High on the Vine: Sparkling wine for the holidays

Looking for an alternative to Champagne? Restaurant Eugene’s Juan Cortes has you covered

Photograph By Evan Mah

The grin stretching across Juan Cortes’ face was unmistakable. The sommelier at Restaurant Eugene was smitten. “Just holding these bottles makes me very happy,” he beamed.

Such is the alluring power of Champagne and sparkling wines, traditionally uncorked during times of romance and celebration. Champagne is often far more expensive than other sparkling wines, and the price basically comes down to location. Champagne is made from grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier) grown in Champagne, France. Legally, you can’t label sparkling wines grown any other place “Champagne,” though the fermentation process and sometimes the grapes are the same.

With Christmas and New Year’s Eve just on the horizon, many of us will be looking for the best bottle(s) to celebrate with. I spoke with Cortes about sparkling wine, food pairings, and important differences among Champagnes.

Many people view other sparkling wines as the inferior and cheaper version to Champagne. Is it really that simple?

It depends on what parameters you use to judge a wine as inferior or superior. If you look at wine in general from a historical perspective, there’s a reason why wine has been the drink of choice for so long. A long time ago, it had to do with the cleanliness of water. It wasn’t until l00 years ago that we didn’t have to drink wine. It’s now more for our enjoyment.

That being said, the techniques for making good wine have become quite advanced. Back in the day, you would have had to be a very successful businessman, royalty, or in the Church to enjoy the quality of wine that we have today.

So, when I look at it that way, there aren’t too many inferior wines out there. If you’re going to hold Champagne as the benchmark, it’s a very methodical, long, drawn-out process. You can replicate this process, like sparkling wine from Cava. If you were to blind taste people, it would be fairly close, although the acidity wouldn’t be quite the same. The difference would be very minute.

Are there times when you think sparkling pairs better with a dish than Champagne?

Absolutely. The acidity of Champagne makes it an ideal pairing for dishes with equally high acidity. But sometimes you want more alcohol. The cremants of Alsace tend to be riper with higher alcohol, lower acidity, and are rounder and fuller bodied. These types of wines have an easier time pairing with dishes.

Generally, you want to pair sparkling with anything that does not have an overly bold flavor like barbecue, grilled steak, or blackening seasoning. I think of more delicate flavors like seafood, vegetables, and sushi, or anything that has a light sauce and needs wine to cleanse the palette.

Other than not being made in Champagne, what’s the biggest difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines?

In Champagne you are more likely to see a consistency from vintage to vintage, a flavor profile that stays the same. Champagne houses devote a lot of their resources to maintaining different vintages of wines to make into a blend. A Champagne like Veuve Clicquot will have 450 different wines to blend into one bottle. Most smaller sparkling wine houses aren’t going to have the ability to blend that many wines. As a result, you taste more fresh fruit in sparkling, but it’s not as complex or as consistent.

What’s the price range for sparkling?

Depends on the region that you’re in. Very rarely will you see very high price points with most sparkling wines. Retail sparkling wine will be in the $20 to $40 range. Sometimes you’ll find something more expensive than that, but only in cases when the wine is truly exceptional.

You’ve got Prosecco in Italy, Cava in Spain, Cremants in France—are these just terms to describe sparkling wine?

For the most part. You mentioned Prosecco in that list—unlike Champagne, which undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, Prosecco undergoes its secondary fermentation in a large vat and then gets bottled. It’s much cheaper to make that way. There is an Italian wine that is akin to Champagne, and it’s Franciacorta. Not many people talk about it, but I love it.

Winemakers use to put “Methode Champenoise” on the bottle to signify that the wine was made like Champagne, but I believe since 2010 people aren’t allowed to write that on the label. It’s illegal because the product is not of Champagne. “Traditional Method” is now how winemakers state that the wine was made like Champagne on the label.

A few recommendations:

Blanc de Syrah Brut 2011, Wolf Mountain Vineyards
Here’s a sparkling from Dahlonega in Lumpkin, County Georgia in Wolf Mountain Vineyards. The name is a little odd—it says Blanc de Syrah, which implies that it’s a white sparkling wine, but in fact it is a deep rose color. The flavor is more fruit-forward and richer than what you would normally associate with Champagne or sparkling. This one could play more with complex dishes, items like veal, beef, roast turkey, a HoneyBaked Ham. Also, it’s not like you’re taking one for the team just for the sake of serving local wine. You’re serving actual good wine. Blanc de syrah is available at H&F Bottle Shop by special order. Blanc de Blanc is on the shelves for $32.

Deus Brut de Flandres, Cuvee Prestige 2011
This is a Flemish ale from Flanders. The first time I tried it, it blew me away. They make the beer in Flanders and send it to Champagne to undergo a secondary fermentation process in a bottle. It’s treated exactly how one would treat Champagne. It’s a complex, light, fizzy, and delicious beverage. It goes great with food because of its fruity flavors [think lots of banana]. Available at H&F Bottle Shop for $31.

Jo Landron Brut Atmospheres
This is a sparkling wine from France’s Loire Valley. The grapes are a blend of Folle Blanch and Pinot Noir. Like most wines from Muscadet, it has a striking mineral character that makes it ideal to pair with seafood like oysters and mussels. Available at H&F Bottle Shop for $21, magnums available for $46.

2002 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut
If you want the quality level of Special Club Champagne, the really biscuity kind that tastes expensive, try this. It features the crisp citrus, green apple, and pear qualities that you expect from a wine made predominantly from Chardonnay grapes from the Willamette Valley with the nutty notes that you would expect from a wine that is more than ten years old. Available at H&F Bottle Shop for $78.

2009 Soter Mineral Springs Brut Rose
This is a sparkling wine from the Willamette Valley, and it’s expensive like Champagne, but quality-wise, it’s probably the best sparkling in the United States. It’s very rare and made with the same level of care as a top-level Champagne. Its base is Pinot Noir, and out of all the Pinots in Willamette, the grapes at Soter are some of the best. There’s a lot of nuance here, and I always find the aroma to be full of red berries, a hint of blueberry, and rose pedals. It’s an aroma you just want to smell over and over again. Limited availability only at Restaurant Eugene for $140.