December 24th, 2002 Otis Rubottom | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Pop! Pop!

Champagne has been herded into the special-occasion corner, but you might
want to keep a few bottles around after New Year's.

     
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illustration by amy ruppel
Champagne is one of the most underappreciated members of the wine family. If you're like most of the drinking public, the bottles with bubbles only come out when there's a toast to be made or the holidays are at hand. Too bad. Besides being fun to drink, Champagne is a natural pairing with all kinds of food--from lighter seafood dishes to heavier, sauce-based creations. So why is Champagne put in a box? The numerous namechecking in hip-hop party songs is just one way the bubbly lives more in myth than in reality. Here are some truths to consider before your annual elbow-in-the-air snorting of this nectar on New Year's.

Bubbles don't make it Champagne.

The appellation "Champagne" refers specifically to sparkling wine made in the designated growing region of France called Champagne, about 90 miles northeast of Paris. The French are serious about this; the region has its own organization dedicated to "defend and protect the exclusive nature of the appellation." Since we don't want to piss them off, we call the sparkling wine made in the U.S., well, sparkling wine, or sometimes "méthode champenoise," which refers to the specific process of making wine with bubbles that originated in Champagne. If you see a bottle made in the U.S. with the word "champagne" on it, it's a signal that it comes from a less-than-reputable producer that doesn't honor the French policy.

It's so damn expensive because making it is a pain in the ass.

Almost all Champagne is made by blending wines from numerous vintages to produce a consistent style (vintage-dated offerings are made only from the grapes of that particular year), and producers must keep enormous stocks of wine on hand at all times. Also, since the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle (this is how it gets fizzy), space is needed for thousands of bottles to age while the stuff grows bubbles. It's a process that at the top of the line requires lots of tenderness and care. As a result, the best Champagnes and sparkling wines are spendy, ranging from around $30 for basic blends up to hundreds of dollars for top bottles from standout vintages. Still, you can find excellent values if you shift your gaze from the usual suspects.

Bubbly other than Champagne is worth your time and money.

Other sparkling wines, like Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain, can be wonderful substitutes for Champagne. Prosecco's light, fruity characteristics make it immediately inviting. "Some people don't want a bone-dry wine," says Richard Elden of E&R Wine Shop in John's Landing, "and the wines of northern Italy, especially Prosecco, are wonderful options." Spanish Cava, while rarely as rich and complex as Champagne, possesses similar fruit and nut elements that make it an excellent sipping choice, especially since it typically costs between $9 and $12 a bottle. And, of course, there's sparkling wine made right here in the good old U.S. of A. California produces most of the domestic sparkling wine on the market, again ranging from the inexpensive and forgettable to the truly excellent and complex. In fact, many of the large French producers have set up shop in California, bringing their experience and reputation with them. As Kimberly Bernosky, co-owner of Noble Rot, points out, "In numerous blind tastings, against similar styles from the U.S. and France, sparkling wines from French-owned estates in California like Roederer have often been chosen as the wine displaying the most Champagne-like qualities."

Champagne goes great with food.

Tysan Pierce, sommelier at the Heathman Restaurant, makes the case: "Because it can stand alone and is so often a forerunner to the meal, there is this notion that Champagne doesn't pair well with food, or is best as an aperitif, when in fact it is the perfect pairing with numerous dishes." With its combination of effervescence, naturally high acid (tartness), subtle fruit elements and lighter weight (alcohol), Champagne can cut through sauces, bring out textures in baked or fried dishes and work beautifully as a palate cleanser. "If I had to drink only one wine," Pierce adds, "it would be Champagne."

LOCAL FAVORITES

For a taste of some of the best sparkling wines Oregon has to offer, check out these bubbly options, available at better bottle shops and markets around Portland.

Argyle 1997 Brut. A solid sipper from Oregon's best-known producer of sparkling wine. Crisp, with notes of lemon, toast and hazelnut. (Give some to Mom.) $21.

Willakenzie Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Brut 1997. Light in the mouth, with generous flavors of citrus and vanilla. (Good for dinner, a movie and some backseat action.) $25.

Soter Brut Rosé 1997. Yeasty, strawberry goodness. (You'll get an affirmative if you pop the question with this one.) $38.

 
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