Sparkling Performers

Jeffery Lindenmuth - November 2006

No longer confined to special occasion sipping, bubbly is exhibiting all-around quaffability.

The sound of a popping Champagne cork once signaled a celebration in the room. But from grand banquets to the neighborhood bar, the clinking of flutes now functions more like a daily dinner bell, as diners reach for Champagne and sparkling wine to accompany almost every meal, including, of course, breakfast. To paraphrase Lily Bollinger, who once helmed the House of Bollinger: they drink it when they are happy and when they are sad, when they are alone and with company, when they are hungry and when they are not, and otherwise never touch the stuff, unless of course, they are thirsty.

"From Italian to Spanish to French sparklers, from sparkling rosés to sparkling-based aperitivi and cocktails, sparkling wines play a part in our entire dining experience," says Damian de Magistris, general manager and co-owner of "American Mediterranean" Dante in Boston. De Magistris chooses Prosecco for its affordability, as well as its larger bubbles, when mixing the house cocktails, which include a rainbow of variations on the classic Bellini using different fruit purees ($10), a Mojito topped with sparkling wine ($12), and Prosecco & Gambrinus (an Italian liqueur flavored with Marasca cherries) ($13).

For purists, there is true Champagne, by the bottle, glass, and split. "To answer the new demand for Champagnes we added splits of Heidsieck Monopole," explains de Magistris. "What is great about them is that the product is guaranteed to be fresh because each bottle is one serving."

And even at the close of the meal, wine continues to effervesce, with a sweet Vini Banfi Brachetto d'Acqui Rosa Regale 2005 paired with the sweet-tart flavors of strawberry/rhubarb cobbler. "Initially this wine was intended for dessert, but we discovered it also makes a very successful and unique pairing with our oysters, which are served with a dime-sized drop of pomegranate gelée, diced shallots, Chardonnay vinaigrette, and some crispy rice," says de Magistris.

At Chicago's Nuevo Latino Cuatro, located on the South Loop frontier, Champagne splits are just one ingredient in the popular 21st Street Cocktail, priced at $21. The drink consists of 10 Cane rum shaken with freshly squeezed guava and freshly pressed sugarcane juice, served up and topped with Laurent-Perrier Brut from a split. "We present the remainder of the Champagne poured into a flute next to the cocktail. The guest then has the option of adding more Champagne to the drink as they sip or of sipping the Champagne like a palate cleanser," says co-owner/manager Matt Navarro. The 21st Street is a hit from happy hour, through dinner, and until 2 a.m. closing. While it was conceived to appeal to women, with its guava-pink hue and sugared rim, the drink is also popular with men and occasionally shared by couples, according to Navarro.

Stephane Colling, wine director at The Modern, Union Square Hospitality Group's restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, scouts for bubbly bargains everywhere from his native Alsace to nearby Long Island. "Today when you speak about Champagne, you're looking at something high priced, probably $18 to $22 a glass, but with other sparkling you can find excellent values. I truly believe these smaller appellations have such a big opportunity ahead of them," says Colling, who's also keeping a watchful eye on Eastern Europe.

Colling prefers traditionally made sparklers, made in the méthode champenoise, over those made by the tank method used for wines like Prosecco. For by-the-glass options ($9 to $26), he currently offers Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blanc Crémant D'Alsace ($13) and Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blanc ($20), with occasional appearances from other American producers like Kluge Estate from Albermarle County, Virginia, and Lieb Cellars on the North Fork of Long Island. "I like wines that are very impressive, very affordable, and done in a different style. I'm not looking to have a list of just the big guys," says Colling.

The "big guys," in The Modern's case, include over 50 Champagne selections by the bottle, both small producers and dozens of vintage cuvée, like Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1964 ($1,620), Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1988 ($500), and Krug Clos du Mesnil 1990 ($825).

According to Anjoleena Griffin-Holst, wine director of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, such conspicuous consumption brands have migrated from the dinner table to the nightclub. "Much out of name recognition, true Champagne is sold late-night and with bottle service in our clubs Murmur and Mixx. Brands like Dom Pérignon and Krug are now more than part of the party lifestyle. They're about celebrating life," says Griffin-Holst.

At The Metropolitan, guests can enjoy a glass of Mionetto Prosecco Brut at any hour of the day. "When you're talking casual or 24-hour service, you could be serving a burger or eggs. We like to emphasize a sparkling wine here, because otherwise people tend to forget about them, and it's a nice opportunity to sell that glass," says Griffin-Holst.

Prosecco, along with cava, is also the new go-to wine for Borgata banquets numbering from 100 to 1,000 persons according to Griffin-Holst.

"Sparkling is, of course, popular for starting the night, but more people want it available throughout the night. They might also have it at the end as a toast to a great fourth quarter. We recently did a small event for 100, and they wanted sparkling as a big part of it," she says.

At the intimate eatery The Little Owl in New York City's West Village, co-owner/manager Gabriel Stulman demonstrates that even a modest list of sparklers can suit a variety of occasions. His list of 100 wines offers about eight sparklers of various prices, sizes, and origins. "If you want a round by the glass with appetizers, we have that. If you want Champagne, but maybe not a whole bottle, we have that. For rosé we offer Veuve Clicquot Rosé. You have to provide the diner with options," he explains.

His sparkling options range from a glass of Juve y Camps Brut Cava Reserva de la Familia 2002 ($10) to a bottle of Krug 1995 ($395). "It's a commitment," says Stulman, "I order only two of that bottle at a time and have it at temperature and ready to sell. Otherwise, it would be like having braised lamb shank on the menu, saying, ‘Hold on, I gotta braise it.'"

When faced with pairing wine with the potent and diverse flavors of tapas and media raciones (half portions) at the newly opened Boqueria in Manhattan's Flatiron District, wine director Roger Kugler reaches instinctually for cava. "Cava is particularly great with shellfish because the wine is nice and sharp. I can drink it through an entire meal. I think you're generally better off to do a sparkling wine all the way through than to choose a light white that will disappear when faced with a steak," says Kugler.

Boqueria offers cava from $10 a glass all the way to cult cava like Gramona Celler Batlle 1997, aged on the lees for 30 months and priced at $129 per bottle. Kugler also predicts cava will continue to make great inroads at non-Spanish restaurants and wine bars thanks to its exceptional value.

On the 50 bottle wine list at Boqueria, however, there is just one wine that is conspicuously not from Spain: Moët & Chandon Millésime Blanc 1999, proving that in a world awash in sparkling wine, there will always be a place for true Champagne.