Spirits: The Trouble With Bubbles

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Though I absolutely love champagne and prosecco and cava, the idea of sparkling-wine cocktails always has vexed me. I mean, if we're really being honest, how many champagne-based cocktails truly are better than a lovely glass of champagne all by itself?

Just look at the classic namesake, the champagne cocktail, found in most bartenders' guides: Into a champagne flute goes a sugar cube. Douse it with a few drops of Angostura bitters, then fill the glass with champagne. Maybe toss in a lemon peel.

It is simply a terrible cocktail. I defy you to taste it next to even a middling glass of champagne and reach any other conclusion. I can think of two reasons why the champagne cocktail exists in this world: 1) to cover up rotgut sparkling wine, and 2) to reinvigorate the remainder of a bottle that has been sitting around for a day or two.

As to the first reason: Never, ever knowingly buy bad sparkling wine. Go without if you must. As to the second: If you try this trick on a bottle you've accidentally left opened in the fridge for three days, like I did, the result is only slightly better than awful.

So many other sparkling-wine classics are also pretty bad. Consider the Kir Royale: champagne poured over a half-ounce of cloying, sickly-sweet creme de cassis. It's in every guide, but who likes this concoction? Poor FĂ©lix Kir, is what I always think! The French priest risked his life in the Resistance fighting the Nazis, and this is the drink they named after him.

Finally, there's the popular Bellini. I know it's peach season, but I'm sad to report that I mostly detest the drink. It's usually so poorly made, just like its cousin, the Mimosa. Bellinis always should be made with pureed fresh white peaches. Not yellow peaches. Not peach juice from a can or bottle. It's white peaches that mingle subtly with the flavor profile of prosecco. Yet even when the Bellini is made correctly, I usually find myself wondering why I didn't just order plain prosecco in the first place.

All of which is to say that I was hopeful, yet still skeptical, about a new book out this month called "The Bubbly Bar." Author Maria C. Hunt is an expert who runs the Web site TheBubblyGirl.com.

The first few pages of "The Bubbly Bar" concern themselves with the usual suspects, none of which has been improved. However, I had forgotten about one classic that I liked, the French 75. It mixes gin, lemon juice, sugar and champagne: a sort of Gin Fizz topped with sparkling wine.

From there, though, Hunt moves on to more inventive ideas. Her Crushed Velvet, a take on the Black Velvet that replaces Guinness beer with a sparkling shiraz, was interesting and tasty. I like her splashes of sparkling wine added to standards, creating a sparkling pisco sour and a proseccoed Violet Fizz. Some other recipes have gone a little goofy, such as Love in the Afternoon, which calls for an ounce of rose water.

Hunt recommends some excellent $15-to-$20 alternatives to expensive champagne. "Your cocktails are only as good as your ingredients you put in them, but that doesn't mean you should mix a $200 bottle of Dom Perignon with orange juice to make Mimosas," she writes. True, but it also means you shouldn't try to get away with using a $9.99 Korbel.

Because sparkling wines are so diverse, you need to experiment with different styles to find what works best in a cocktail. For instance, I tested the French 75 with a $15 Cremant d'Alsace brut, a $14 reserve cava and a $12 prosecco. All were unimpressive. But when I made the same drink with a $16 Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noirs, the French 75 came to life.

While I was testing Bellinis, it struck me once again that we drink a lot of very bad prosecco in the United States. Unfortunately, most of the stuff we see in stores is cheap and does not come from within Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, the DOCG in Italy's Veneto region that most consider to be prime. If you look for that tongue-twister name and are willing to pay $16 to $20, you will discover what prosecco is supposed to taste like.

Eventually, I gave up on the Bellini and enjoyed a cocktail called the Aperol Flip, which is Hunt's take on the classic Spritz. Her version involves agave nectar, egg white, Aperol, lemon juice and a vigorous shake before a mingling with prosecco. Serve this balanced and complex drink, and -- just maybe -- you will make a case for mixing some of your excellent sparkling wine into a cocktail.


Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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