The Wine Nerd: Not all that sparkles is gold

Courtesy photo.
Gruet Winery, located in New Mexico, produces some exceptional sparkling wines.

By: Jim Hollingshead 

There is one wine that holds the American imagination like no other: Champagne.  The golden bubbles are the king of celebrations and the muse of more than a few iconic songs.  No small part of that special reverence that we as a culture have for sparkling wine comes from the aura of mystery around it. It is a generally misunderstood wine in the American market, and I hope to pull back a bit of the curtain hiding the magic.

Most everyone knows that it is only called ‘Champagne’ if it is actually from the region of Champagne in France. There, the bubbles are made from one or more of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  When you find a bottle labelled ‘Blanc de Blanc,’ it is made from pure, unblended Chardonnay, and is among the brightest and cleanest of Champagnes.  ‘Blanc de Noir’ indicates pure Pinot Noir, whether the wine is white or rosé, and is usually much richer in style.  Poor, lonely Pinot Meunier is never used without being blended.  Elsewhere, the bubbles aren’t quite as expensive. Throughout the rest of France, sparklers are referred to as ‘Cremant,’ and will often have a softer, creamier bubble.  The Italians are famous for their Prosecco, made mostly from the grape Glera. Whether sweet or dry, these offer a brighter, fruitier take on the bubbles for your party.

The Spanish have their lovely Cava, which is much closer to their French neighbors in style than the Italians. Mostly made from the grape Macabeo, Cava is a great money-saver when you’re craving fine Champagne but your wallet is craving tap water.  Even the Germans have their elusive Sekt, lively versions of their Riesling, Spätburgunder (their name for Pinot Noir), or other grapes.  If you want something refreshing for spring, Sekt will blow you away!

Here in the US of A, we have some sparkling masterpieces of our own.  Monticello, Virginia, is home to the elegant Thibaut-Jannison, a collaboration between two masters of true Champagne.  I first tried it as a gift from a VERY French chef, who told me to my astonishment that it was as good as any Champagne.  (I have yet to hear another Frenchman say this about ANYTHING).

Another surprising set of gems is the collection of wines produced by Gruet Winery, made by another French family in, of all places, New Mexico.  After commenting frequently on the fact that the New Mexican terroir could grow excellent sparkling wines (and being routinely mocked for that statement), the Gruet family began producing Champagne-style bubbles there in the late 1980s, and have captured the hearts of bubble-lovers ever since.

Last but not least, it is important to note the difference in sparkling wine consumption in American culture and the cultures in the rest of the world. Here we associate sparkling wine, no matter where it’s from, with major celebrations.  It is surprising to most of us to learn that we are alone in this belief. In the rest of the world, bubbly is just another style of wine, meant to be paired with the perfect food or simply consumed when you’re feeling like it.  We should consider trying these wines with richer, softer cheeses (the bubbles clean the rich, creamy texture from our palates), perhaps with some local honey (great to stave off our springtime allergies!).  The bubbles will even cut through the weight of (gasp) fried foods.

Champagne and other sparkling wines can be the perfect partner to food and fun this spring and summer.  The wines will welcome your attention on any day, but, if you choose to save them for special occasions, I don’t think they will mind the added prestige.  Whether you drink them to mark something momentous or as an everyday friend, I hope you have plenty of cause to enjoy some bubbles this year!