The Magic Flute

Blair Chancey

Compose your wine list for summer; hit all the right notes with sparkling wines.

Although associated with New Year’s Eve, weddings, christenings and other special occasions, sparklers, with those refreshing bubbles, sing “summertime” like no other wine.

“Our customers think of sparkling wine as more of a summer drink,” says Barb DeVos, a manager at Spill the Wine Restaurant in Minneapolis. Though she notes that sparklers are also big sellers on Valentine’s Day and in the run-up to New Year’s Eve — “all the big bubbly holidays.” But as warm weather kicks in, Spill the Wine sells more sparklers. Prosecco is the top seller, due to its fresh fruity qualities and good price.

 Producers have long walked the fine line of encouraging people to enjoy sparkling wines on casual occasions while retaining the wine’s festive reputation. And it seems like American consumers may have gotten the message. Sales of sparkling wine were up 10 percent in 2010 to 15.4 million cases, according to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report. That suggests that Americans are expanding their imbibing of sparklers beyond special occasions, say the California-based industry consultants.

However, to keep those statistics in perspective, sparkling wine accounts for only 4.6 percent of all wine sales in the U.S. And on many restaurant wine lists, sparkling wine is often underrepresented. Sometimes even wine-savvy servers don’t know enough about sparkling wines to hand-sell effectively or are unsure how to pop the cork and properly serve the wine. Thus they don’t push this high-margin category.

Certainly, there’s a lot to know about this complex and widely produced wine. Here’s a short primer and guide to sourcing sparklers.

Pleasure Principles. There are two processes for adding sparkle to wine: the traditional methode champenoise and the bulk Charmat method.

As the term implies, methode champenoise was first used to make champagne. Now this time-honored process produces fine sparkling wines around the globe. First, a base wine is fermented using the same techniques as with still wine. Then the wine undergoes a second fermentation in thick, strong glass bottles, which creates carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. The wine is aged a year or more in the bottle. During that time, the yeast sediment, called the lees, adds complexity, biscuity flavors and a creamy texture. Slow absorption of carbon dioxide makes for tiny bubbles that dance in the glass.

In the Charmat process, secondary fermentation occurs in large tanks, and the wine is then bottled under pressure. Carbonation is aggressive, with larger bubbles, more like soda pop. It is faster and cheaper but generally produces lower-quality—but lower-priced—wines. Because the wines are given little or no aging, they are generally fresher and fruitier—ideal for summer quaffing or mixing in a cocktail.

The Queen. Champagne is the wine against which all other sparklers are measured. A propitious combination of cool climate, chalky limestone soil and centuries of winemaking tradition creates this renowned wine. Most champagnes are nonvintage (NV) wines blended to a consistent producer style, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. For certain customers, champagne is the only sparkling wine, and it pays to stock at least one bottle of NV. Step up to a vintage bottling for special occasions.


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