a fan of sparkling Rosé of Malbec, from Argentina, and sparkling Grüner Veltliner, from Austria—both of which are relatively new to the U.S.