How to Evaluate Sparkling Wine

No beverage brightens a party more effectively than a sparkling wine. The effervescent texture and lively appearance of a glass of bubbling wine adds a festive appeal and is often the favorite choice for many celebrations. A sparkling wine may be enjoyed either as an aperitif and served with canapés, enjoyed with light entrees or just as a refreshing drink at any time. Using a champagne glass to serve the wine adds to the overall appeal and spirited nature of the beverage. Choosing the best sparkling wine product depends on a few important considerations including taste preferences, quality and price.

Characteristics of Sparkling Wines

Although many people use the term champagne freely, true champagne is produced only in the northeast region of France where production began around the 14th century. Champagne is technically a sparkling wine and all sparkling wines contain a higher level of carbon dioxide than other types of wine. When the cork is pulled, the wine should be fizzy and bubble to the top surface and be served immediately. Sparkling wines do not change over time as a vintage wine will but opened bottles do not keep well.

Three grape varieties typically generate the most favorable sparkling wine combinations. Chardonnay, a classic white grape, is a favorite and retains its natural color. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, both red grape varieties, are processed by shedding the skins to produce light pale or slightly pink champagnes and sparkling wines. The color and types of grapes used are designated as Blanc de Blanc, for pure white, Blanc de Noir for red grape blends, and Rose´ for a combination of white and some red grapes.

Selecting the best sparkling wine based on taste becomes a personal preference but the labels should help with the decision. Sparkling wines or champagnes designated Extra Brut or Brut Naturale will be very dry and have a crisp, tart flavor. The classic Brut styles are dry and represent a traditional type of champagne. A wine labeled Sec will be slightly sweet but still characterized as a dry variety. The sweetest varieties include Demi-sec, with a definite sweet taste for most pallets, and Doux, a very sweet sparkling wine which contains 5% sugar and is primarily a choice to serve with dessert.

Price Considerations of Sparkling Wines

Champagne from the region of France that bears the name such as the classic Dom Perignon typically demands a much higher price than a sparkling wine. For a special occasion and purchasing a high quality champagne ensures a successful party. Most people, however, are happy with a good quality sparkling wine that holds a medium, not to dry or sweet, taste. For large celebrations, a small glass of a sparkling wine served for a toast does not require a top of the line label. If the gathering is with a few friends or a special dinner occasion, however, choosing a mid-range priced bottle will be appreciated and savored.

Unless the sparkling wine will be mixed with other liquids such as orange juice to make Mimosas, avoiding the cheapest brands may prevent headaches and embarrassment. Wines that carry the label, “aerated sparkling wine made by adding carbon dioxide”, include a process that injects carbon dioxide into the mix before bottling. These sparkling wines may be fizzy but are lacking in flavor.

Regional Sparkling Wines and Champagnes

In recent years, the popularity of sparkling wines has increased and established wine regions in the U.S. such as those in California have noticed the demand. Many excellent sparkling varietal wines are now produced in California’s Napa Valley, the Central Coast and Santa Rosa regions. Wine regions in Oregon and Washington state produce excellent sparkling varieties but may be less widely distributed.

A good choice for consistent and reliable quality is the Moet & Chandon from France, not as pricey as Dom Perignon but still impressive. This internationally distributed champagne can be purchased at most liquor stores, specialty wine and gourmet shops, large warehouse stores and many supermarkets.

The Italian spumante wines are favorites for those who prefer a sweet or slightly sweet variety. German wines, often tending toward the sweet varieties, can be found labeled as Sekt.