Wine Tasting Room of the Week
Like Drinking Stars
By Heather Irwin
There's a reason that bottles of sparkling wine are more often seen broken over ship's bows and sprayed across locker rooms than poured into our glasses: a pretty fair amount of the bubbly stuff tastes really awful. There, I said it. Whether it's too sweet or too dry, too thin, too bubbly (or not bubbly enough), too yeasty, too bitter or just plain all-around nasty, I'm on your side, dear drinker. Sparkling wine (what a lot of folks call "Champagne") can be tough to love sometimes.
You know the drill: each year just about this time, we buy the cheapest, most God-awful stuff on the planet so there's something—anything—bubbly in our glasses come midnight New Year's Eve. Inevitably, it tastes terrible (though we drink it anyway), and once we've gotten through the awkward morning-after goodbyes and tear-inducing two-day hangover, we vow never to touch the stuff again. At least until next year, when we do the exact same thing.
Stop the insanity! This year a little education will go a long way toward making the bubbly experience one of luxury and decadence, of celebration, good taste and possibly even a less excruciating morning after. Listen up.
First off, a little background. (Hint: use this as an ice breaker when you meet that hot number from the apartment down the hall.) Sparkling wine is not called "Champagne" unless it is from the Champagne region of France. The name is actually trademarked, and everybody else has to call it something else. In Italy, it's spumante, in Spain, it's called cava, and here in California, we call it sparkling wine.
Next, there's sweetness: Brut Nature is the driest (meaning there's no sweetness); then comes Brut, extra dry (slightly sweet and invented just for the sweet-tooth of the American market); and Sec (which means dry, but is pretty darned sweet). Finally, Demi-Sec and Doux can be tooth-achingly sweet.
Now, where to buy? Armed with your newfound knowledge, head confidently into the wine aisle or, even better, Santa Rosa's Bottle Barn (3331-A Industrial Drive, Santa Rosa, 707.528.1161), where there are dozens of choices, rather than the one or two you'll find at the liquor store on New Year's Eve. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised at the price. Overall, sparkling wines are a decent value: a nice bottle of nonvintage bubbly runs around $12 to $20. Much less, and you're in murky waters. A really nice bottle will set you back $25 to $30 or so, though you can certainly find other bottles running into the hundreds.
Finally, don't be afraid to try rosé and red sparklers—stunning pinks and reds that are a nice departure from the usual pale-colored wines. You make the call. Whatever you do, walk away from that warm $4 bottle at the mini-mart. You'll thank me later.
Inexpensive and fun Sophia Mini Blanc de Blancs (in cans, four-pack, $20); Baby Piper (mini bottle, four-pack, $40); Domaine Chandon Holiday Sparkling Red ($20).
Local Values Korbel Extra Dry NV ($11); Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs Napa Valley NV ($18); Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs ($18); Gloria Ferrer Brut Sonoma County NV ($18).
Can't-Go-Wrong Locals Iron Horse ($30-$58); J ($30-$60); Roederer Estate ($22 and up); Schramsberg Estate ($18 to $80).
Bling-Bling Champagnes Krug ($150 and up); Cristal ($370 and up); Dom Perignon ($110 and up).
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