Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

December 21, 2015 1:27 pm Last Updated: December 21, 2015 1:27 pm

It is said that when the Benedictine friar Dom Pérignon pulled a bottle of his new wine from its resting place in his cellar, he popped it open for the first time and reportedly exclaimed, “Come quickly! I’m tasting stars!”

That is an apocryphal story but we owe a great debt to the good friar for actually improving the creation of one of the best, most festive, and most delicious of wine products, the effervescent wine—also known as a sparkling wine.

Sparkling wines from France’s Champagne region are now exclusively called Champagne and top the list of luxury wines consumed around the world, but excellent effervescent wines are currently produced in practically every wine producing area.

Even though Champagne is the best known, there are other outstanding sparkling wines made in Spain (Cava), Italy (Franciacorta, Prosecco), and French areas other than Champagne (Mousseux or Crémant), not to mention nice sparklers from Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic (Sekt), as well as the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and Brazil.

The entire family of French white or rosé sparkling wines is usually made in the traditional méthode champenoise from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. The Spanish cava blend is made from indigenous Spanish white cultivars macabeo, parellada, and xarel.lo plus their blends. Effervescent Shiraz is made in Australia and a few other varietals and their blends are made in other parts of the world.

Here I will start with the driest samples and move on to the off-dry possibilities. As a side note, it was only after the late 1920s that brut, or dry sparklers, became the taste standard. Before that, and especially when the good friar developed his wonderful wine, the much sweeter bottles were considered best.

France

I popped the first cork, a Vintage Champagne Piper Heidsieck, Brut. I like this particular Champagne and often use it as a standard for comparison. It has fine bubbles for a gentle effervescence. Subtle floral notes of dried apricots, grapefruit, and fresh figs are intertwined with elegant touches of tobacco and leather, adding hints of nutmeg and mace to the long finish.

The second is another Champagne: the vintage Palmes d’Or Brut from Nicolas Feuillatte. This is a super-premium version of the Feuillatte Champagnes and comes in a black velvet sack that contains a distinctive, dimpled bottle. The Champagne is pale gold-colored with yellow highlights. Bone dry, it is crisp, bright, and complex. It has a gentle mousse, and tastes more yeasty than the nose would suggest, but has a well-structured palate. A rosé version, the Palmes d’Or Rosé, is made as well and comes in a red velvet sack.

(Courtesy of Palmes d'Or)
(Courtesy of Palmes d’Or)

The third bottle I like is from Besserat de Bellefon, Cuvée des Moines Rosé, a nonvintage sparkler. Made from 47 percent pinot noir, 43 percent pinot meunier, and 13 percent chardonnay, it is pale salmon-colored, with a light strawberry rim. There is a lot of strawberry fruit and dry cherries on the nose. It is soft, slightly off dry, with red stone fruit notes dominating the palate. There is a touch of cognac taste on the long finish. Vivid, it worked very well with the food it was paired.

Spain

The next possibility is Segura Viudas, Brut, Reserva Heredad, a cava from Penedés, Spain. Made in the méthode champenoise from a blend of macabeo and parellada, it is for me a standby for festive occasions that do not require an extremely complex libation. It is a tête de cuvée, creamy and supple, considerably yeasty on the nose with apple and honey flavors wrapped in spice and minerals, lightly smokey with a slightly dry finish. Extremely well priced at $45 SRP for a magnum, it is a great bottle to have, very cold, especially for an afternoon in the summer.

(Segura Viudas)
(Segura Viudas)

Another excellent sparkler comes also from Penedés’ Vilarnau winery. During my last trip to Catalonia, I tasted the Vilarnau Cavas at the winery and liked them all quite a lot. The Vilarnau Brut Nature Reserva was bright pale yellow with greenish highlights. Extremely dry, intense, and very pleasant on the nose with dominant aromas of green fruit—apple and pear—and a hint of toast. It is a libation that will excite most partakers with its long finish and well-balanced acidity.

Another interesting version is the Brut Rosé, gooseberry-colored with bright violet highlights. On the nose the wine has an attractive aromatic palette of ripe strawberries and raspberries with hints of yeast and exotic flowers. On the palate it is smooth, fresh, and creamy with hints of ripe blackcurrant fruit. 

Italy

From Italy comes the Ferrari Perlé Trentodoc a méthode champenoise sparkler, made from hand-picked 100 percent chardonnay grapes. It is aged for a minimum of five years on the lees. This is an interesting creamy, deep yellow with golden highlights sparkler from Trentino, with a lively and persistent mousse and aromatic notes of baked apple, gingerbread, and yeast that linger on the finish.

(Courtesy of Ferrari)
(Courtesy of Ferrari)

Also from Italy comes another favorite, Vigna la Rivetta Prosecco di Cartizze, from Villa Sandi. It is a lovely Prosecco, very pale straw colored—an almost colorless sparkler—with an intense, fine, and persistent perlage. The palate is fresh, dry, and considerably smooth—very enjoyable. I usually have it as an aperitif or with appetizers.

Another Italian charmer is the Piemontese Brachetto Fizz 56, highly aromatic with rose petals and strawberries on the nose and sweet black cherries, strawberries, and blackberries on the palate. Though a Brachetto is considered by most as an aperitif or dessert wine, I had it with a main course of magret de canard with a cherry glazing, and it was delightful. The romantic red color, fresh berry flavors, and complex, sweet finish, invite toasts to love and happiness. With only 7 percent alcohol, you can’t go wrong selecting it.

California

California has a long history in the sparkling wine business. Many of its sparkling wine producers are related to French Champagne houses. Talking about French influences, Mumm Napa Brut Prestige was a lovely sparkler produced in the traditional champenoise method and it delights with subtle aromas of apple, melon, and citrus, with firm acidity and a crisp structure. A blend of mostly pinot noir and chardonnay with a little pinot meunier and pinot gris, it is medium bodied, with excellent mousse and a rich lingering, slightly nutty finish.

Another Californian sparkler that we had at the end of the tasting as it was solidly on the demi-sec side was Sofia, a Monterey County sparkling wine from the Francis Coppola vineyards. This medium golden Blanc de Blanc has a little less alcohol than its European brethren. It is smooth, with a delicate small bead and a bouquet of pears, melon, citrus, and tupelo honey. There is pronounced fresh bread crust and honey on the extended finish.

Chile

Finally, an interesting rosé sparkler that came to me from Chile. The Miguel Torres wineries have been trying to resurrect almost extinct grape varieties that, for one reason or another, have disappeared from wine production, both in Europe and South America.

The Santa Digna Estelado Rosé is a sparkling wine made from 100 percent Pais grapes. Pais—commonly known as Mission grape or Negra Peruana—was imported to Mexico and Peru in the 16th century by Spanish missionaries following Hernán Cortés and other Conquistadores to produce sacramental wines. From Peru it was replanted in Chile for the same function. With the introduction of French varietals to Chile in the late 1800s Pais went out of favor and production of wines from the Pais grape stopped in the mid 1930s. Now the varietal has been resurrected and is used in making this unusual sparkling wine.

To your health!

Manos Angelakis is a wine and food writer in New York City. As the gastronomy critic for luxuryweb.com, he has spent many years traveling the world in search of culinary excellence.