Jeffery Lindenmuth - September 2008
To bring sparkle to their lists, sommeliers are now pouring from producers near and far.
On the occasion of Food Arts' 20th anniversary, toasting is in order. And we'll take our glasses filled with no less a wine than that which caps off nuptials, launches ships, welcomes the New Year, explodes with victory on the racetrack, and marks the safe landing of hot-air balloons: Champagne all around!
When it comes to true Champagne, however, there is more to be celebrated in the world than the 84,016 acre region in northern France can possibly supply.
"Champagne has a global market," says Eric Duchene, trade counselor and head of the food and wine department at the French trade office of New York. "China, Russia, and the U.S. all continue to increase their consumption. The demand for Champagne will always be more than the offer, and that means the price pressure will continue to be high." While the U.S. remains one of the largest consumers of Champagne, with an appetite growing by about 4 percent annually, Singapore, another top-10 consumer, increased its consumption by 32 percent in 2007. Lower on the list, China and Poland both grew in excess of 70 percent. All this demand, combined with a weak dollar, has raised prices in the U.S. and spells more of the same, notes Duchene.
The much publicized, and criticized, expansion of the Champagne Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée so that it will include 2,500 additional acres promises no quick relief. "Making Champagne is not like making Coca-Cola. We are dealing with Mother Nature. And while we may increase the crop, we won't see more wine tomorrow, or in 2009 or 2010. The demand will still rise faster than the supply," says Duchene.
Fortunately, there is more to bubbling wine than just Champagne: cava from Spain; Prosecco from Italy; sparklers from across the U.S., whether from California, Oregon, Washington, or Grüet Winery in New Mexico; and even bubbly from other regions of France are prepared to satisfy the thirst for effervescence. About one in four bottles of sparkling French wine is not Champagne but an alternative from Alsace, Bordeaux, the Jura region, or elsewhere, Duchene notes.
The Champagne and caviar cart at Cyrus, in Healdsburg, California, makes a momentous starting point for the meal, and wine director Jim Rollston says the cart is not set to roll until he has three Champagnes, a California sparkler, and an "other" on offer by the glass. "Right now we're featuring a vintage cava from d'Abbatis  and we have poured Riesling Sekt, sparkling Schloss Gobelsberg Grüner Veltliner, and Crémant du Jura in the past," says Rollston. A glass typically ranges from $12 to $44.
In his California rotation, Rollston relies on Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. "Champagne is not always an easy place to find value, but in California almost everyone is using the classic Champagne grape varieties grown in cool climates, so there are great values to be had. Schramsberg gives basic nonvintage Champagne a run for its money," says Rollston.
Andrew Green, wine and spirits director and partner for Bacchus Management Group, sticks to true Champagne at Spruce in San Francisco with 70 to 80 selections by the bottle and a single non-Champagne sparkler offered by the glass. "While there are nice sparkling wines from around the world, including California, Champagne has a unique history, climate, and soil that can't be replicated," says Green. "In addition, Spruce was designed by Williams-Sonoma Home designer Stephen Brady to be both very luxurious and warm, and Champagne is a luxury product that fits with our atmosphere." Champagne accounts for 10 percent of the wine sales at Spruce.
At the company's four locations of Pizza Antica, however, La Sera Moscato d'Asti 2006 and Zonin Prosecco Special Cuvée NV make affordable partners for regional Italian cuisine. "It's hard to offer a Champagne for under $12 a glass, but we can offer these wines for $6 or $7. People recognize the value in Prosecco and Moscato, and these wines suit the concept and sell themselves," says Green.
What the sparkling list at Restaurant Kelly Liken, in Vail, Colorado, lacks in length it makes up for in quality and focus: its 11 sparklers include bottlings from tête de cuvée powerhouses, small family producers, and Schramsberg, the best of the U.S., in the form of J. Schram. The list spans Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée ($75) to Louis Roederer Cristal 1999 ($550).
As part of the by-the-glass program, wine director/general manager Rick Colomitz likes to offer about five sparklers by the full glass, the half glass, and the quartino. Previous pours have included both Cristal and J. Schram, and Colomitz uses the forum to create sparkling flights, often suggesting they be served blind. "Some people are hesitant to try something from the States, so we'll suggest they have some fun and see if they can find the American wine. It's cool to pour J. Schram and show people that our sparkling wines are as good as anyone's," says Colomitz.
Colomitz says Champagne is a natural fit with the restaurant's sustainable caviar service, but he's also a fan of less traditional pairings, like Pascal Doquet Rosé 1er Cru with elk carpaccio.
Alicia Nosenzo, co-owner of New York City's 60 seat Perilla, points out that rosé bubbly is not limited to Champagne. "We have Llopart Cava Rosé 2005, which has really taken off by the glass. It's mainly an apéritif, so lovely and delicious and beautiful in color, with ripe strawberry fruit. Once one person orders it, it spreads like a virus," says Nosenzo. In addition to the Llopart Rosé ($13), Perilla finds value in Prosecco Drusian ($11) as well as such obscure sparklers as Grüner Veltliner from Punkt Genau and a Kerner from Carpene Malvolti. "I think the predominant factor was pricing. We'd love to do Champagne by the glass, but our clientele isn't going to spend $20 a glass. After waste, we would lose money. With these wines, we can still throw the doors open in the summer and offer great sparkling," says Nosenzo.
Seth Greenburg, executive chef of The Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, loves to play with Champagne along with, and in, his cuisine. Using the same Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé on offer by the glass, Greenburg creates a rosé granita or molecular pink Champagne pearls to accompany oysters. He is also fond of the rosé with his scallops and pork belly. "I think the bubbles really enhance the scallop and pork belly. It's one more added sensation that is doing something exciting on your tongue," says Greenburg. He also recommends Champagne for texturally balancing a cold soup, like his melon and cucumber gazpacho with tomato sorbet or a Dungeness crab and cucumber gazpacho.
Andrew Labetti, general manager of New York City's Benjamin Hotel, says that following the introduction of a Prosecco night, the northern Italian sparkler has quickly become a signature of the hotel's Emery Bar. "We decided to feature Prosecco one night a week at the bar, and the chef put together a small plates menu. Word spread so quickly that people were asking for it, and we now feature it every night," says Labetti.
Like hotels of old, the bar is topped with a grand silver bowl brimming with bubbly, but instead of Champagne, the bottles comprise five varieties of Prosecco, served by the full and the half glass. Mionetto Brut starts at $4 to $8, while Ruggeri Giustino Bisol tops out at $8 to $16. The special menu of nine "Prosecco Plates" includes Italian-style "tapas" like bruschetta with pear, aged Gouda and honey ($8), and polenta triangles with foie gras mousse and fig marmalade ($11).
"We don't have guests coming in saying they can't afford Champagne, but when they see the list and order a glass of Prosecco and a bite, they feel the price is great for what they're getting. It's no longer just Champagne, because with Prosecco and these other wines, the quality is right there," says Labetti. As if we needed more reasons to celebrate.