Back to Basics: Sparkling Wine
Justin Vann is the Sommelier and General Manager at Oxheart Restaurant. He knows and loves wine.
So much of wine writing is searching for the newest hottest trends in wine. Whether its obscure Italian white varietals being cultivated halfway around the world in California, the hottest producers to watch, or the latest wine scores that attempt to quantify the objective goodness of a wine with the philosophical grace of a bull in a china shop — there is an exhausting race to be the first one to weigh in on the topic du jour.
These things are all well and good, but I personally feel like a lot of earth shattering wines get ignored in the ravenous pursuit of the new hotness. Every once in a while, we need to stop, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves of the classics that have been cool since before our grandparents were born. There’s a good chance more than one of the wine styles you’ll see here is something you don’t drink regularly. Revisit them, and I’ll guarantee you a better 2012.
Sparking Wine is perhaps the most commonly forgotten awesome thing in the world. Bubbles suffer from the preconceived notion that they are only appropriate for special occasions. When you order it in restaurants, it is not uncommon to hear your server ask “Oh! What are we celebrating this evening?” To compound the problem, people mentally separate sparkling wine from still wine “Oh I drink wine AND champagne”.
The truth is that sparkling wine is just wine with bubbles in it. That’s it! It isn’t any cheaper or expensive than wine that doesn’t contain bubbles. If you actually care, my wine nerd friends and I can explain HOW the bubbles got there, but really, its just bubbly wine. It isn’t any more mysterious than the California cabernet you’ve been drinking too much of.
A more important truth that we need to realize to let more sparkling wine in our lives is that bubbles ARE for celebration. The real question is, why are you only celebrating a couple times a year? Are you alive? Do you have all your fingers and toes? Do you live in one of the most stable economies in the first world? Do you have someone in your life you care about that you can share a bottle of sparkling wine with? Have you recently vanquished your mortal enemy? Can you afford comfortable shoes? Did you just take a chance on something? Is the weather nice? What day of the week is it? Wednesday? That’s what you tell that overly enthusiastic server: I’m celebrating because today is Wednesday. You’re celebrating the fact that you have the time and the means to even consider opening and drinking a bottle of sparkling wine.
There's always reason to celebrate if you're above ground. Instead of fighting the reputation of bubbles as a drink for celebration, it may actually be easier to embrace it, and commit to making time for more revelry in your life.
Lets also not forget that sparkling wine is fucking delicious. The intensity of flavor and the organoleptic power of sparkling wine cannot be expressed without cursing. It is a mortar shell of potential energy. Up to six atmospheres of pressure lie humming beneath the surface of thickened glass, like the arm of a gorgeous woman cocked back about to hit you in the face. This extremely dangerous/awesome level of carbonation allows for the art of saberage, also known as smashing a bottle of wine open with a knife and looking like a complete badass (don’t try it without professional supervision). Carbonation enhances and deepens the flavors of the still wine. The autolytic process during secondary fermentation imparts magical flavors that you’d never expect in a high acid white, like ground coffee and buttered toast. High carbonation also delivers the alcohol to your bloodstream slightly faster. It is the ultimate weapon in the war against sobriety and boredom.
It is one of the few alcoholic beverages that can easily be consumed from the amuse bouche to the mignardises and pair beautifully with everything. It doesn’t get any easier than that: sparkling wine goes well with everything. Do you eat food? Drink some sparkling wine with it. It becomes even more versatile when you factor in rose and sparkling red (yes, it is a real wine category, not just sugary Lambrusco).
Sparkling wine can be one of the most age-worthy wines on the planet. Bottles have been found on the ocean floor in shipwrecks, perfectly preserved by pressure and cool ocean temperatures that are up to 200 years old. They still actually taste good and they still have carbonation. While most of us can’t shell out 50 grand for a bottle of bubbly that was on a ship destined for Katherine the Great, even one to two years of age on a bottle of non-vintage champagne can make a dramatic difference in flavor.
And one last thing, don’t bother with champagne flutes. One of the most sinister lies ever told is that you need a great multitude of accessories to enjoy wine. Flutes are probably the most superfluous vessel of all for wine- they leave no room for the wine to open up and they keep the wine away from your nose. If you must use a glass made for sparkling wine, employ a coup. But really, you don’t need a special glass for sparkling. Put it in a normal wine glass. Put it in a coffee mug, or a repurposed jam jar. All of these will allow you enjoy as much if not more aroma and flavor as a flute will.
I’d list off some recommendations but that’s no fun. Ask your favorite wine geek for a recommendation, restaurant or retail. They are dying for you to ask them what sparkling wine you should try next. Indulge them, and go celebrate something.
Tune in next time for Back to Basics: Fortified wine.