Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Why spend a bunch on fancy champagne?

Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia.
Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia. David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia. Gallery: Why spend a bunch on fancy champagne?
Opening Bubbly Video: Opening Bubbly

THERE ARE basically two columns that drinks writers do during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Those would be either advice on preventing and/or curing hangovers or a primer on sparkling wine. I hate both of these annual lifestyle journalism chestnuts.

I hate the perennial hangover article because, come on dude . . . it's a hangover. You avoid one by not drinking so much. And if you awake with one, what's the news? Drink water, eat a greasy breakfast, lie on the couch, or take a "hair of the dog" nip if you must. In any case, suck it up and get on with your life.

I dislike the second year-end classic - the annual primer on bubbly - because it reinforces the false notion that the only time for sparkling wine is A Very Special Occasion, like New Year's Eve. Sparkling wine can be, and should be, an everyday treat. Conceivably, I could write a sparkling-wine article in March or October and it should be totally relevant. And yet, here we are.

"Sparkling wine is like church. Most folks only think about it once a year," said Keith Wallace, director of the Wine School of Philadelphia.

A major reason for this, of course, is price. The most famous sparkling wine, champagne, is rarely cheap. And that's sort of the problem. Most people still don't think beyond Champagne, which comes from a specific region in France - Wallace calls it "the high-rent district." Location means everything when it comes to sparkling wine. I love good champagne, but unfortunately the word "champagne" has become a license to print money.

"I love the stuff, but the honest truth is that it's overpriced for what you get," said Wallace, this, mind you, from someone who has been employed as an ambassador and spokesman for Champagne! Almost all wine people agree that, unless you're willing to pay $40 or more for champagne, choose a sparkling wine from somewhere else.

The fact is, sparkling wine can come from many places. Look for bubbly from other, less glamorous regions of the world - prosecco from the Veneto in Italy, cava from Catalonia in Spain, good-value sparklers from California's Anderson Valley, or even Oregon, which Wallace says is his favorite spot.

For me, some of the best-value and most interesting sparkling wines still come from France, but from different regions other than Champagne, such as the Loire Valley (look for Vouvray Brut on the label), Burgundy (look for Cremant de Bourgogne) or Limoux in southwestern France (look for Blanquette de Limoux).

"It's really the exception to the rule to find a great sparkling wine for a low price," said Michael McCaulley, managing partner of Tria wine bars. That may be true, but if you're willing to spend $15-$25, you can find some good ones at good value. Since I like sparkling wine year-round, even on a random Tuesday night, good is the new great for me.

For those who are scared off by foreign place names and terms, McCaulley suggests sticking with California. "It's easy to comprehend California," he said. "It's not the least expensive, but it's good wine, and it's made like champagne."

One sparkler in particular he suggests is Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley, owned by famed champagne producer Louis Roederer, maker of the luxury brand Cristal. To be clear, Cristal's California cousin is not champagne, but it's also around $20-$22. "If you're thinking, 'Let's grab a couple bottles of champagne,' well with tax that's over $100," said McCaulley. "For the same price you can show up with five bottles of Roederer sparkling wine and you'll look magnanimous and everybody will love it."

The great thing about sparkling wine is that it's just about the most versatile food-friendly wine imaginable. Sparkling wines are perfect for those hodgepodge party spreads of hors d'oeuvres - cold and hot, salty and sweet, spicy and creamy.

Wallace, whose excellent book on food and drink pairings Corked & Forked (Running Press) was published this fall, had some offbeat suggestions, such as a breakfast of prosecco with pancakes ("one I do almost every Christmas") and Korean soft tofu with cava. "The best pairing, hands down, is an Oregon sparkling wine and potato chips," Wallace said. "You may laugh, but go and try it. It will blow your mind. The saltiness of the chips and the zing and pop of the bubbly is delicious."

Perhaps the best advice for sparkling wine is this: experiment. Don't just lock into paying $50 for a middling champagne. Open your mind to new regions. And above all, don't just save the bubbly for special occasions.

"We should all make a New Year's resolution to drink more sparkling wine over the next year," Wallace said. "That way, next year you [journalists] won't have to write another article about sparkling wine. Folks will already be in the groove."

 

Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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