Twinkle, twinkle, flutes of fizz

(written for the the Los Altos Town Crier)

’Tis the month of celebration, so crack open some bubbly. You can rely on the sparkling stuff’s ability to turn ordinary occasions into revelries.

With the December calendar jam-packed with social get-togethers, there’s more reason than any other time of year to pop corks and let the fizzy flow. I like to have a glass of sparkling wine when I join friends on a hunt for the perfect tree, deck the halls with loved ones, toast the year’s success with colleagues or open gifts with family.

More sparkling wine is sold during the month of December than any other time of year, so it’s a good time to learn a bit about the world of bubbles. While Champagne may be the point of reference by which all sparkling wine is judged, all that fizzes is not Champagne. There are, in fact, a wide world of frothy options on the market today. And buying outside of the Champagne realm provides opportunity to find great value and variety.
Sparkling Wine 101
It’s rumored that upon accidentally inventing Champagne, Franciscan monk Dom Pérignon announced, “Come quickly. I am drinking the stars.” The truth is that Pérignon was not the first producer of the carbonated wine, and his poetic proclamation was more likely concocted by a 19th-century advertising firm, but imagining that the first drinker of Champagne had a celestial experience is not difficult to believe. Champagne, with its perfect chains of bubbles and gorgeous texture, is an experience full of twinkle and bliss.
The magic of Champagne comes from the secondary fermentation in the bottle. Secondary fermentation is not unusual in wine making, but having it take place in the same bottle the wine is sold in turns the carbon dioxide, which is usually released as a by-product of the fermentation process, into bubbles. Because this process is associated with the Champagne region of France, it is known as Méthode Champenoise.
Traditional Champagne is made with chardonnay or pinot grapes. This means that you can find both white and rose-hued versions. This time of year, the rosy color can add to the wine’s appeal, plus it’s great with seafood.
Oftentimes you won’t find vintage years on bottles of bubbly. That’s because the wines are blends of several years. Blending allows the winemaker to craft the perfect assemblage. The vintner adds sugar and yeast to the still wine and then bottles the mixture, leaving it to ferment. The yeast will feast on the sugar for roughly eight weeks, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Sparkling wine comes in a number of styles depending on the sugar level of the wine. These designations, listed in order from bone dry to mega sweet, are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux.
Tradition and rules governing wine designation insist that only sparkling wine from Champagne can be called Champagne. Méthode Champenoise, however, is used with great success by sparkling-wine producers around the world.
There are fantastic options for sparkling wines being made here in California. Big French producers have had labels in the U.S. for decades. Moët is behind Domaine Chandon, for example. And “all-American” options are available, too. I like Breathless from Sonoma. Made with great skill and passion, the three sisters behind the label are creating wonderful wines starting at $25.
Cava, which is also made in the Méthode Champenoise style, comes from a region around Barcelona. Cava represents some of the best value out there. A bottle of cold Cava is ideal for appetizers such as cured meats and salty snacks. These wines are made with grapes native to Spain, so don’t expect the experience to be identical to drinking Champagne. But a good Cava is creamy, bright and fruity. In addition, for approximately $15, you can get one of my favorites, Castellroig Brut Cava, which has plenty of mineral and biscuity qualities.
Italy’s contribution to the sparkling-wine market is prosecco. The ultra-crowd-pleasing wine is made using the Charmat Method, also known as the Italian Method. In the Charmat Method, the second fermentation takes place in large steel tanks rather than in the bottle. Look for bottles in the $15-$20 range and you’ll be delighted by the fine bubbles and intense aromatics. On the palate, prosecco delivers pear, apple, citrus and nutty qualities.
Sparkling wine is a great base for jolly cocktails. I’m sharing my trouble-free Raspberry Sparkler cocktail recipe, which I created using prosecco. The fizzy pleasure of the sparkling wine is made all the more festive with the addition of raspberry vodka and sorbet. Serve it as predinner drink at your holiday gatherings. It is a charming cup of cheer.

NOTE: My Raspberry Sparkler Recipe didn't make it into the online version of the article. Here 'tis...

Christine's Raspberry Sparkler Prosecco Cocktail
  • 1 bottle prosecco
  • 1 cup raspberry vodka
  • 1 cup raspberry sorbet
  • Rosemary sprigs (optional)
In larger pitcher, whisk all ingredients together then divide into six flutes. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary if desired.


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