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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 01:03 am

Fashionable holiday fizz

Versatility makes sparkling wines a great choice to have on hand

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’Tis the season to be toasting, and, according to experts, it’s the perfect time to raise a glass with some sparkle. “The wine is alive,” says Charles Stanfield, sparkling-wine director at Sam’s, an upscale liquor store in Chicago. “You might as well have something more festive in your glass for the holidays than a regular Chardonnay or Cabernet.”

Stanfield is not alone in his assertion. According to most sources, 70 to 80 percent of all sparkling wines consumed annually in the United States are purchased in November and December, the months typically referred to as holiday time. But knowledgeable drinkers know that good bubbly — flavorful, aromatic, and sturdy — is a great wine to pour for everyday dining, too.

Sparkling wine is simply wine, like any other. Most varietals have about the same alcohol content as regular wines and are even made from the same grapes. What makes them different — or special, sparkling-wine lovers would say — is, well, gas. The fermentation process, when the sugar in grape juice turns into the alcohol of wine, produces carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles. Most wines are only fermented once, and the gas bubbles off from the tank. The production of sparkling wine calls for two fermentations; the second time, the gas is captured in the bottle.

This gas is not neutral to the tongue: it gives a textural tickle and tastes tart. If the sparkling wine is dry (it will say “brut” on the label) or nearly dry (labeled “extra dry”) the tartness will be more evident than in sweeter versions.

Versatility makes sparkling wines a great choice to have on hand for the holidays. They have enough character to stand alone but can serve as a sassy companion beverage to a holiday meal. Here are some sparkling ideas for the inspired host:

Cocktail hour — Dry sparkling wines shine when poured as an aperitif. Their acidity stimulates the appetite and gets guests ready for a full meal later on. Spanish sparklers, in particular, are a good bet for cocktail hour; the bruts from Spain are among the most tart around. Look for the word “Cava” somewhere on the label, meaning that the wine is from Spain. Also shop for the wines labeled “blanc de blanc,” meaning white wine produced from white grapes only. Light-tasting blanc de blancs are made in many different countries.

If you are not planning a full dinner but are having guests over for a snack before you go elsewhere, try pairing a good brut with smoked fish. The texture and tartness of the wine cuts right through the oiliness of the fish. Pâtés and other rich terrines also are good matches. Don’t want the snack too heavy or rich? Pair the bubbly with a mild goat cheese.

Dinnertime — The most appropriate sparkling wines to accompany a full dinner will cost a bit more. The reason is time. It takes between three and 10 years for a classic to slowly develop flavor, texture, complexity, and balance. Such wines are superb substitutes for the predictable Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio you might have been planning to pour.

On the dry side, look for pink fizzies. The best bruts will have a bit more force and flavor than a white bubbly does. Pouring a brut to accompany roast boar in reduction might be a stretch, but a La Grande Dame Rosé Champagne (the top of the Veuve Clicquot line) will more than hold its own with a nice medium-rare tenderloin.

Here’s to us! — Old-school toasters are stuck on French Champagne, and good fizzy from that small part of France remains the standard. However, the Champagne fixation appears to be changing. In 1999, 80 percent of all French sparkling wines exported to the U.S. were fizzies from the region of Champagne; in 2005, Champagne’s share dropped to 71 percent. What’s taking up the slack? Sparkling wines made just like Champagne but produced in other regions of France. Look for French sparkling wines labeled “crémant de,” as in “Crémant de Bourgogne” or “Crémant d’Alsace.” The best of them could fool a true Champagne lover.

If you are looking ahead to a formal toast during your holiday season, be it to celebrate an engagement, a family gathering, or the New Year, why not select a sparkling wine from your state or region? Over the past 30 years, U.S. makers of sparkling wines have learned so much from their French “mentors” that the quality of U.S. bubblies has jumped like a popped cork. Most still come from California, but Oregon, Washington, New York, Missouri, Michigan, and other states are turning out serious dry fizz.

This holiday season, buy a little more bubbly than usual. Keep those leftover bottles in a nice cool place, and break out a few after the holidays to keep your spirits — and your taste buds — buoyant.

Patrick W. Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School, has taught wine-appreciation classes since 1975. His favorite sparkling wine is Champagne.

HOW TO POP A BOTTLE OF BUBBLY

Make sure the sparkling wine is chilled to at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit before opening it.

Be careful — the cork of a warm bottle is more likely to pop unexpectedly.

Hold the cork with one hand while removing the wire hood with the other. About six twists should do it.

Point the bottle away from yourself and others.

Hold the cork firmly with one hand and use the other hand to turn the bottom of the bottle (you get more leverage that way than you do by
twisting the cork).

Continue until the cork is almost out of the neck. Slowly let the cork continue to work itself out of the bottle if you want a faint “poof” (the sommelier’s way) — or shake the bottle vigorously, let go of the cork, and celebrate.

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