I have a close friend—a damn good cook, by the way—who once declared his hatred for champagne. As a longtime champagne lover I couldn’t understand his disdain. And when I asked him what he meant by “champagne,” like lots of people he referred to sparkling wines in general, not necessarily those that originate from Champagne. (As a reminder, an upper case “C” designates the region, a lower case “c” the libation from which it comes. And only wines from Champagne are legally—and morally, IMO—allowed to be designated as champagne.)
That’s about as far as it went. Although I tried to change his mind by pouring him a few favorite grower champagnes, even a tasty Brut rosé from Italy’s Piedmont made from all Nebbiolo; his mind was made up. Sigh. Granted, there is a lot of poorly made, indifferent tasting sparkling wine out there (champagne included), but to rule out an entire category of anything based on a few poor encounters strikes me as unfortunate.
Especially when one considers the remarkable range of flavor profiles, regions, and styles sparkling wines encompass. As I’ve written before, they are also among the most food-friendly, and versatile bottles to grace our tables—not merely for celebratory purposes but on a regular basis. It’s also the category I use as a default if I find a restaurant’s overall wine list to be unappealing—for my palate, this generally means heavy on the nattier side of “natural,” but that’s me.
That said, the approaching holiday season heralds the time when far more bottles of bubbly will be opened than is the yearly norm. With that in mind, be it Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, or a sparkler from more obscure regions, varietals, or even a pét-nat, we thought it might be informative, fun, and ultimately Delicious, to share some tips on pairing sparkling wines with food.
The Balancing Act
Let me begin by saying that, in general, I’m not a believer in the “perfect” wine/food pairing. But just as with still wines, there are some basic guidelines that are tried and true: Say, a bright, briny Chablis while slurping down oysters (or indulging in caviar), a medium-bodied, slightly peppery/spicy Syrah or Nebbiolo with lamb, or a red Burgundy or other fine Pinot with pretty much any poultry dish.
Similar guidelines can be applied to sparkling wines. For example, a higher-toned, white fruit based sparkler, such as a blanc de blancs Champagne, Crémant du Jura, or excellent Cava with that platter of oysters. Though here I would argue that acidity is of even greater importance than getting hung up on whether the wine is made with white or red fruits, or some blend of both, because to my taste a softer, creamier profile is unlikely to provide the balance of tone and tension to sing with an oyster’s plump, sea-infused flavors.
Another favorite pairing. When we’re in the mood to begin a (late) Sunday morning with lox and bagels—in addition to cream cheese, mandoline-sliced raw red onion and capers are favorite toppings we typically reach for a red-fruit based Champagne, one with good body as well as snapping acidity, which strikes us as an ideal complement to the rich, smoky, slightly oily cured salmon and its partnering ingredients. Please don’t blame me if your bagel intake rises with this habit-forming combo.
Given that sparkling wine is a wonderful way to welcome guests, and a perfect pre-dinner libation, how about beginning the party with a bowl of popcorn? Without getting hung up on your favorite way to make this old-fashioned treat, know that here is a more or less fool-proof crowd pleaser that goes with all manner of sparkling wine—from the crisp and bright to creamier, richer textured examples. (Hint: the same applies to laying out a bowl of your favorite brand of potato chips.)
This brings me to salad. Unlike in Europe, American menus tend to begin with this course, which is tricky to pair with wine. But it’s also a pity to stop enjoying wine after appetizers because of your salad’s acidic vinaigrette. Rolling from apps to salad while keeping with the same glass of bubbles works very nicely.
I find returning to sparkling wine at the end of a meal is also a delightful way to end an evening. Although there are a few “dessert” wines I enjoy now and then, I find most to be too cloyingly sweet and syrupy to enjoy with food. Sweet with sweet? No thanks. But how about a playful sparkling Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont, where the wine’s hint of sweetness is balanced by a tinge of citric-like acidity. Italians traditionally serve this wine with butter cookies or a lemon tart. And at around 8% alcohol Moscato d’Asti won’t add much to the evening’s booze intake. Or simply revert to the same pre-dinner sparkling selection, which offers a welcome lift to the palate after a multi-course feast.
Obviously, these are but a few of the myriad ways to enjoy sparkling wines more frequently. The fun is in the exploring. Enjoy the journey.
A Few Suggested Bottles:
Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé
Schramsberg’s Mirabelle Brut Rosé blends Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a collection of cooler vineyards, and offers pretty scents of red summer fruit, citrus, and yeasty brioche, with a nice ping to finish.
Champagne Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature
Made from old vines grown in chalky soils, lovely fruit and mineral aromas are followed by a supple, suave texture balanced by brisk acidity, and a chalky mineral note.
Emmanuelle Mellot Vouvray Brut “Dans ma bulle”
Sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Emmanuelle Mellot’s Vouvray Brut “Dans ma bulle” —“in my bubble” — is a delight. Classic pear and apple scents, elegant, and dancingly delicious.
Combe Stolpman Vineyard Pet NatPét-Nat Trousseau Ballard Canyon
A partnership between Pete Stolpman and Rajat Parr, this blend of 80% Trousseau and 20% Mondeuse offers both tropical and red fruits on the nose; bright and energetic, widening out on the finish. One of the better, and small production, pet natspét-nats.
Ettore Germano Rosana Extra Brut Rosé
Rosanna is the name of Barolo producer Sergio Germano’s mamma, for whom he named this beautiful Brut Rosé. It’s 100% young-vines Barolo-grown Nebbiolo made in the classic method. Zero dosage as well, so it’s fresh, dry, complex, and absolutely delicious stuff.
La Caudrina Asti Spumante La Selvatica
Made from a single vineyard, La Selvatica is low in alcohol (7%) with bright citrus notes and a kiss of sweetness that make it a great aperitif or light, lovely after-dinner wine either alone or with a lemon tart or butter cookie.