Wine of the Week: Sparkling wines, Champagnes for Valentine’s Day

This Valentine’s Day, love is not only in the air, it’s in the bottle, too. And what better wine to fall in love with than a bottle of bubbly?

Be it Champagne, that wonderful fizzy stuff found only in the French region’s namesake, or other equally interesting sparkling wines from various parts of the world, no other wine shouts, “Let’s celebrate,” more loudly than when the distinctive pop of the cork echoes throughout the kitchen, dining room (or bedroom?).

Unfortunately, many a well-intentioned Don Juan or Don Juanita is reduced to a nervous wreck when contemplating which sparkling wine to start (or end) the party with. So many choices and so many confusing labels. Terms like nonvintage, cuvee, Blanc de Blancs, and my personal favorite, Brut, can be enough to intimidate the most passionate of lovers. But not to worry. With a little inside information, your Valentine’s Day wine selection can be as simple as: Ready, aim, pop. Just consider me your personal wine Cupid.

For purposes of consistency, I will be referring to all wines that are not Champagne as sparkling wine, since only wines that come from the Champagne region can legitimately claim that title.

Now to demystify both Champagne and sparkling wines, you need to only know a few basic facts.

Most midlevel priced Champagnes ($30 — $45) are “nonvintage” or “NV.” This means that it’s a blend from several other years’ worth of wines from the same winery. For example, a current NV might be made up of a little of the 2014 vintage mixed in with a little more of the 2015 vintage and topped off with the 2016 vintage.

Vintners use this method to achieve uniformity in their wines from year to year. A vintage Champagne is always designated by a specific year on the bottle and is made entirely from wine produced that year. Just like all wines, there are good vintages and not so good vintages. Unless you know specifically what year you’re looking for, most NVs are a good choice and can be enjoyed right away.

Champagnes are also made from several different grape varietals. The most common are chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir. A Champagne labeled “blanc de blancs” (meaning “white from whites”) is made from 100% chardonnay.

“Blanc de noirs” denotes that the wine was made from 100% black (actually red) grape varietals, such as pinot meunier and/or pinot noir.

“Brut” Champagnes are usually made from a combination of chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir and are considered to be dry.

Now, I know that most people like to serve Champagne well-chilled and in a tall flute-style glass. But here’s a pro-tip: In order to fully appreciate Champagne, it really should be served in a traditional white wineglass.

While it’s not as pretty as a flute glass, the shape of the white wineglass really shows off the wine’s characteristics much better, while still allowing the bubbles to be the star of the show. But if you still insist on using a flute glass, then who am I to stop you as long as you’re enjoying the moment?

Now that you know enough to navigate your way around a wine shop, let me tell you about a few of my choices for next week’s love fest.

I like Champagne a lot. My wife and I seem to enjoy a bottle of bubbly at least once a week. After all, life’s short, why wait for a special occasion to have a special glass of wine? But sometimes depending on the food and the friends, sparking wines can be a good match, too.

For example, if you’re celebrating with a large crowd, the reasonably priced sparkling wines from other parts of the world can make you look like a big spender without breaking the bank. If, on the other hand, the occasion is more intimate (e.g. “Will you marry me?” intimate), I suggest that you step off the curb and go for the authentic stuff. The one with a capital “C.”

Here are a few of my favorites from both sides of the pond.

The chardonnay fruit selected for the Non-Vintage Sterling Vineyards Sparkling Blanc de Blancs comes from Yountville Ranch in Napa Valley and Paris Valley Ranch in Monterey County. This wine has a pale straw color and beautiful bubbles. The nose was full of nectarines and lemon zest. The wine really delivers a classic combination of green apple, pear and lemon on the front of the palate. And notes of nectarine and yeasty notes play out on the crisp finish. I think this would be ideal to pair with ripe strawberries. $20

With the 2015 Canals and Munne Dionysus Cava Rosé from Spain, you actually get both a vintage wine and a beautiful rosé, which is just the thing for a romantic dinner. Lively aromas of strawberry and cranberry provide a lovely backdrop for flavors of gala apple, ripe strawberry and cherry that are all balanced by the creamy texture and bright acidity. The bubbles lead up to a crisp, clean finish. Queue up the roast chicken. $20

If you want to splurge on the “real deal” without breaking the bank, the Non-vintage Palmer & Co Brut Champagne from France is the way to go. This Champagne (with a capital “C”) is made from select vineyards and blended with older vintages to maintain consistency and provide finesse. It is aged at least three years in the bottle before it is released. The prominent nose of buttered toast, nectarines and apricots is a delightful prelude to the full and lush flavors of hazelnuts, pear, apricot and vanilla that play out over the palate. The crisp finish has just a hint of buttery brioche on the back end. I would really enjoy this wine with lobster, cream-sauced pastas or simply on its own. $50

Madame Lily Bollinger, owner of the famous Champagne House Bollinger, sums up the wonders of Champagne in this famous quote:

“I only drink Champagne when I am happy, and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”

I hope your Valentine’s Day is filled with the magical sound of pop.

Listen and subscribe to the “The Vine Guy” podcast on Podcast One

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