magnify Click image to view more.

Sparkling Conversation

Jeffery Lindenmuth / May 2012

Jeffery Lindenmuth confers with leading sommeliers about the different styles of bubbly, how each fits in their beverage programs, and what customers are drinking.

It may come as a surprise to legions of sparkling wine devotees that, prior to the acceptance of fizzy French wines among nobility, beginning in the 17th century, effervescent wines were the bane of Champagne—the cause of explosive (often literally) bottles of wine in the region that would ultimately perfect the technique of méthode champenoise—creating carbon dioxide bubbles with a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Today, the producers of Champagne are joined by winemakers in Spain, Italy, Australia, and the United States in satisfying a surging thirst for sparkling wines, some retaining their regal status, while others proffer a new era of affordability and everyday celebration. For restaurant wine programs, the selections, and occasions, for the category have never been greater.

Luxury rules
France’s Champagne region may not have been the first to produce sparkling wine (records suggest that Limoux in the Langue­doc preceded them by centuries), but they remain the most famous. Even within Champagne, however, diners are discovering new wines for their most important occasions. David Lombardo, wine & beverage director for Benchmarc Restaurants in New York City, notes that historic favorites like Pol Roger are finding new fans. “The Champagne chosen to be served for the Royal Wedding reception was Pol Roger. In 1984, they created a special blend and named it Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. People who followed the royal wedding are still coming in and splurging on this wine,” says Lombardo, who offers the 1998 vintage for $220 at Landmarc.

Among the perennially popular têtes de cuvée, the prestige wines of Champagne, consumers are flocking to the rosé renditions. After all, Champagne permits two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, in addition to Chardonnay. “We’re selling Dom Pérignon Rosé and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoch Rosé now more than ever. I think that our guests are becoming more educated about rosé Champagnes with regard to their limited availability and unique flavor,” says Bretton Lammi, CS, CSW, resort sommelier for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. “Other regions try to create luxury, but people vote with dollars in favor of true Champagne.”

At restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, Colorado, small is big, according to wine director Rick Colomitz, who identifies three grower Champagnes on his list, priced from $120 to $130. While the large houses achieve consistency of style, grower Champagnes, easily identified with a small RM (récoltant-manipulant) on the reverse label, are about specificity. “We are dedicated to featuring Champagne made from the same people who farm the vineyard and have a strong connection to the wines they make. It gives you a true sense of place,” says Colomitz.

Foodworthy faves
Jason Hopple, beverage director of North End Grill, the latest venture from Danny Meyer’s New York City–based Union Square Hospitality Group, notes that Champagne also offers value, a boon for sommeliers given the palate-cleansing fizz and bright acidity of sparkling wines. “It’s a myth that all great Champagne has to be expensive. We find guests are excited to try producers whom they might not yet know, like Doyard Cuvée Vendémiaire Blanc de Blancs or Jacques Lassaigne Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs,” says Hopple, with “blanc de blancs” indicating that which is made exclusively from Chardonnay. John Ragan, wine director for USHG, says he likes to see bottles of bubbly that fit the cuisine and the theme of each restaurant. With the American barbecue at Blue Smoke, Schramsberg “Mirabelle” Brut from California is offered by the glass or bottle ($14/$46), while sparkling wine from Lieb Cellars in the North Fork of Long Island is also occasionally listed. Inspired by their seasonally inspired French-American cuisine, The Modern offers Alsatian crémant, like Domaine Valentin Zusslin’s Crémant d’Alsace Brut Zéro for $15 per glass—crémant being the moniker for many French sparkling AOC wines outside of Champagne, and “Brut Zéro” indicating the driest possible style, with no sugar added at bottling. “Sparkling wine has a place in every one of our restaurants, because it’s so friendly with just about every cuisine imaginable,” says Ragan.

At Bocanova, in Oakland, California’s Jack London Square, wines like Domaine Carneros Rosé, established by Taittinger and made with Carneros fruit, align with the ethos of chef Rick Hackett, who applies French training to California ingredients. Gerardo Acevado-Vanni, sommelier and general manager, also offers Reginato Metodo Tradicional Rosé of Malbec 2008 from Argentina, a wine he suggests is robust enough to handle steak, along with a selection of Spanish cavas. Made using the Champagne method, Spanish cava generally includes the native white grapes of Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada, with Chardonnay an increasingly popular addition. Unlike Champagne, however, cava is made in approved regions throughout Spain, and red grapes—Monastrell, Garnacha, Pinot Noir, and Trepat—contribute to rosés only. Following a minimum aging of nine months, cava can be further aged to attain Reserva or Gran Reserva status. Bocanova offers Raventós i Blanc L’Hereu Reserva Brut Cava 2007, aged 24 to 28 months on the lees, for $43.

Bubbly by the glass
Nichole Dishman, wine director for Viognier in San Mateo, California, offers a trio of sparkling wines by the glass, starting with a true Champagne, J “Cuvee 20” from Russian River Valley, and Sori Gramella Moscato d’Asti 2011. “Moscato d’Asti is lightly sweet, lightly sparkling, and has about half of the alcohol of a typical wine. It pairs well with naturally sweet foods like crabmeat and sweet-tart items like Asian pears,” says Dishman, whose three well-chosen sparklers conjoin to cover a variety of food. She prefers the vibrant acidity of J with flavors of citrus, vinaigrette, persimmon, and yuzu, and pairs the richness and earthy character of Pierre Morlet “Grande Reserve Premier Cru” Avenay-Val-d’Or Champagne with executive chef Preston Dishman’s summer corn soup of roasted corn, forest mushrooms, and huitlacoche cream.

The greatest downfall of bubbly by the glass is fragility, where even fancy wine preservation systems falter. (Enomatic’s new FLUTE promises 10 days of preservation.) At Landmarc, Lombardo finds a solution in half bottles and splits, popular for sparkling wine long before they became de rigueur at large. While affordable splits of cava and Prosecco are top sellers, pricey offerings like Krug gain the greatest advantage. “Wines like this are too expensive for a beverage manager to open and pour by the glass, hoping they make back the cost of the bottle. With our nontraditional mark-up, we offer it by the half bottle at $95, so we can make it accessible to guests,” says Lombardo.

A toast
“When it comes to banquets, I think people are just looking for something that has bubbles in it, rather than focusing on the quality of the juice. But this is not to say that it would be OK to pour an inferior product just because it has bubbles,” says Lammi, noting that Domaine Chandon Brut strikes the right balance of price, but uncompromised quality, for events at The Cosmopolitan. “I like Chandon because it tastes like it was made in the Champagne style. I know that sounds obvious, but Chandon invests in quality grapes, equipment, and winemaking methods to produce the best they can from California, staying true to their Champenoise roots,” says Lammi.

Behind the bar
While it’s rare to fine real Champagne in your Champagne cocktail these days, a host of affordable bubblies stand ready to top off fruit purees and fizzy cocktails. For The Cosmopolitan’s Aperol Spritz, Lammi goes with a traditional wine, adding Cinzano Prosecco to the apéritif Aperol. By utilizing the Metodo Charmat-Martinotti, or Charmat process, to conduct the secondary fermentation in large tanks, Prosecco producers greatly reduce their cost of production. Enthusiasm for these affordable sparkling wines of the Veneto, made from the Prosecco grape, have contributed to sparkling imports from Italy to the United States soaring 73.1 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to Impact Databank, with large producers like Cavit, Santa Margherita, and Martini throwing their muscle behind the category. Amidst the rapid growth, in 2009 Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore was promoted to DOCG status to protect quality in the historic center of production.

At Wit & Wisdom, a tavern by Michael Mina at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, beverage manager Tiffany Dawn Soto abides by using true Champagne in drinks that include it in the name, but otherwise seeks alternate French sources. “Obviously, we have to be conscientious of price, but never at the expense of quality. We consider whether the sparkling component needs to enhance the acidity or the dryness. Generally speaking, you want a brut, pale gold in color, with a well-balanced acidity,” says Soto, whose top pick, François Montand Brut Blanc de Blanc, is a slightly unusual Crémant de Loire made from Chardonnay, where grapes like Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are a more popular choice for sparklers.

Another trick Soto uses to avoid loss behind the bar is to serve the entire bottle in one cocktail – in the manner of punch. Horse & Carriage Punch, for instance, can be prepared for a group from fresh fruit juices and muddled citrus peels, LAMILL chamomile tea, Beefeater Gin, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Combier Orange Liqueur, and one bottle of François Montand Brut.

Seeing red all over
While sparkling rosé may have made inroads, frothy red wines remain outliers. Maligned for the sweet renditions of the 1970s, traditional dry Lambrusco is just now reappearing on hipster wine lists like that of Brooklyn’s edgy Ici. Jesse Webster, wine director of Public in Manhattan, dabbles in Australian sparkling Shiraz, which usually includes an evident dose of sweetness: “Sparkling red is an aficionado wine, and sparkling Shiraz is a hand sell for us. However, it goes really well with an array of foods like cured meats and poultry.” By the bottle, he offers Primo Estate Joseph Sparkling Red from Australia. Blended from vintage red wines up to 40 years of age and crafted in the Champagne method with an additional dose of fortified wine, it suggests the full diversity of sparkling wine is yet to be revealed.