The fact was, I was probably drinking swill. To make matters worse, I didn’t understand the art of moderation. However, these experiences marked me and my opinion of sparkling wine for over two decades, until someone finally put a good glass of Champagne in my hand. It was a Non-Vintage (NV) Ulysse Collin Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs and I loved it. With my inhibitions tossed to the wind, I had finally decided to start exploring sparkling wine.
But where to start was the question. The fact is, there’s a lot more to sparkling wine than just Champagne. Most are dry (Extra Brut), but you can also find sparklers in many degrees of sweetness. Some are made from red grapes (Blanc de Noirs), some from white (Blanc de Blancs) and many are Rosé. The good news is that once you start to explore, you immediately realize that all of these wines are amazing when paired with food, and popping open any kind of bubbly seems to put people in the mood for a good time.
With limited space, I could not possibly cover every category of sparkling wine, so I’ve decided to discuss some of favorite styles with my favorite pairings. Think of it as an introduction with a world of new experiences waiting down the road.
Champagne and Food image via Shutterstock
Prosecco has come a long way in a short time. Today, many people think of it as an alternative to Champagne and one that tends to cost a lot less. Prosecco is made in a very different way than Champagne (large steel tanks) and from a different grape (Glera), yet the quality level continues to rise. If you haven’t already discovered it, now’s the time.
Prosecco is a very food-friendly wine and although I spend most of my time sipping Prosecco with a plate of Prosciutto San Daniel, I have also grown to love it next to spicy Asian-inspired preparations. Singapore Spicy Shrimp Over Spinach was a perfect match.
NV La Farra Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry - The nose was elegant, showing lemon and flowers with minerals and field grasses adding earthy depth. On the palate, it was soft with apple and inner florals. The finish was refreshing with notes of peach clinging to the palate. (90 points)
Nothing says celebration like a bottle of Champagne. Most Champagne houses offer a large assortment of different styles with Prestige Cuvées and Vintage Champagne at the top of the pyramid. Most Champagne is a multi-vintage blend, but when a particularly good vintage comes along, producers will choose to release vintage Champagne. These bottles cannot be released until at least three years after the vintage (often producers age them much longer) and they offer amazing depth and complexities.
While I’ve read a hundred times that Champagne and caviar are the perfect pairing, I’ve yet to experience an “ah-ha” moment to prove it to me. However, what I have found is that Champagne goes very well with Smoked Salmon. This easy finger-sandwich recipe is a perfect partner to help kick off your evening, paired with a glass of Champagne.
1999 Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne - The nose somehow reminded me of sunshine with field grasses, apple, yellow flowers and a note of sour cream. On the palate, it was rich yet wonderfully fresh with more apple flavor and minerals. The finish was staying and lasted an easy minute. (91 points)
Cava may have been created with Champagne in mind and using the same techniques, but that’s where the similarities end. Cava is made using a mixture of white native varieties (with a little Chardonnay finding its way in these days). What’s more, the region’s climate and geography is drastically different than Champagne. Cava tends to be fruitier with lemon and earthy notes; it’s an excellent alternative and a serious value.
The cuisine in the Penedes is a mix of Mediterranean styles with fish as one of their staple foods. It’s no surprise that Cava is an excellent pairing partner with fried fish. The mix of fruits, acidity and bubbles make short work of the rich crust, and once the flavors of the fish and Cava intertwine, it is magic.
Crispy Breaded Tilapia with Classic Tartar Sauce
NV Celler Vilafranca Cava Casteller - The nose showed almond, lemony citrus, green apple, herbal and yeasty notes. On the palate, it was fresh and dry yet smooth with tart flavors of apple, dried peach and grassy notes lingering though the mouth-watering finish. (88 points)
Alsace is much better known for outstanding Riesling, yet they also produce a sparkling wine labeled Crémant d'Alsace. I often think of this as a more affordable French alternative to Champagne. Crémant d'Alsace typically shows a calling card of vibrant acidity that stands out on the palate. When you add that to the menagerie of aromas and flavors created by the diverse soils of Alsace, you end up with a wine of great character that pairs beautifully with food.
Due to its lighter nature, I usually prefer to keep Crémant at the beginning of my meal. It can easily pair with most appetizers and loves salty foods. However, it also goes well with eggs, asparagus and cured pork. Thinking along those lines, I came across a recipe for an Asparagus & Pancetta Frittata. Not only was it a great pairing, but I’m also happy to have found this easy and very tasty recipe.
N.V. Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace Blanc de Blancs Brut - On the nose I found green apples, lemon, whole butter and chalky minerals. The palate showed Granny Smith apple, flower petals and grassy tones with a bitter feel that was then washed clean by a strong core of acidity. On the finish, the senses were left dry but then began to water with lingering notes of grapefruit and walnut. (89 points)
Although most Champagne is made from Pinot Noir (a red grape), far fewer are made in the Rosé style. The best part about a Champagne Rosé is that it behaves very differently on the palate from a golden Champagne. In fact, from the standpoint of pairing it with food, Champagne Rosé opens up a world of possibilities that can welcome in dishes like lamb (done rare) or even some gently cooked red meats.
If there are two things I love with Champagne Rosé, they are cherries and rare lamb. I really wanted to combine the two, however I wanted to avoid a dish that had too much sweetness as it would detract from the wine. The recipe I went with, Lamb Rib Chops with Quick Cherry Pan Sauce, worked perfectly. The trick here is to not over cook the lamb and make sure that you use “unsweetened” cherry juice and tart whole cherries for the sauce.
NV Ruinart Champagne Brut Rosé - The nose was finessed, drawing you in with aromas of cherry, light strawberry, floral tones and mineral-laden citrus. On the palate, it was richer than I expected from the nose yet remarkably refined. Almost whimsical, showing strawberry, lemony tones and minerals carried well into the moderately long finish and blossomed across the senses. (92 points)
Nothing finishes a dinner or wine tasting better than a glass of Moscato d’Asti. It’s amazing to watch the faces light up around the table as your guests take a sip from this magic elixir. What’s more, they just can’t get enough of it. Why? For one thing, the wines are refreshing yet carry a hint of sweetness and a core of brisk, bubbly acidity that makes the mouth water. They are also low in alcohol, making them an excellent way to extend your evening without having to offer the guest room to your party.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Moscato d’Asti doesn’t have to be paired with dessert. If it is, then the dessert shouldn’t be too sweet. I actually love Moscato with spicy Asian cuisine. However, I still prefer Moscato at the end of a meal. My recommendation is to pair it with Vanilla-Poached Apricots with Zabaglione. Moscato pairs beautifully with fruit and the Zabaglione gives the right amount of creamy sweetness without overpowering the wine.
2010 G.D. Vajra Moscato d'Asti - The nose showed pear, honeydew and hints of citrus. On the palate, I found plush, sweet apple in a mouth-filling yet beautifully fresh expression of Moscato. The finish showed hints of lime and a lingering refreshing sweetness. (89 points)