This Valentine’s Day, you have a choice: Go to a fancy restaurant and gaze into the eyes of your boo, or stay in to avoid the cloying lovebirds. Whatever side of the sappy spectrum your night falls on, there’s a good chance sparkling wine will enhance it. “People tend to pick up Champagne for New Year’s or a wedding,” says Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau, USA, a regulatory group that represents grape growers in Champagne, France. “But I’ve tasted it in all sorts of atmospheres: at a barbecue, a kid’s party, before baseball games. It changes the mood immediately.” Here’s everything you need to know about bubbly before you fill those flutes.
Flat to Fizz
All sparkling wine begins as still wine, much like the stuff you’d sip alongside stinky cheese. The “sparkle” is most commonly the result of a double fermentation process: Sugar and yeast are added to bottles of wine, causing bubbles of carbon dioxide to form. Bottles are then slowly rotated until the yeast collects at the crown. Next, the bottles are uncapped, the dead yeast is forced out, and a combination of wine and sugar — called a dosage — is added for sweetness. Then it’s corked and shipped out. The smaller the dosage, the drier the sparkler. Dryness ranges from extra brut (super dry) to demi-sec (sweet, sweet, sweet).
What’s in a Name?
Unless the bottle of bubbly was produced in Champagne in northeast France, it cannot, according to a 2006 U.S. tax bill, be called Champagne. Rather, it’s a sparkling wine. This is a distinction Heitner makes a living defending. “The consumer needs to know where their sparkling wine comes from, because it impacts how they shop,” he says. “It’s not like a melon you can smell [to determine its quality]. You have to rely on a label.”
Wineries established before 2006 were granted a pass, which explains why you’ll still see “California Champagne” on your Korbel and — as if! — Andre bottles.
Like Champagne, names of other popular European sparklers are tied to their place of origin: Cava is only produced in Spain (mainly in Catalonia); prosecco comes from Veneto in northeast Italy; and espumante hails from Portugal. Raised temps and fermentation advancements mean countries like Australia and the U.S. can produce their own versions. Though they’re slightly acidic like their European cousins, these “New World” sparklers have a distinct flavor. “The warmer the climate, the fruitier they’ll taste,” says D.C. vino dealer Tom Natan of First Vine Wine Imports and Sales (Firstvine.com).
Because of their laborious creation process and cachet, sparklers often cost more than flat wines. A decent bottle of Champagne starts at around $20 and can reach house down-payment levels. (At Heist, a new club off Dupont Circle, you can get a bottle of Armand de Brignac’s Ace of Spades for $25,000.) But don’t let a high price tag prevent you from mixing bubbly with humble fare such as potato chips and other barbecue basics.
“I’ve had sparkling wine with a burger topped with caramelized onions and it was really good,” Natan says. “You already know it tastes good. It eliminates the guess work from deciding what to serve with a particular dish.”
By the Bottle
A run-down of popular sparkling wines along with our recommendations.
Country of Origin: France
Flavor Profile: Chalky soil and cool temps in this northern region yield an effervescent wine that’s acidic with multiple layers of flavor.
Pairs Well With: The acidity cuts fat, so serve with dishes that are buttery or rich — try cream sauces or roasted salmon.
Our Recommendation: Champagne Bernard Mante, Brut Grande Reserve; $38 per bottle, Firstvine.com
Country of Origin: Spain
Flavor Profile: Cava ranges from not very good (Buenos dias, $4 Freixenet Cordon Negro) to exceptional. It tends to be a little lighter and fruitier than champagne, though still slightly acidic.
Pairs Well With: Salads with citrusy dressings, poultry, seafood or pork you’ve prepared with a light sauce.
Our Recommendation: Agusti Torello, Mata Brut Reserva; Cava, Spain; $27 per bottle
Country of Origin: Italy
Flavor Profile: Prosecco’s grapes are grown in the northeast province of the same name. It tends to have a residual sweetness (Bellini, anyone?) and isn’t as bone dry as Champagne or cava.
Pairs Well With: Foods with a natural sweetness such as shrimp, lobster and mussels.
Our Recommendation: Villa Sandi, Il Fresco Prosecco; Prosecco, Italy; $14 per bottle, Bevmo.com
Country of Origin: U.S., Australia and others
Flavor Profile: Because the grapes are typically grown in warmer climates, the resulting wine has hints of tropical fruit such as mango, pineapple and citrus.
Pairs Well With: Particularly salty dishes such as caviar, pork and cheese provide balance.
Our Recommendation: Thibaut-Janisson, Blanc de Chardonnay; Monticello, Va.; $28 per bottle, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill
Country of Origin: Various
Flavor Profile: The pinky hue comes from an interaction with red grape skins, which gives it more of a traditional wine taste. There’s typically more of a dosage, making it on the sugary side.
Pairs Well With: The rice wine vinegar used in sushi rice complements the sweetness.
Our Recommendation: Lucien Albrecht, Brut Rose; Crémant D’Alsace, France; $20 per bottle, Calvert Woodley Wines and Spirits