Sparkling wines from France, Spain, Italy and California offer flutes of distinction
A snaking stream of compact bubbles rises continuously upward, almost hypnotic to observe and indicative of a fine glass of sparkling wine. This term, “sparkling wine,” covers a range of flavorful beverages. You can find sparkling wine being produced around the world, but key areas create wines of unparalleled excellence and distinction.
The most famous bubbly is Champagne (a designation erroneously afforded to other sparkling wines, much to the chagrin of French winemakers). Less a drink and more a cultural icon of the Western world, it is synonymous with glitzy celebrations and
all the finer things in life.
The fascination with Champagne originated in its namesake region of north-eastern France. The limestone soil in this premier grape-growing location imbues the liquid with its distinctive mineral flavor. The grapes employed are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, which create a wine that can be separated into two decisive flavor styles.
“There is the oxidized version, which is richer, more round and robust, evoking the taste of baked pears, apples and toasted caramel,” Fairmont Grand Del Mar sommelier Rory Pugh says. “Its opposite is the reductive type, with a chalky quality and notes of fresh citrus and intense minerals.”
For those looking for the reductive style, he recommends Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, a 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne, widely available for $75. His choice for an oxidized style is Camille Savès from Montagne de Reims (“a great source for powerful Champagne”) with a toasty, smoky flavor. The nonvintage bottling is called Carte Blanche and retails for $55. Rory also endorses Nathalie Falmet (“a fantastic value at $45”).
As zesty as the inhabitants of its sun-drenched homeland, Cava comes from the sprawling vineyards of Catalonia in the northeastern portion of Spain. It traditionally blends Macabeo, Parallada and Xarello white grapes.
Though there has been some deviation from this classic composition with the allowance of outside grapes due to the expansion of Cava production across the country, Rory says, “The highest-quality producers of Cava still use the three traditional grapes.
“Outside of Champagne,” he continues, “I have been most impressed with high-end Cavas.” When looking for superior blends, he suggests keeping an eye out for the moniker “brut nature,” which indi-cates that it is the driest classification of Cava you can buy.
“It is a warm and really quite edgy wine, with a sherry-like taste and very intense flavors of nutty richness and honey,” Rory says. He recommends the Cava of Gramona, specifically the long-aged vintage imperial bottling, retailing at $25.
Another classic can be found within the villages of the Friuli and Veneto regions of northeastern Italy: Prosecco. This refreshing wonder with a delightful sweetness is made from the Glera grape.
“Prosecco is a fun wine that’s great for parties and sparkling-wine lovers,” Rory says. “It has an easily enjoyable flavor of fresh peaches and nectarines with a heady fruit-salad aroma.” This makes for a drink that is accessible to people at all levels of wine appreciation. It is aromatic and bubbly, perfect with appetizers or simply on its own as a chilled treat.
“You can find a great bottle for under $20,” Rory says, touting $18 Sorelle-Bronca for being “fantastic as an aperitif or cele-bration sparkler.” He also suggests Casa Coste Piane, which retails at $20, as an example of a more serious and extremely dry style.
In the United States, California wineries make great sparkling wines. Some are owned by large Champagne houses, includ-ing Mumm Napa owned by G.H. Mumm, Roederer Estate owned by Louis Roederer and Domaine Chandon owned by Moët & Chandon; but others — most notably Schramsberg in Napa Valley — impress aficionados too. Rory also recommends the wines of Caracciolo Cellars from the Santa Lucia Highlands of the Central Coast.
Aside from grapes and soil, there are differences in how sparkling wines are made. In the classic French méthode Champenoise, the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. Cava also undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle (called método tradicional in Spain and known widely as the Charmat method). Prosecco is fermented in stainless steel tanks. U.S. winemakers use both methods; some even resort to injecting carbon dioxide into the wine.
No matter which type of sparkling wine you choose, be sure to pour it into the properly shaped glass: A tall flute presents and preserves the bubbles best.