Most people enjoy sparkling wine on occasion – perhaps a wedding toast, New Year’s Eve, or Valentine’s Day. It is common to hear people say, “I don’t like champagne”, but when asked why, they don’t usually have a reason. Perhaps, they had a bad experience at a wedding where the family purchased “not the best quality” product for a large guest count. When I asked around the office about champagne, I heard “I have had a lot of cheap champagne that not very good.” And, “I like champagne because I like sweet things.” Ok, have you ever had champagne not for a special occasion? “No.” The bottom-line is, they just haven’t tried enough sparkling to know if they do, or don’t, like it.
I am certain I can convert them to find a sparkling they loved, but there are so many to choose from with such a broad range of characteristics. Being a huge sparkling wine fan myself, I wanted to discover what might be the best bottle for beginners, and to suggest some basic pairings to bring out the best in the experience for a sparkling newbie. I interviewed an industry-insider from one of the most respected sparkling wine producers in North America: Matthew Levy of Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, California.
Matthew’s answers were so expert and well-rounded, I wanted to share the information with you straight from the “horse’s mouth”.
Q: What makes sparkling wines special? Why do you think people use them for toasts and special occasions?
Sparkling wines are special on so many different levels. First and foremost, it’s those lovely bubbles. The bubbles within the bottle/glass provide a level of enjoyment with five of the bases senses:
2) Sight – whether it is the mouse that forms in the glass when the wine is poured, or the continuous stream of tiny bubbles that playfully dance in the glass, sparkling wine is a sight to behold while enjoyed.
3) Scent – the lovely aromas on a sparkling wine is playful and fun. The tiny bubbles lift the delicate nuances out of the glass, providing an exploration of scents to find with each sip one takes.
4) Taste – An explosion of bright, intense and lingering flavors are ever-present in sparkling wines. Whether they are young, bright and vibrant, or aged, rich and complex, sparkling wines are never one to be lacking in flavors that will brighten the mood of any moment.
5) Touch – when the bubbles in the glass reach the mouth, they create a playful dance that is enjoyed by all. When young, the wine’s bubbles fizz and pop in the mouth, bursting and supporting the extraordinary flavors that are present. When given time to age and mature, those bubbles become more silky and foamy on the palate, lifting the texture to new heights and creating a stage for the flavors to linger.
Q: Currently, how is sparkling wine perceived in the market place — old school? Up and coming? Always a special occasion beverage? Something that is becoming more popular as a regular choice for pairing with dinner or other meals?
Most Americans still see sparkling wines as a wine to be used for a special occasion or with an aperitif. While we certainly don’t disagree with this thinking, as sparkling wines are absolutely perfect for a celebratory moment and for preparing the mouth for a meal, we also feel that it is part of our duty to educate the American consumer on how absolutely perfect a sparkling wine can be when used throughout an entire meal.
Sparkling wines are extremely food friendly wines. We are so adamant about this fact, we have actually created an entire educational program called Camp Schramsberg, which talks to this point. During Camp, attendees spend over two days with us, learning about the process of creating meals to pair with sparkling wines. By the end, our Campers will have learned first-hand how sparkling wine is the ultimate wine for a meal, from a simple oyster on a half shell to a complex and rich mushroom risotto.
Q: What is the most exciting new trend you see coming up in the world of sparkling?
There has been a rising demand for the rosé style in sparkling wines over the years. This is paralleling the raised demand for rosés in still wines too. The wine lovers’ appreciation for the rosé, a wine that has been given a short amount of time in contact with the grape’s skin, shows that the old impression that rosés are sweet on the palate is a thing of the past. Our sparkling wine rosés are bright and fun, with a lovely intensity of fruit on the palate. By allowing the skin contact to occur with the wine, there is an elevated fruitful nature in the wine and a bit more grip on the palate. It is the perfect wine for a hot day by the pool, or a more casual meal when you don’t want to have to think too much about what wine to bring.
Q: Best recommendation for a beginner to sparkling?
Have your first glass of sparkling wine be one of good quality. It really pays to splurge a little with sparkling wines. Look for one that is Brut in style at first, and make sure that it is one that is produced with the secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle. This can often be determined when the bottle label states “Méthode Traditionelle” or “Méthode Champenoise”. As they explore these fun wines, look for the differences in the wines and start to see what styles are preferred. Some variations that should be looked for are: Blanc de Blancs (a wine made from Chardonnay), Blanc de Noirs (made from black grapes, such as Pinot Noirs), sugar level (classified as Brut, Demi-sec, Sec, etc.) and how long the wines were left on the lees (yeast) before disgorgement. Each variable brings something different to the profile of the wine, and realizing these differences will help the beginner in determining what it is about a certain sparkling wine that they like so much.
Q: Best recommendation for sparkling connoisseurs that want to try something “exotic” or “different”?
Trying a high-quality sparkling wine that isn’t Brut in style is something that most people don’t do. Look for that rare bottle of Demi-sec (Schramsberg happens to have one), and pair it with a spicy Thai dish. You find that the elevated level of sugar in the wine helps tame the spiciness of the food, and creates a wonderful dynamic to the meal. Or, look for an Extra-Brut sparkling wine. This style of sparkling wine has less sugar than the Brut style, lending itself to be a wine that is extremely food friendly. This style has been showing up in the marketplace a bit more in recent years. We released our first version of this wine a couple of years back, as a winery only offering. We also have partnered with The French Laundry in Napa, and make a special bottling of this style to pair exclusively with their famous Oysters & Pearls course.
Q: Best bottle for pairing with caviar, specifically the Royal Osetra (buttery and silky after taste, large grey-greenish pearl)?
When pairing a sparkling wine with the Royal Osetra caviar, look for a sparkling wine that is made primarily from the Chardonnay grape. At Schramsberg, we have two primary wines that fall into this category. Our 2005 J. Schram is a blend of 86% Chardonnay and 14% Pinot Noir. This would be my first choice, when looking to pair a sparkling wine with this fabulous caviar. The Chardonnay base of this wine provides a bright, crisp entry onto the palate, cutting through the delightfully salty flavors from the caviar and preparing the palate for the next bite. This wine also has a richness to the palate, having been aged on the lees for almost six year, and having 40% of the base wines in it being fermented in small barrel lots. This richness blends with the buttery and silky tastes, bridging the flavors from caviar, to wine and back to caviar. Another option would be our 2011 Blanc de Blancs. This wine is a younger wine, focusing more on the intense citrus and green apple flavors profiles, versus the richer flavors of the J. Schram. The Blanc de Blancs is wonderful as a starter wine to the meal, as it revives the palate with a vibrant acidity after each bite of the rich caviar. A touch of crème fraiche on the caviar acts as a bridge between the wine and the caviar, making that pairing even more delightful.
Q: Do you care for the new flutes with various shapes, no stems, etc? Is the classic flute the best? We have seen a return of the old school coupe, but have heard it is the worst way to enjoy sparkling as the bubbles dissipate too quickly.
At Schramsberg, we are a fan of a champagne flute that leans more towards the traditional shape and styling. The one that we use for our tastings, both for consumers and for our winemakers, are the taller flute style, that has a fairly round base to them. This rounded base allows for the spectacular aromas to be featured when enjoying the wines. The flutes that are narrow from top to bottom are not the best for allowing the aromas to rise up to the nose, while the coupe is too wide at the top to concentrate the aromas to the nose. If you look at the Riedel Vinum XL Champagne flute, that is an example of the glass shape that we like.
With all this wonderful information from an industry insider it is my hope that you will choose a sparkling wine fit for many, and any occasion!
Our partners, and neighbor, at Park Ave Wine & Spirits have the Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc on hand!
Park Ave Wine & Spirits 3480 Park Ave Unit E Denver, CO 80216