Imagine bubbles slowly drifting to the surface of a brilliantly clear and pale straw colored wine in long stemmed fluted glasses. A waiter in a finely pressed tuxedo picks up a tray of these glasses and begins to drift amongst a well-dressed crowd in an elegant ballroom. A sharply dressed and handsome man takes two glasses from the tray, keeping one for himself as he hands the other to a tall and graceful woman with long flowing hair in a beautiful sparkling evening gown. The two gaze into each other’s eyes as the room around them disappears, and for a moment it’s just the two of them. The man smiles and the woman blushes as they raise and clink their glasses together for a toast before slowly sipping the wine.
This short narrative conveys much of the usual imagery that comes to mind for many people when they think about sparkling wines. Descriptive words like elegance, grace, class and sophistication are often used in sparkling wine advertising and back label statements. In the movies, we see our great protagonist at some fancy gala dancing the perfect foxtrot and then sneaking his love interest out of the party with two flutes and a bottle. Because of this portrayal of sparkling wines, our collective thought and impression of this style of wine tends to skew toward special occasions and celebrations like New Year’s Eve or weddings, and sadly we tend to overlook these fantastic wines in our everyday lives. However, there is no reason these wines would not be just as perfect a pairing for lounging on the couch in your pajamas as they are for waltzing across the floor in your finest designer attire at the masquerade ball.
Sparkling wines combine both power and finesse, and capture the senses with a rare complexity that is often difficult to find in many table wines. Generally speaking, sparkling wines have a bright and crisp acidity, and that awakens the palate and gives these wines great vibrancy and zest. Most of these wines explode with fresh fruit flavors such as tropical fruit, apple, pear and citrus. Sparkling wines made from red grapes, which are commonly referred to as noir or rosé, are overflowing with delicious berry and cream flavors like cherry, raspberry and strawberry. Oftentimes subtle floral notes add to the layers of unique flavor that gently roll through the aroma and taste of these wines. Sparkling wines are sometimes lighter bodied, but the effervescent bubbles within give these wines a different depth and mouthfeel that is absent in table wine. Other sparkling wines may have a thicker creamy texture, with a lush richness that envelopes the taster and is highlighted with a tantalizing tingling sensation from the bubbles. All quality sparkling wines should exhibit all the depth of flavor and complexity of a fine quality table wine, and the bubbles should be a subtle enhancement to compliment the wine rather than distract or nullify the other flavors.
We typically think of sparkling wines paired with hor d’oeuvres and appetizers, but these wines have great versatility which allows for an abundance of food pairing possibilities. This style of wine can run the gamut from intensely dry to sensationally sweet, so it is important to know the sweetness level of a wine before trying to pair it with food. With dry and off dry sparkling wines (usually denoted on the label as brut or extra dry), foods such as shellfish and other seafood, chicken dishes, strong and mild cheeses and many Asian dishes marry harmoniously. Sweeter sparkling wines (labels will often refer to these wines as Sec or Demi-Sec all the way to the very sweet Doux designation), pair fantastically with spicier dishes like Indian foods or Thai and go great with many custards and other sweet desserts. Both dry and sweet sparkling wines pair with different types of salads depending on the toppings and dressing. Add some fruit to the menu and sparkling wines will truly shine. Apples and pears, citrus fruits, melons, berries and stone fruits like apricot and peach are all fantastic with sparkling wines. Fans of sushi will love the interplay of flavors that sparkling wines can add to a meal. Sparkling wines have also found their way onto the ingredient lists for many great cocktails beyond the simple mimosa. Using sparkling wine as a component in a cocktail allows a mixologist the ability to add in subtle flavors and structure to a drink, and there are many great cocktail recipes that take advantage of this fantastic wine style. The compatibility of these wines with many different foods allows for great experimentation and versatility far beyond just a toasting wine.
Remember that sparkling wines are often some of the most elegant and classic wines in the world, however we do not need to be at an elegant or upscale celebration to enjoy them. Think back to the beginning of this article and that classic image of the handsome man and the beautiful woman as they gently cling glasses. The ballroom and the waiter and the other guests in tuxedos and evening gowns are all gone. Replace that background with a cool summer breeze at sunset, as the man and the woman now dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts casually and relaxingly swing back and forth on their porch swing. They have nowhere they need to be, nobody they need to impress and nothing monumental or extraordinary to celebrate, and yet they have still found the perfect occasion to celebrate with a glass of fine sparkling wine.