Everything about Champagne is sexy; from your initial thoughts about it, to the way the cork pops to announce its ready, to the way it looks in a glass. What could be more seductive than your date’s delicate fingers wrapped around an impossibly thin stem below a sleek curving flute? Her hot breath fogs over the cold glass like the car windows of your youth. Pour a little more in and let the mousse carelessly foam over the rim and cascade down the side.
Sparkling wine is a must for the holiday. Whether you want wine for the ball drop, a balloon drop or just a pants drop, bubbles are the way to go. The only thing not sexy about Champagne is figuring out which bottle to buy. The best approach is to buy sparkling wine in a reputable wine shop or in a restaurant or bar and ask for advice to pick a great bottle.
I sat down with the sommelier from the acclaimed Driskill Grill, Scott Ota, to get a few of his tips. His advice is to be ready to answer a sommelier’s questions. Do you prefer it to be lighter or bigger? Chardonnay dominant wine, or Blanc de Blancs, is more elegant with lemon juice freshness and high acidity. Pinot Noir driven wine is typically bigger, richer and more structured Do you prefer sweet or dry? The code words going from sweet to dry are Demi-sec, Sec, Extra dry, Brut and Extra Brut. Do you want white or rosé?
Do you have to have Champagne, or are you open to any sparkling wine?
Prosecco: If you like a slightly less fizzy and sweeter wine, try Italian Prosecco. It’s made with the “Metodo Charmat-Martinotti” or Charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle.
Cava: Spanish Sparkling wine called Cava typically is made méthode Champenoise. It’s known for its high acidity, fresh-cut fruit flavors and lighter style body. It spends a little less time on the lees than Champagne, letting the acidity shine through.
U.S. Sparkling Wine: Domestic bubbles typically deliver great value. Like their cousin still wines, American sparkling wines are typically rounder and mouth filling. Quality American bubbles made in the méthode Champenoise are made in California, Oregon, Washington and even lesser known wine producing states like New Mexico and North Carolina.
Champagne: If you go for Champagne, consider going for Grower Champagne, meaning fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny RM on the label, meaning Récoltant-Manipulant. This is in contrast to négociant, or a house that sources grapes from many growers. Farm to Table is a big movement, so let’s think of this as “Farm to Bubbles.” Small growers are able to control their crops and the quality of the product by bottling their own. The top seven big houses produce about 50 percent of all Champagne made in the world. Big Champagne houses are all about the house style and small growers are all about the taste of the land, making it more terroir driven. The best thing about Farmer Fizz is that you get so much quality for so much less money than from a big house. I’ll drink to that.
Budget minded: “I love Cremant. Its méthode Champenoise and a great value. One I really like is Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé. Its 100 percent Pinot Noir made with the skins left on for a bit to give it the color of a delicate pink rose. It sells for $48 at the Driskill (around $15 retail) and is available by the glass.
Have a little extra to spend: Marc Hébrart N.V. Premier Cru Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is a steal at $82 a bottle (around $56 retail). It’s a premier Cru that drinks like a Grand Cru. This small grower/producer makes only 5,800 cases total for all of its lines.
Devil-may-care: What is that one special bottle you would get if money were no object? Scott recommends the Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Special Club 2004, which goes for about $95 retail (I got a bottle for that price at Austin Wine Merchant) or for $155 at the Driskill. Pierre Gimonnet et Fils has been rated as “outstanding” by Robert Parker and one of the top 15 producers in Champagne. The Gimonnets are one of the great grower families of the Côtes de Blancs, producing arguably one of the finest Chardonnay Champagnes. This will be my toast on New Year’s Eve because Beautiful Wife is worth it.
All of this talking about sparklers made us mightily thirsty, so we popped a few corks to try some out. We chose one of the largest and most famous Champagne houses, a small grower/producer and a non-French to see how they compared.
Marc Hébrart produces its Champagne with Premier Cru Pinot Noir and Grand Cru Chardonnay from Vallee de la Marne. They export only five percent of the 5,800 cases of Champagne made, making this a special find.
|Look||Such a seductive look in the glass. An elegant ballerina wearing soft pink crinoline dancing with effortless effervescences, her lithe limbs spinning a silky mousse at the mouth of the flute. She bends toward you begging for a kiss with a rose held between her teeth.|
|Smell||Pleasant aromas of roast apple, apple pie and rose petals.|
|Taste||A nice balance of fruit and earth with fresh apple, strawberries, and funky goat cheese scent. It finishes with crisp minerality, tart acidity and flowers. The lively bubbles give way to a smooth silky mouthfeel. Drink this with your love at the stroke of midnight. I poured a second taste and considered trying to swipe the rest of the bottle when Scott wasn’t looking.|
|Price||$82 at the Driskill or about $56 retail|
For a non-French selection, Scott chose Bellavista NV Cuvee Brut Franciacorta DOCG. It’s made from 90 percent Chardonnay using the méthode Champenoise and spends 18 months on the lees in bottle to round it out.
|Look||This Italian sparkler has a lovely straw color and happy fizz jetting to the top forming a fine mousse that dissipates quickly.|
|Smell||It has a bracing nose of mineral limestone and toasty apple.|
|Taste||The Bellavista is elegant with ripe pear and apple flavors dominating the front followed by hay and pie crust lingering in a smooth creamy mouth. It is not highly acidic, and instead is round, full and yeasty. Your New Year’s Eve date will be impressed. This one begs you to drink a second glass.|
|Price||$75 at the Driskill or about $48 retail|
We selected Veuve because it is one of the largest houses and most widely recognized Champagnes in the world. This venerable house, founded in 1772, produces consistently fine Champagne.
|Look||Tiny bubbles stream eagerly through light gold bliss into a creamy mousse.|
|Smell||The non-vintage Yellow Label Brut has lovely scents of caramel, honey and pear.|
|Taste||A predominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier give Veuve rich fruit and roundness. It has exquisite flavors of oxidized apple, yellow apple skin, peach and vanilla. You should definitely order this drink if your date is highly conservative and brand conscious. It will not let you down.|
|Price||$90 at the Driskill or about $45 retail.|
If you want to taste your way through excellent bubbles, the Driskill is a fine place to do so. The Driskill is thought of as a special occasion dining location, so they are embracing it with a fantastic wine program. They strive to have the best Champagne list in Austin with 20 champagne labels — including 12 grower producers — and 12 other selections of bubbles. Hey, bubbles are Scott’s drink of choice and an excellent food wine.
Are you ready to get a bottle or three for the holiday? One glass and you are champagne; floating effortlessly, more buoyant than in salt water, more buoyant than in helium, humors soar. A second glass and you know that giddiness isn’t reserved for school-girls. Go for it.
Happy New Year!