Fermenting Options with Rich Mauro :
Try These Bubbles For a Sparkling New Year
(and to celebrate throughout the year)
Although sparkling wine is always an appropriate choice for any occasion any time of year, certainly the holidays and the New Year are the prime time for bubbly. Lucky for us effervescent wine is so popular there are versions made in virtually every wine region. Whether it’s called Champagne, Crémant, Spumante, Prosecco, Cava, or something else, sparkling wine is the first choice for celebrations of all types.
But, I suggest you don’t use these wines only for toasts. Their versatility with food calls for you to consider drinking them throughout the year and with your meals. (NOTE: All wines in this column are nonvintage unless otherwise noted.)
Champagne still sets the standard and Nonvintage Brut is the most widely enjoyed style, partly because it represents the signature style of a Champagne house, as it is blended to achieve a yearly consistency. It is also the most affordable. Look for these fine examples.
Laurent-Perrier La Cuvee ($50). This blend of 55 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot noir and 10 percent meunier is delightful with a fresh yeasty, buttery bouquet and lively citrus flavors delivered on a refined palate.
Henriot Souverain ($45). This wine of nearly equal parts chardonnay and pinot noir with a touch of pinot meunier comes in a rich, elegant style. Fresh citrus and pear are balanced with touches of mineral and toast.
Charles Heidsieck Réserve ($65). Blended with a higher proportion of matured reserve wines (40 percent) than typical of Nonvintage Bruts and aged longer (10 years on average), this one reveals admirable complexity and richness. Its 75 percent pinot noir and pinot meunier and 25 percent chardonnay yield bright red fruits with toasty, yeasty and nutty accents.
There also are fine, distinctive choices among single variety wines, which showcase a purer expression of the chosen grape.
Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé ($100). This 100 percent pinot noir is expensive but amazing. It offers intense red berries and citrus but drinks with elegance. Pure fruit dominates but the polished texture and crisp structure elevates.
Henriot Blanc de Blancs ($60). A vibrant 100 percent chardonnay expression of pear and citrus with fine vanilla and toasty notes gracefully applied with some richness.
André Jacquart Mesnil Expérience ($60). This 100 percent Chardonnay from a small, artisan producer is labeled “Premier Cru Blanc De Blancs.” It opens very tight with brisk, pure citrus and green apple, then enticing elements of cream and caramel emerge.
And Vintage Champagne takes the quest for distinctive character a step further, as it seeks to highlight the qualities of a particular harvest.
2005 Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime ($110). A really spectacular 60 percent pinot noir/40 percent chardonnay cuvée with pear and nectarine aromas, followed by fresh bread and intense flavors of apricot, honey and nut. It is pure and silky, firm and refined, with a lightly spicy finish.
Finally, if you prefer your bubbles with a hint of sweetness, the French have Demi-Sec for you.
Laurent-Perrier Harmony Demi-Sec ($50). Demi-Sec translates to half-dry and in the case of Champagne means a wine that is slightly sweet. This blend of 55 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot noir and 10 percent pinot meunier is delightfully fruity and balanced with brioche and a delicate palate.
While Champagne is the benchmark for sparkling wine, I delight in finding and recommending good sparklers from other French regions. Crémant generally is the term used to denote sparkling wines not made in Champagne. It typically is made using the “methode traditionnelle”, meaning the bubbles are created using the Champagne method where the second fermentation occurs in the bottle.
Crémant d’Alsace is one of the best and an affordable alternative to Champagne. Pierre Sparr makes some of the most reliable. The lively, flavorful Pierre Sparr Rosé is made from 100% pinot noir ($25), while the refreshing, citrusy Brut Reserve ($23) is 80 percent pinot blanc and 20 percent pinot auxerrois.
Crémant De Limoux from the Languedoc region in southern France typically is distinguished with the addition of chenin blanc and often is an even better value. Produced by Jean-Claude Mas, the refined green apple of the Côté Mas Brut($16) is 60 percent chardonnay, 20 percent chenin blanc, 10 percent pinot noir, and 10 percent mauzac. The Côté Mas Rosé Brut ($16) shows citrus and peach from its 70 percent chardonnay and 20 percent chenin blanc, accented with tart strawberry from 10 percent pinot noir.
I also tasted a few of pretty good bottles of bubbles that sourced fruit from multiple locations in France. Haute Couture “French Bubbles Blanc” ($30) says “Dry” on the back label but it actually drinks a little sweet with a nice creamy texture and fresh citrus. The Rosé entices with sweet red berries. The Le Grand Courtâge “Limited Edition” wines (both Blanc de Blancs Brut and Brut Rosé are $18) are nice values with the Blanc de Blancs offering pleasant apple and citrus and the Brut Rosé offering soft, sweet strawberry notes.
Italy also excels in sparkling wine with many options. From Franciacorta and Trentino in the north, there is outstanding “metodo classico” (also using the traditional pinot noir and chardonnay grapes). These arguably are the best Champagne method wines you never heard of. One of the finest producers is Ferrari in Trentino, which was established in 1902. The 2009 Ferrari Trento “Perlé” ($38) offers the elegance and structure of 100 percent chardonnay with fresh, fruity apple, fresh baked bread, and elements of almond.
Italy’s most popular bubbly in the U.S. is Prosecco, the fresh frizzante from the Veneto hills north of Venice. Prosecco – the name of the production zone, while the native glera is the dominant grape – is produced using the Charmat Method. With Charmat, bubbles are produced by inducing the second fermentation in pressurized stainless steel tanks, instead of the bottle (as in the Champagne Method). This preserves glera’s fresh aromas and clean, delicate pear and peach fruit. With typically light, frothy flavors, the following are affordable and eminently drinkable.
- Valdo “Oro Puro” Brut Superiore ($21). From a 90 year old winery owned by the Bolla Family, this reveals greater complexity and fuller flavors than the typical Prosecco.
- Tommasi “Tenuta Filodora” ($18). From a family with a 115 year history of winemaking in the Veneto, it is smooth and elegant.
- Bervini 1955 Millesimato 2016 Extra Dry ($19). Sourced primarily from certified organic estate grapes, it’s delightfully dryer than most Proseccos.
- La Marca ($19). This product of a 5000 member growers cooperative is tantalizingly fruity and a touch sweet.
- Martini & Rossi Prosecco ($13) is pleasantly floral and clean.
- Valdo Brut ($16) is a nice value for easy drinking.
Remember Lambrusco? Have you long since abandoned the overly sweet, mass-produced froth that became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s? Well, Lambrusco is enjoying a reintroduction to American consumers as an exuberantly fruity, yet dry, savory and artisan made sparkling wine.
One of the best is Cleto Chiarli, which has been making Lambrusco since 1860. These are delicious, versatile wines and they still are quite inexpensive. Chiarli makes only Lambrusco and uses only estate grapes.
- 2016 Premium Vecchia Modena ($15). Labeled “Secco” meaning dry, expect abundant floral and red berry notes; it’s lively, deeply fruitful, and lightly spicy.
- Vigneto Cialdini ($15). Also labeled Secco, this is effusive with fruit and finishes with firm, savory tannins.
- Centenario ($11). Labeled “Amabile” meaning semi sweet, but its delightfully juicy palate is balanced with a mildly tannic finish.
- Brut di Noir Rosé ($15). Labeled “Spumante” for sparkling, tart red fruits make this a nice, easy drink.
Of course, California also makes some truly fine sparkling wines. Two of the best come from Sonoma.
J Vineyards has been making highly regarded bubbly in the Russian River Valley for thirty years. With a pedigree tied to the Jordan family of Alexander Valley’s Jordan Vineyards, this is not a surprise. The Brut “Cuvée 20” ($38), with 54 percent chardonnay, 43 percent pinot noir, and 3 percent pinot meunier, delivers nicely zesty apple, citrus, and cranberry with a touch of almond cream. The Brut Rosé ($45), at 64 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay, and 4 percent pinot meunier, is full of raspberry and strawberry fruit, yet drinks fresh and delicate with hints of spice.
The Ferrer family, owner of Spain’s Freixenet Cava winery also has been producing highly regarded sparkling wines (under the Gloria Ferrer label) since 1986 but from estate vineyards in Carneros. These are some of the best and most reliably sparkling values coming out of California.
Sonoma Brut ($22). In a crucial stylistic choice, this Brut is 91 percent pinot noir and 9 percent chardonnay, which results in more red berries than expected but also nice, creamy pear, apple and citrus.
Blanc de Noirs ($22). Here, 92 percent pinot noir and 8 percent chardonnay produce vibrant cherry, hints of apple, and cola with a creamy palate.
Blanc de Blancs ($22). With 100 percent chardonnay, enjoy crisp lemon and apple with vanilla and hazelnut.
Brut Rosé ($27). This rich blend of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay is enticingly aromatic and flavorful with tart red berries, crisp apple and caramel.
Speaking of Cava, I only had one in my tastings but I am happy to recommend the Paul Cheneau. It is an elegant Cava from hand-harvested most native grapes of 45 percent macabeo, 40 percent xarel·lo, 10 percent chardonnay, and 5 percent parellada. The palate is fresh with peach, subtle floral undertones and balanced creamy
Finally, two nice bottles from unexpected sources:
From Argentina, the Ruca Malen Brut ($28) is 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay. It offers a nice mix of citrus and cherry with suggestions of fresh baked bread. The quality is not surprising as one of the founders worked many years for Moët & Chandon’s Argentina outpost.
And South Africa represents with the 2015 Simonsig “Kaapse Vonkel” Brut Rosé ($24). With 63 percent pinot noir, 35 percent pinotage, and 2 percent pinot meunier, it is refreshingly crisp with light berry tones.