New Year, New Wine: Sparkling Alternatives to Champagne

It’s New Year’s again, and whether you think it’s the ultimate party or the ultimate amateur night, you’re probably drinking a sparkling beverage. Notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” You can only use the word Champagne for sparkling wine if it comes from the Champagne region of France, and is made in the serious and complicated old-school method. With the economy still in the tank, it may be better to venture beyond this esteemed region (and its $30+ price tags) and find some bottles that are unique and affordable, while being every bit as bubbly.

If you’re already in the French section at the liquor store, you can stay put because the little-known secret is that you can get awesome sparkling wine for half the price of Champagne right there. Les Français have protected the name of Champagne, so only wines from that region carry the name, but the techniques used to make it are employed all over France, masquerading under the name “Crémant.” If you want to be really savvy, pick up a Crémant d’Alsace made from Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or Riesling, among other grapes. Or try a Crémant de la Loire for a sparkling Chenin Blanc, or a Crémant of Chardonnay from Limoux in Southern France. All completely rock and some are even better than the original Champagne, especially if you consider the value for the price.

We all know the Spanish love to party. What you may not know is that they do it with bubbly just like everyone else. Spain learned how to make their version of sparkling wine, Cava, from the French. The only difference—it’s about one third the price of Champagne. These are probably the best values in bubbles and they are pure pleasure for your mouth. If you find a rose Cava, buy it immediately. For something light and fruity, report directly to the Italian section and try Prosecco. You can pick some decent stuff up for $10, and if you spend $15 or $20 the difference is huge. Regardless of price, all these bubblies are floral, light, and fruity. They may be less serious than Champagne, but they are still a great way to get your effervescence fix. Wines from the U.S. are another option, but proceed with caution. Our sparkling wines tend to be overpriced and underwhelming. Some are just plonk. There is one producer in New Mexico, of all places, that makes some great-value sparkling wine. If you can get some from Washington State, you may have a real find. Still, my vote is to stick with Europe. You won’t regret it. No matter what you choose, be safe, and have a fabulous time toasting 2010 with your alternative bubbly.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches about wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings please visit her blog Wine for Normal People or her Twitter @Vine75.

[Photo/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Last-Minute Christmas Wine Shopping

Inevitably there is one person on your Christmas list who a.) you’ve procrastinated buying for because they are ridiculously picky; b.) you completely forgot you needed to get something for; c.) got you something, and now you have to reciprocate. Never fear: unless they’re a teetotaler (which should have you questioning why you’re friends with them in the first place), wine is the best gift to give. For $15 you can get someone a solid bottle that will taste delicious if it’s opened with the Christmas goose this week. If you have a little more to spend, you can get a bottle for $25-$30 that will have you looking like a wine connoisseur. Better still, if you play your cards right, the person can age the wine for 3 to 5 years, and hopefully they’ll wait to open it until you come over to their house for dinner! It’s like a present for you and for them.

But what to buy? There are amazing deals on wine right now, and if you are looking for something in the $25-$30 range, you can get bottles that are good today and will be lights-out in about 3 to 5 years. Wines that are sure to impress and age gracefully come from many places, but Europe’s got a treasure trove for age-able goodness, and it’s my pick for the best place to look. So for $25-$30…

France • For a big, complex, age-able red try a Bordeaux, specifically from the Medoc, Graves, or Pommerol. 2005 was a historically amazing vintage and 2006 was pretty great, too, so look for those years on the bottle. • Premier Cru from Burgundy will be amazing in a few years. Go for a red (Pinot Noir) with earthy, velvety flavors, or a white (Chardonnay) that has solid acidity yet creamy, tropical fruit, and butterscotch flavors as it gets older. • The Northern Rhône makes delicious Syrah that tastes like dark fruit, herbs, and meat (no joke)—look for Crozes-Hermitage, which is affordable and terrific.

Italy • Italy makes some darn fine wine. The best stuff is red and it’s expensive. Forgo the Barolo for its little, softer sister, Barbaresco—a delicious choice that will stretch your buck.

Spain • Or try Spain and go for a Rioja Reserva, which has been aged for 3 years by the time you get it, but can stand another 3 to 5 more in the bottle. This baby will be full of spice, leather, and complex earthy flavors when you pair it with tapas.

California • Napa Cabernet can be unreliable for long-term aging, but to drink in the next few years you can get great wines right now at bargain prices. Take advantage of the bad economy and get a steal from Napa’s Stags Leap District.

Dessert Wines • Finally, if your friend or family member likes sweet wines, go for a 10-year old Tawny Port from Portugal, or an Eiswein from Germany or Canada.

Think about who you have in mind and take care of that shopping now! Happy Holidays.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches about wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings please visit her blog Wine for Normal People or her Twitter @Vine75.

[Photo / / CC BY-SA 2.0]

CPR for Your Thanksgiving Wines

Thanksgiving is a time to gorge yourself on highly fattening, savory foods, assembled in a not-always-harmonious, semi-random way. This gluttonous holiday has such an eclectic mix of textures and flavors (salty, sweet, fruity, gamey, creamy…) that it’s a feat to find wines versatile enough to go with everything. So what’s a wine lover to do? Chugging a Bud is not an option. Clearly, you have to drink wine. You’ll have turn to CPR to breathe some life into your Turkey Day. What’s CPR? Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling, of course! Here’s why each is a match.

● “C”: Chardonnay is perfect in both its forms — still and sparkling (blanc de blanc Champagne is made from Chardonnay, look for it on the label). As a regular wine, full-bodied, creamy Chardonnay from Burgundy, California, Australia, or Chile is an easy companion for turkey, and simultaneously enhances creamy mashed potatoes and sweet candied yams. Everyone loves the bubbly, so it’s fortunate that Champagne’s acid and effervescence add lively boost and contrast to your butter-laden dinner. Sparkling is an awesome pairing for dessert, too. It’s a bang for your buck, if you don’t down it too early in the evening.

● “P”: Pinot Noir is overdone these days. Unless it’s from an esteemed producer, I find the variety very passé: there’s so much bad stuff out there that it pollutes the bunch. However, if you get a great bottle from Burgundy or Oregon, it will make your meal phenomenal. For its versatility with food (rather than its mean-spirited attitude towards waitresses) Pinot is known as the chef’s wine. Get a high-quality, fruity one with complex flavors and lots of acid and it will match with everything from dark meat to green beans. A sparkling version of Pinot Noir — either as a rosé or blanc de noir Champagne — will also be divine, for the same reasons a Chard-based bubbly kicks ass.

● “R”: Riesling is so underappreciated. It can be dry, a little sweet (off-dry), or über-sweet, but it always has crazy acid so it dissolves saltiness and breaks up the heaviness of the food, leaving your mouth clean and pleasantly fruity. Germany is king when it comes to this grape, so pick up one from there to infuse your meal with kinetic acid that will make your mouth water and keep you awake even after the tryptophan sets in. Off-dry Rieslings are good for sweet lovers, but if you want a dry German Riesling look for “classic,” “selection,” or “trocken” on the label.

Speaking of tryptophan, if you hate everything above, remember what this lovely chemical does for the last suggestion: “Zzzzzz” as in Zinfandel, which is ideal for red wine lovers. It has a strawberry, peppery flavor that complements cranberry relish and mitigates the sodium-fest inherent in the Thanksgiving meal.

Any of these wines can take your meal off life support and infuse it with deliciousness. Perfect CPR for your dinner … which is more than I can offer the turkey.

Elizabeth Schneider is a certified specialist of wine, sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches about wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings please visit her blog Wine for Normal People or her Twitter @Vine75.


Weeknight Wines: Normal Food Meets Its Match

Wine drinkers of America, we’ve come a long way. Finally, we’re drinking wine at home on a weeknight, rather than just on a special occasion. Rejoice! But only for a second because one big issue remains: we have so many choices now, it’s hard to pick a wine. A potential nightmare in a restaurant is even worse in the liquor store, especially when you pop in on a weeknight to grab something to go with a normal meal. How do you choose a weeknight wine? And what will last a few days if you don’t want to down the whole bottle while watching Glee (no judgment if you do, BTW)? I’ve worked up a list of some common dishes and the versatile wines that go with them. The reds will last two nights (three if you have a vacuum pump thing), and most of the whites have versions in screw cap that you can keep in the fridge for five days — meaning you can pair them up with more than one meal. For all the suggestions below, you can bring home delicious bottles in the $10 to $14 range. Just ask your wine shop for the wine listed, give a price range, and don’t get bullied into spending more …

1. Salad, Grilled Chicken, Pasta in Olive Oil: If you’re having lighter foods like these, first of all, way to be healthy. Second, get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or dry French rosé. If you prefer red, go for a Côtes-du-Rhône.

2. Hamburger, Grilled Veggies: That Côtes-du-Rhône from above will go with your burger or veggies the next night, or get an Australian shiraz or a Bordeaux blend from St.-Émilion to make grilled meats even more delicious.

3. Pizza, Pasta with Tomato Sauce: You can have the shiraz or Bordeaux from #2 with Italian red sauces, or go for the obvious and best choice — Chianti. If you’d rather go out on a limb, try a Greco di Tufo, a southern Italian white that rocks, or Nero d’Avola, a Sicilian red.

4. Ham or Turkey Sandwich: The wines from your Italian feast in #3 should go well with cold cuts, or you could opt for a French pinot noir or a full-bodied chardonnay from Australia or California (that’s also a good match for mac ‘n’ cheese).

5. Spicy Food, Hot Dogs: If you opt for spicy takeout — Mexican, Indian, Chinese, or even a hot dog — a German Riesling that’s a little sweet is fabulous. If you want a red, try a lighter rioja (look for crianza on the label) with a little spiciness.

If what you’re serving isn’t on the list above, you can extrapolate based on similar flavors or textures. Decent wines paired well create meals that impress. Who says eating in has to be lame?

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Level I Sommelier, and wine educator in Atlanta who teaches people about the world of wine in a normal, relatable way. For more of her musings, visit her blog, Wine for Normal People, or her Twitter @Vine75.