The Grand Salon in New York City’s Baccarat Hotel features one of the country’s largest selections of Champagne. Just studying its dizzying bubbly menu can leave a person feeling drunk. Uncertain what Champagne to pair with my appetizer — a lightly smoked piece of salmon touched with roe and dill cream — I reached out for help.
In a place so elegant, with a dish so clean, Christian Fentress, Baccarat’s wine director, suggested Paul Launois’s Composition. The smoke from the salmon and salinity of the roe, he said, would be complemented beautifully by the bright acidity and mineral character of the Champagne. It sounded good. It tasted right.
While most wine aficionados are skilled at selecting a red from a pages-long list, many find it challenging to settle on a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine. Perhaps it’s because these bottles are often saved for special occasions. Because most folks spend such little time with sparkling wines, when it is time to choose bubbles, many are left guessing, price-following, or stumbling into the more well-known (read: better- marketed) names.
But there’s much diversity in the world of sparkling wines. While most people know that, in order to be called Champagne, the bottled liquid must come from Champagne, France, other factors like process and types of grapes matter, too. (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier are the three main varieties, though four other white grapes are permitted in Champagne.)
Any other sparkling winemaker outside the Champagne region who follows Champagne’s rules, however, can call their bubblies “traditional-method” sparkling wines. Such is the case for Spain’s Cava and France’s Crémant. Prosecco, however, is quite different, as it involves single fermentation in steel tanks, unlike the traditional method’s secondary fermentation in bottles.
Proseccos are often fruitier and sweeter than Champagne-style wines, and the Italian bubbly has fans the world over, but most sommeliers are keen to recommend Champagnes or traditional method sparkling wines.
At the Bicycle Thief, a fine, waterfront, Italian restaurant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the sommelier actually refused to pair my frutti de mare with Prosecco. “The best sparkling wines are always done in the traditional method,” he said. “Traditional-method sparkling wine pairs with everything — potato chips or mussels.”
But instead of reaching across the Atlantic into the Champagne region, the Bicycle Thief’s sommelier found some of his favorite sparkling wines at nearby Benjamin Bridge in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia’s wine region. Since Nova Scotia has a cool climate, higher soil acidity, and grows grapes that result in lower alcohol levels, the varieties in the Annapolis Valley are perfect for sparkling wines that, in the hands of the right maker, taste similar to Champagne.
When I walked into NYC’s Vinyl Steakhouse, I had nothing to celebrate; I was just hungry and in the mood for steak. The walls were lined with 2,200 records, mostly from the middle of the 20th century, yet it was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” spilling through the speakers when I opened the wine menu. Kevin Flannery, Vinyl’s owner and master sommelier, suggested an Old World red to pair with my forthcoming steak. But the alternative rock music and sushi appetizer demanded something a little less quaint, so I was surprised when Flannery recommended a Champagne, which clings to tradition more than most drinks.
He poured me Arlaux’s Pinot Meunier. While Pinot Meunier is one of the three most common grapes in Champagne, it’s rarely the lead singer, more often playing background to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But with a touch more acidity, the Meunier paired wonderfully with the grunge in the speakers and the raw tuna on a crispy bed of rice that clearly went against the grain (but then again, didn’t).
“It’s a geeky Champagne,” Flannery said. “About as unique as it gets.”
Drinking the Pinot Meunier — a touch rosy in my glass — was like listening to Cobain do a cover of Dylan; a different energy, a different sound, but hardcore and gorgeous and right. Just like Composition had been the right bubbles to pair with the salmon and the opulence at Baccarat.
When choosing bubbles this holiday season, as many will, Baccarat’s Fentress suggests looking at sweetness levels. “Do you want something super bright and crisp? Look at giving a non-dosage [or brut nature] wine a try. Want something that falls into the middle ground? A classic brut. Got a bit of a sweet tooth? Maybe a demi-sec wine might be the ticket.”
Of course, the food menu matters, too. Sofia Flannery, sommelier and co-owner of Vinyl Steakhouse, says that sparkling rosés pair better with white meats or hearty seafood, and suggests blanc de blancs with shellfish and lighter fare.
The question of mood yields more questions and answers from Fentress: “Are you looking for a wine to sit and ponder? Give vintage Champagne a try. Something a little more easygoing? Cava or Prosecco. Feeling like going off the beaten path? Give German Sekt a try.”
If you’re looking for a crowd-pleaser, Sofia Flannery suggests Cava, which, she says “can be a nice in-between from Prosecco to Champagne.”
Of course, budget is a consideration, too. “Not every bottle of sparkling wine in the world has to be a big- ticket purchase,” says Fentress, which is often the case with vintage Champagnes. “There are great values to be found for everyday drinking, too!”
No matter your price point, taste preferences, food pairings, and vibes, there’s a sparkling wine on today’s market that’s bound to fit the bill. So the next time you’re in the mood for some spirited celebration, consider veering from the brands you know and tasting something new. And remember, if you’re feeling stuck, use sommeliers and wine shop owners as resources — they know the bottles best and can help you find one that’s right for you.