Sparklers at the Dinner Table

Champagne, Prosecco, Cava—sparkling wines have the complexity and variety to accompany an entire multi-course meal. Here’s the what, where, when and why.


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When I mention my “sparkling dinners” to friends, the usual response I get is one of slack-jawed bewilderment. That expression doesn’t change when I go on to explain that these are dinners in which the wines paired with every course have bubbles. To my friends, the notion sounds absurd . . . until I invite them over for one. It’s only then, when the main course is being plated and they hear the fourth or fifth pop of the night and see their glasses refreshed with something gushingly effervescent that it really begins to sink in: you can drink bubbly throughout an entire meal. And here’s how it’s done.

First, there are some things to consider. The standard progression of still wines through a meal—light to heavy, young to old, white to red—doesn’t necessarily hold when it comes to a sparkling dinner. Lighter to heavier is a good general guide, but there are some pairings that are just so good that you need to deviate from the hard and fast rules. Fortunately, one quality almost all sparkling wines share is that they’re all palate cleansers. Thus the wines for every course serve the dual roles of both pairing with the food and refreshing the palate. One feels satiated after a sparkling dinner, but rarely full.

When it comes to pairings, flavor is, of course, important. However, even more important in this case is texture, which is sparkling wine’s trump card. The prickly grace of the bubbles offers a textural dimension that makes for fascinating and delightful combinations with food. The tactile interplay of the rush of tiny bubbles and food is irresistible. Set against soft, smooth and silky textures, the bubbles provide refreshing contrast. Yet they complement the crust and crunch of, say, deep-fried foods.

So our sparkling dinners generally kick off with a glass of something light while guests are arriving. Cava, which is the umbrella term for sparkling wine from Spain, works very well in this situation. Mostly produced just outside of Barcelona with a trio of alien-sounding varieties—Xarel-lo, Parellada, and Macabeo—cava is generally light, refreshing, and inexpensive. It’s simple enough to be a great apéritif, but complex enough to be satisfying. We usually just put out some toasted almonds and olives as finger food to accompany the wine as guests stand and mingle. That first glass goes down dangerously fast.

When most of the guests have arrived, yet before we take our places at the dinner table, we sometimes perform a radical shift of gears, because I love the pairing so much. I’ll put out a salumi platter—salami, dried chorizo, mortadella, finocchiona—and pop a bottle of Lambrusco. In terms of the progression of wines, this is definitely a detour. Lambrusco is red, fizzy, and hails from the north of Italy. It’s off-dry, and has both fruity and savory characteristics. Yes, it’s a red wine and we’ve been drinking white, but that’s okay, since Lambrusco and salumi are as epic a pairing as peanut butter and jelly or chips and salsa. The acidity in the wine cuts wonderfully through the fat in the meat, and the hint of sweetness beautifully offsets any gamy, peppery or spicy notes. People love this. Afterwards, we ask them to just leave their glasses in the living room and go, as the French say, à table.

As guests are seating themselves around the dinner table, my wife is plating the first course and I’m preparing to open the next bottle. The first course can go in a variety of directions. If we serve a pasta, my preference is to stay in Italy, which means that it’s Prosecco time. There is so much delicious and inexpensive Prosecco available these days, it’s an embarrassment of riches. People always worry about Prosecco being too sweet, but there are a number of wonderfully dry, balanced and sophisticated versions on the market right now. To suit the wine, we keep the pasta fairly light and bright, something simple like linguine tossed with scallops sauteed in white wine, garlic, parsley, and butter. Prosecco is great with this, fresh, lively, and bright. Its prickly bubbles are a lovely foil for the silky softness of the scallops and the tender, yet al dente pasta. Flavor-wise, the buttery sauce is offset by acidity and bright citrus of the wine. It’s a perfect combination.

We also sometimes have a straight fish course. We might stay with Prosecco for lighter fish—sole, snapper, skate, rockfish, for instance. But for denser fish like halibut, cod, monkfish, or turbot I begin to look into richer more complex wines. Here is where I start to think about Champagne, particularly a blanc de blancs (a Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay grapes) or a Chardonnay-heavy brut. These wines are so crisp and tight, they’re like the squeeze of a lemon onto the fish. However, they still have enough richness to cut through the oily density of some of these cold water species.

The other possibility for the starter is soup. Notoriously difficult for sommeliers to pair with wine, soup provides a challenge because it’s putting liquid versus liquid. But, as usual, sparkling wine to the rescue: the bubbles create the contrast needed to set off the wine from the soup. With lighter smooth soups—a creamy cauliflower purée or a cucumber soup—I love blanc de blancs. But as the soups get heavier and sweeter such as butternut squash or carrot and ginger soup, it’s time to move to a heavier bubbly like a blanc de noir, sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir, a red grape. Because of the richness needed to balance something like a squash purée, I like to look toward American sparkling wines in this situation. The ripeness achieved for Pinot Noir in California exceeds that of Champagne, so the wines tend to be a little more fruity and opulent. In these wines, the spirit and berry flavors of the red grape really come through, but not the color. They’re simply dynamite with creamy but rich soups.

Onto the main course, which for us is typically meat. People think it’s impossible to continue with sparkling wine here, and I relish proving them wrong. A rare steak, though, is obviously not the best option. Rather, the most bubbly-friendly meats in my opinion are duck or other game birds and pork. Both forms of meat are flavorful and interesting, but aren’t so heavy and fatty as to require tannins in the wine to break them down. Rather, the acidity in sparkling wines does the job quite well. The added benefit of choosing game birds or pork is that both take very well to high-acid, fruit-based sauces. Roasted duck breast, with a sauce reduced from cherries or currants, for instance, is amazing. Whereas pork—from chops to loin—pairs beautifully with anything from grilled peaches to roasted apples to wild blackberries. The fruits become the liaison between the meat and the wine.

What’s called for is a wine of great fruit, density and character, yet one that’s not too serious nor afraid to play. In short, the perfect wine for the main course is rosé Champagne. This is Champagne that has a tint of red thanks to either the late addition of a little Pinot Noir wine or by actually leaving the clear juice in contact with the red grape skins for a short time prior to fermentation. The latter option, known as the saignée method, is the more difficult, but makes, in my mind, the more formidable rosé. Of course, conventionally made rosés work too, though look for power over finesse. (A recommendation for rosé and blanc de blancs Champagne: don’t serve them in Champagne flutes, but rather in small white wine glasses. Treat good sparklers like wines. Most methode Champenoise wines have gorgeously complex aromas that just are strangled by the narrow shape of the flute.)

So, once the dishes from the main course have been cleared and stacked neatly in the sink, it’s onto dessert, a category that takes us to some of the most delightful sparkling wines of all: the sweet ones. There are a handful of great sweet sparkling wines in the world, and they each have their own application, depending on the dessert. Take Moscato d’Asti, from Italy’s Piedmont region. Luminous, low in alcohol and gentle in its carbonation, its taste is typically of white peaches and orange zest. Thus, it’s a great match with fruit desserts—poached pears, peach compote and ice cream, etc.

The Piedmont also gives us the greatest sweet pink bubbly, the uncommon but brilliant wine known as Brachetto d’Acqui. Made from the Brachetto grape, this wine is sweet, rose-colored, and flavored with pure red-berry goodness, ranging from wild strawberries to perfectly ripe raspberry. Possibly Brachetto’s most valuable distinction is that it’s great with chocolate, while few other wines are. So serve up that chocolate torte, mousse or souffle, and don’t fear: this little pink wine can handle the job.

It also leaves a sweet but clean sensation on guests’ tongues as they gather their coats and prepare to leave. The lingering effervescence of the meal—on the palate, but also in the pleasant memories—is perhaps why no guest of mine, on departure, has ever expressed a craving for a still wine. That’s the greatest compliment that a host of a sparkling dinner can earn. Below is a roundup of some recommended sparklers from around the globe.

Cava

Despite tens of millions of bottles of annual production, Cava remains a somewhat under-the-radar, underappreciated sparkling wine, a bubbly made via traditional Champagne methods but one that rarely relies on Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Instead, Cava, which hails almost entirely from the Penedès region in northeast Spain, is generally comprised of some combination of three indigenous white grapes: Macabeo (Viura), Parellada and Xarelllo.

Light in color, weight and intensity, Cava functions well at the so-called value level. More often than not, Cavas costing under $10 a bottle can make for perfectly good apéritifs. However, if you’re the maestro of a multicourse sparkling wine dinner, there are a growing number of Cava makers who are making more sophisticated bottlings—some of which push up against world class in quality—by using riper, lower-yield fruit and, more importantly, turning to extended lees aging in order to coax out more intensity and richness. —M.S.

92 Gramona 2002 III Lustros Gran Reserva; $45
91 Juvé y Camps 2004 Gran Brut; $45
90 Agustí Torelló 2005 Brut Reserva; $23
90 Llopart 2006 Rosé Brut Reserva; $21
89 Segura Viudas NV Brut Reserva; $10  
86 Freixenet Carta Nevada Semi Dry; $9  

Lambrusco

If you’re looking for Italian flavors to add to your aperitivo, a chilled glass of Prosecco Brut makes an excellent alternative to Cava. In fact, Italians consider this the quintessential “open-your-appetite” wine. Lambrusco is a festive and lively ruby-colored sparkling wine from Central Italy that offers delicate foam and good acidity; the best examples are dry or just slightly off-dry, offering aromas and flavors of raspberry, blueberry and almonds. —M.L.

85 Cleto Chiarli 2006 Vigneto Enrico Cialdini Lambrusco; $17
85 Tenuta Pederzana 2007 Fosso Frizzante Extra Dry
Lambrusco; $20
84 La Battagliola 2007 Lambrusco; $18÷

Prosecco

Three elements in wine aid in keeping the palate refreshed: acidity, alcohol and effervescence. Only sparkling wine has all three. Italy is one of the world’s foremost producers of sparkling wine with a wide range of styles available at an even wider range of prices.
Recession-proof Prosecco is the hottest bubbly of the bunch with growth far exceeding expectations. This is an easy, upfront wine with simple aromas of fruit and flowers and a touch of playful sweetness in the mouth. It is available as a Brut (not as sweet), Extra Dry, or Dry (the sweetest expression). New regulations have been set up to protect this immensely popular Italian sparkler, so make sure you see the word “Prosecco” on the bottle. —M.L.

93 Ferrari 2000 Riserva del Fondatore Trento; $90
90 Le Colture Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze; $32
89 Bortolomiol 2009 Bandarossa Millesimato Extra Dry Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore; $24.
87 L’Antica Quercia Matiù Brut Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore; $20

Champagne

“Its success in oiling the wheels of social life is so great and so universally acknowledged that its eclipse would almost threaten a collapse of our social system,” wrote British author and publisher Henry Vizetelly in his A History of Champagne
With Notes on the Other Sparkling Wines of France, published in 1879. He added: “Good Champagne does not rain down from the clouds, or gush out from the rocks, but is the result of incessant labour, patient skill, minute precaution, and careful observation.”
Vizetelly was among the first to acknowledge Champagne as a great wine. And while the bubbles are an essential part of the Champagne experience, it is as a wine with food that this finest of sparkling wines comes truly into its own. It can bring added glamour to a meal at home or it can be the wine of a grand celebration.

The Champenois are masters at pairing Champagne with meals. In March 2009, I was lucky enough to be a guest at a Champagne dinner in which truffles were ingredients in every course. Held in the cellars of Champagne Perrier-Jouët in Epernay, this extraordinary menu reached a crescendo when a whole truffle in pastry served with Perigueux sauce (Madeira and truffles) arrived with Belle Epoque 1998 vintage. Toasty and yet delicate, this great Champagne enhanced the richness of the truffle as well as cleansed the palate. The ultimate in luxury and the Champagne was just as much the star as the truffle. —R.V.

95 Deutz 1999 Amour de Deutz Brut $173
94 Larmandier Bernier NV Vertus Premier Cru Tradition
Brut; $80
93 Billecart-Salmon NV Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
Brut; $84
93 Henriot NV Blanc Souverain Pur Chardonnay Brut; $55
92 Agrapart & Fils NV Terroirs Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut; $35ь

California sparkling wines

The great news about California sparkling wine is that, in the best cases—Schramsberg, Roederer Estate, Iron Horse—it approaches Champagne in quality. Grown
in cool coastal climates, the grapes get ripe, yet retain acidity. Blanc de blancs and rosés are very good; blanc de noirs are rare. California sparklers may taste slightly sweeter and softer than Champagne, with perhaps a less-fine mousse. But
that’s quickly changing, as winemakers perfect their techniques. The one course I might add to Jordan’s menu is sushi. With it, sparkling wine, especially rosé, is
dazzling. —S.H.

98 Iron Horse NV Joy! (Green Valley); $147
94 Schramsberg 2004 Brut (Anderson Valley); $70

Italian classic sparklers

Some of Italy’s most sophisticated “metodo classico” sparklers come from the
little-known Franciacorta region not far from Milan. These are smooth, creamy and beautifully crafted wines that compete with the best of Champagne. Likewise, Trento, the northern Italian region that straddles the Alps, is also home to prestigious sparklers. —M.L.

91 Contadi Castaldi 2005 Zero Franciacorta; $39
91 Methius 2004 Brut Riserva Trento; $60
91 Quadra 2004 Brut Quvée 15 Franciacorta; $51

Rosé Champagnes

92 Charles Heidsieck NV Rosé Réserve Brut; $75
91 Delamotte NV Rosé Brut; $104
91 Duval-Leroy NV Rosé de Saignée Brut; $51 – R.V.
91 Lanson NV Rose Label Brut Rosé; $55
91 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV Rosé Brut; $65

California sparkling rosé

94 Roederer Estate 2003 L’Ermitage Brut Rosé (Anderson Valley); $70

Italian sweet wines

Besides these all-rounder wines, Italy is home to a few sweet wines that are specifically appropriate to serve with fruit or dessert. Moscato d’Asti is a delicate wine (with creamy effervescence, low alcohol and lower pressure) with aromas of musk, wild flowers and scented candle. —M.L.

88 La Spinetta 2008 Bricco Quaglia Moscato (Moscato d’Asti); $25
84 Duchessa Lia NV Spumante Dolce Brachetto (Brachetto d’Acqui); $17


 

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