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Champagne-style wines -- not just for New Year's anymore

Published: December 26th, 2012 01:42 PM

Like Robert De Niro playing another mob wiseguy or quirky parent, or Jennifer Aniston in yet another romantic comedy, it's time for Champagne and sparkling wine to shed its typecasting.

Champagnes and sparkling wines are often relegated to a swanky kind of stereotype: the bottle of Dom Perignon on a bucket of ice in a nightclub's VIP section; a ceremonial "pop" to toast a prosperous new year; or even just a high-class touch to an otherwise ordinary brunch.

But beyond the scenes of conspicuous consumption or symbolic toasting, something has been lost. Champagne and other styles of sparklers are among the most food-friendly of wines. Make a spot for them at the dining table, not just as a ceremonial kickoff, but throughout a meal, and the flavor rewards are many.

Matthew Lewis, the wine director of Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar, has long touted the food friendliness of bubbly.

"They've been relegated to a wine to toast with at the beginning of a big meals, or these tired pairings that people deem appropriate," said Lewis. "It's not that oysters and Champagne aren't a fantastic pairing, but people don't think outside that box enough. It's a wine that's friendly to many foods."

Sparkling wines have plenty of strong suits for dining. They're generally high in acidity, which helps keep the palate juicy while cutting through dishes with a lot of fattiness or richness. Their bubbliness, already beloved for a festive touch and nose-tickling properties, works well to scrub the tongue between courses and keep your mouth feeling fresh for more food. Those bubbles come from the methode champenoise, in which carbon dioxide gas is produced during the fermentation process.

Sparkling wines offer plenty of flavor complexities on their own. Depending on the grapes used in the wine and methods of production, flavors can include tangy citrus, red fruits, biscuit-y yeast notes, touches of pear in prosecco, and sweetness in sparklers that include residual sugar.

"I like to expose people to different iterations of sparkling wine," said Lewis. "At Enotria, we never do a pairing or multicourse tasting menu without one or two different sparklers. That little fizz on the tongue adds a lift and brightness to many dishes."

Those pairings can start right away with appetizers and party snacks. Popcorn ranks as one of the classic high-low pairings in the wine world. The sparkler's acidity helps cut through that buttery richness and also plays off the saltiness. Sparkling wines are also a great foil for fried foods, so consider matching them with chicken wings or a batch of pommes frites.

"The word's finally out that almost nothing goes better with fried foods than sparkling wine," said Lewis. "It's a textural thing with foods that are crispy and light, and almost all sparklers have high acidity which can cut through greasiness. Champagne is a great foil for all these notes."

Full-bodied Champagnes and sparkling wines can also hold up to heartier dishes. Creamy pastas, lobster with butter sauce and eggs Benedict all match well with bubbly. A dry Champagne will also complement spicy Asian noodle dishes ever so deftly.

"People don't realize how well a sparkler can cut through rich dishes," said Lewis. "You don't see this as much, but traditionally it wasn't considered strange."

OK, some might be thinking, "Great, it's going to cost me hundreds of dollars to achieve these impeccable wine pairings." Consider that notion part of the sparkling wine stereotype, too.

It's true that buying a bottle from the most prestigious Champagne houses – the Krugs, Dom Perignons and Salons of the wine world – can cost $150 at the low end and rise quickly from there. Even small production "grower Champagne" from France can cost at least $50 per bottle, thanks to the costs of importation and high land values in France's Champagne region. (Only sparkling wines from that region can be labeled "Champagne.")

To save some cherished dollars, look for crémant de Bourgogne, crémant de Loire and crémant de Bordeaux – all French sparking wines that are generally made with traditional methods. They just technically can't be called "Champagne." Many are delicious, and can be found for as low as $15 per bottle.

"Not enough people are aware that every region in France makes sparkling wine," said Lewis. "Clue into the words 'cremant' or 'mousseux.' A 'cremant de Bourgogne' is a bubbly from Burgundy. These wines can be outrageously good and cost just about nothing."

Other parts of the world also offer tasty bargains, each with their own character. However, it's important to remember that not all sparkling wines have the same flavor attributes.

Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, remains a popular option for bubbly on a budget. It tends to taste lighter, less yeasty and fruitier when compared with traditional Champagnes, and is not as well-suited to cut through heavier dishes.

"That lighter, fresher style is a perfect aperitif wine," said Lewis. "It's my go-to wine when we're going to have a large party that's going to be cocktailing for a while and don't want to fatigue their palate."

And of course, there's cava. This Spanish sparkling wine, typically made with parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo grapes, offers plenty of bang and bubbles for the buck. Many can be had for under $10, including the Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, which at $7.99 is listed as one of Wine Spectator's "best value" bottles. Like prosecco, it's often best paired with lighter dishes or served as an aperitif.

"I'm a huge proponent of cava," said Lewis. "You're getting méthode champenoise wine at such a low price it's almost insane. Those three grapes (used in cava) have a different flavor profile than champagne, but you get a bright fruit profile. They pair so well with seafood and because of the bright citrus component can go interestingly with a salad. It's a good appetizer or salad wine."

But let's not forget some of the fine sparkling wine made in our own California backyard. Look for such names as Domaine Carneros, Chandon and Gloria Ferrer. Even Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg makes a blanc de blancs sparkling wine (i.e., made exclusively with chardonnay grapes), though it's available only in its tasting room.

"People used to enjoy sparkling wines in a larger variety of styles and more frequent occasions," said Lewis. "I'm always trying to push people toward that."

In other words: Bubbly – it's not just for brunch or New Year's anymore.