“In the wine …
Make me happy …
Make me feel fine …”
Since we’re well into the holiday season, what better beverage to celebrate with than Champagne? From a well-aged tête de cuvé like Cristal or Dom Perignon to the minerality of a Blanc de Blanc to the richness of a Blanc de Noir or the fragrant fruit of a Rose … What? Is a nice bottle of Champagne a little out of your price range? Or perhaps you don’t mind spending a little during the holidays, but realize that one bottle of Krug won’t go very far with 20 guests. Then how about purchasing some of Champagne’s foreign cousins, sparkling wine?
What’s the Difference?
For starters, “true” Champagne is only produced in the 76,000 or so acres in two regions in Northern France. Even within France, any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region cannot be labeled as Champagne. And of course, just because a sparkling wine is made within the region and is “true” Champagne, it doesn’t mean it will be of exceptional quality. There is one big difference with Champagne. Because the name is readily identifiable, true Champagne usually carries a higher price tag, even if the quality is the same as an American, Spanish or Italian sparkling wine. And if you’re hosting a party for 20 to 30 guests, that price difference can be quite a wallet breaker.
How About Sparkling Wine?
Other than the “name,” the same quality and production methods can be found in sparkling wines outside of the Champagne region. The best sparklers from America and Spain also are made in the Méthode Champenoise or “in the method of Champagne,” though you won’t see it listed as such, since Champagne also has a monopoly on designating sparkling wine as produced in the Méthode Champenoise. Even if other sparklers in Europe use the same methods of production, they have to label their sparklers as produced in the Méthode Traditionnelle, which follows the same procedures. Basically, still wine is bottled with added yeast and sugar that creates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Since the bottles are sealed, the carbon dioxide formed during fermentation dissolves in the newly formed wine (and bubbles come out of solution when the bottle is uncorked). Most of the best Californian sparkling wines are produced in this manner — of course, many of the Golden State’s sparkling wine house are offshoots of their famous French founders. The same goes for Cava from Spain, where the only difference in Spanish sparklers are the grape varieties, which use Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo instead of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
There’s also Prosecco from Italy, which is made using the Charmat process, where the secondary fermentation occurs in large stainless steel tanks. This process is a lot cheaper, so even good Prosecco only costs a fraction of what a good traditionally produced sparkling wine would cost. However, the Charmat process isn’t just to reduce production costs, it allows the finished sparkling wine to retain its fruity and fragrant qualities, which would dissipate with the longer processing of the traditional methods.
Then there’s one of my new favorites, sparkling sake. And since both sparkling wine and sake have a place at the Tatsumoto holiday table, why not combine the two? It’s still one of the beverages of choice, with sushi and sashimi, but now it also has the effervescence to cleanse the palate of richer flavors and textures. So, along with being a perfect partner to amaebi (sweet shrimp) sushi, the effervescence in the sparkling sake can also refresh your palate after consuming either those fried amaebi heads or tempura. Or it can refresh your palate after rich ankimo (monkfish liver) or uni (sea urchin). And there are several houses that produce a sparkling sake, like Mizbasho, Shirakabegura Mio and Gekkeikan Zipang.
Doesn’t have to be Straight Up
Since these non-traditional sparklers usually don’t carry a king’s ransom for a price tag, you also won’t feel the pain if they are mixed with other flavors like…
Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup
I first saw this several years ago at my neighborhood gourmet shop. About 11 flowers are packed in syrup that is meant to adorn the bottom of a sparkling wine fluted glass. The syrup sweetens the wine a little and the vivid red color enlivens any toast. Add a green garnish and you have Christmas in a glass. I normally fill the glass with Prosecco which usually is off-dry anyway.
The French 75
This combines two of my favorite libations, gin and sparkling wine. Add a couple of dashes of simple syrup (equal parts of sugar dissolved into water), one part lemon juice, two parts gin and shake over ice until cold and frosty. Add it to a fluted glass then top with four parts sparkling wine with a lemon zest twirl to garnish. I usually use domestic sparkling wine like Domaine Chandon or Mumm Napa.
Mix one part pear brandy and four parts pear nectar over ice until cold and frosty. Add it to a fluted glass then top with five parts Prosecco. Off-dry (slightly sweet) Prosecco works better than dry Prosecco.
Add one tablespoon of crème de cassis to the bottom of a fluted glass. Top it with chilled sparkling wine. I prefer domestic sparkling wine, but Prosecco also works for this libation.
You can substitute almost any fruity type of liqueur for the crème de cassis, such as framboise (raspberry liqueur), Midori (melon liqueur), Extase (orange liqueur with cognac) or strawberry liqueur (add a strawberry garnish).
Add one tablespoon each of St. Germain (elderflower liqueur) and Soho (litchi liqueur) to a fluted glass. Top with sparkling sake.
The Everyday Libation
So, while Champagne is usually associated only with special occasions and celebrations, there’s no reason to just limit it to a once-in-a-great-while type of libation. And perchance cost is the main reason you’re limiting your “cork popping”, look to Champagne’s affordable and lesser known cousins that can also be enjoyed on their own or crafted into festive cocktails. So as Don Ho might have said…
Make me warm all over…
With a feeling that I’m gonna
love you till the end of time…”
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.