R5 BUBBLY FOR THE BIG DAY

bottle of champagne

It’s Your Day
You choose the invitations, the flowers, the linens, the music, the photographer and, of course, the food. So why shouldn’t you choose the bubbly? Considering that first impressions count and a glass of sparkling wine may well greet your guests after the ceremony long before you do, the choice can be important indeed.
Champagne is part of the fabric of weddings, adding sparkle to receptions, resonance to toasts, and a certain joie de vivr to the entire day (or night). Tall flutes with their tiny bubbles radiate elegance and in the big picture, no wine says celebrate! like Champagne. As with so many other details that help distinguish a wedding, the bubbly selection represents a tasteful (and tasty) opportunity for the bride and groom to put a classy touch—a personal stamp, if you will—on their big day. And, unlike flowers and decorative elements, the choice of bubbly is not merely one that is seen but is also shared and enjoyed.
Ironically, although many Americans still cling to the idea of bubbly being primarily an icon of celebration, as a beverage it brings plenty to the party. From gougères to gravlax, caviar to canapés, good bubbly has a refreshing edge and tangy character that enhances a wide range of nibbles. Champagne is great with fried foods, salty foods, and particularly seafood, from oysters to smoked salmon to lobster salad. The key to bubbly’s food-friendliness is not so much its price or origin, but rather its style. Crisp, dry bubbly, no matter where it hails from, is the order of the day. Appetizing acidity, delicate flavors, and cleansing sparkle team up to make bubbly so much more than just a tool for toasting. Indeed, bubbly is the most versatile party wine going.
Regardless of your wedding plans or budget, you have plenty of choices. The selection of quality sparklers is broad, at multiple price points, and caterers and venues are increasingly flexible in accommodating specific requests. So, which bubbly is right for you? The question can seem daunting. But the decision can be easier to make when you start by considering what type of sparkler you want to serve, and then go out and kick the tires—that is, taste them for yourself. Here is a brief guide to help narrow the search.

Champagne– Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing

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Though the word “Champagne” is often used generically, true Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France, made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunièr grapes, which are actually re-fermented in the bottle. Champagne is often imitated but rarely equaled in the minds and palates of most bubbly connoisseurs. Its stylistic hallmarks include a toasty, yeasty character, mouthwatering tang, and pinpoint bubbles—all of which conspire to leave an especially long flavor impression that keeps calling you back for more. Accordingly, Champagne remains the most expensive type of bubbly and no doubt projects the classiest image when chosen for a wedding.
The majority of Champagnes available in the U.S. are non-vintage (NV) bruts; that is, they are blends of several harvests and are dry. Retail prices for NV bruts usually run in the $30 to $45 range with wide variation in price from one store to another. (It pays to shop around!) Serving a non-vintage wine is nothing to be ashamed of. Many of the best-known Champagne houses have become popular precisely because they have achieved a continuity of style in their blends over the years. Here are some of the reliable labels and where they fit in the spectrum of body and flavor intensity:
• Light, delicate: Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Perrier-Jouët, Pommery, Ruinart, Taittinger, Nicolas Feuillatte
• Medium: Charles Heidsieck, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck, Pol Roger
• Medium to full: Roederer
• Full, rich: Bollinger, Gosset, Veuve Clicquot, Krug (for a splurge—it’s never less than $99 and frequently sells for $125)

More Bruts, American-Style

Is Champagne the be-all and end-all of bubbly? Hardly! For proof, look no farther than the plethora of French firms that have set up shop in California. While made using the same grape varieties and méthode champenoise, such “New World” sparklers tend to yield a fruitier style, thanks to the simple fact that grapes in northern California have an easier time ripening than in the chilly climes of northern France.
By far the most Champagne-like, in my experience, is Roederer Estate’s toasty/appley NV brut, which runs about half the price of its French sister bubbly (a bargain at $18 to $22 a bottle). But if you prefer a fruitier style, consider choosing a blanc de noirs. Made from dark-skinned grapes (usually Pinot Noir), blanc de noirs sparklers sport a range of rosy hues from light pink to apricot-salmon and deliver crisp acidity and bright strawberry/cherry fruit. Three of the best are Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée ($25-$36), Gloria Ferrer ($16), and Domaine Chandon ($15).
Perhaps the most surprising American sparkler you can serve with confidence is Gruet, made by French expatriates in…New Mexico, of all places. Classically styled after Champagne, both the Gruet NV brut and blanc de noirs have earned spots on the wine lists of top area restaurants. Gruet compares in taste to Champagne but runs just $8 to $30 (depending on bottle size and pricing variations).

Options for Budget-Minded Brides and Grooms

Cava, the dry sparkling wine of Spain’s Catalonia region, is made by the same secondary-fermentation-in-the-bottle method as Champagne, but uses native grapes parellada, xarello, and macabeo. The end result is hardly complex. Where Champagne is toasty and California sparklers are fruity, cava checks in as mild and a bit earthy. Keep in mind, though, that for most people who gladly accept a glass of bubbly, cava is perfectly agreeable. Its gentle character makes it a nice apéritif and companion to lighter fare—which is often exactly what you’re looking for in a sparkler being passed at a wedding reception. Freixenet, in the distinctive black bottle, is the best-known cava. You might also try Codorniu, Segura Viudas, and Cristalino.
Another non-French bubbly definitely worth considering is Italian Prosecco. Light in body and alcohol, with fruit that leans toward apples and pear, Prosecco is an utterly fresh, easy-to-enjoy sparkler—just the ticket for outdoor receptions on warm summer days. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco’s second fermentation (the one during which CO2 becomes trapped in the wine as bubbles) takes place in sealed tanks, rather than in the bottle. While this second fermentation means that the resulting bubbles are not as tiny or long-lasting as Champagne’s, Prosecco’s prices are a reasonable $10 to $15. Look for Mionetto, Nino Franco “Rustico,” and Zardetto. All have an excellent balance of slightly off-dry, “appley” fruit and acidity that help make them especially versatile in terms of food compatibility.
Some other options that offer great taste and an elegant appearance but are relatively easy on the budget include: Argyle (Oregon); Bouvet (Loire Valley); Chandon Brut Fresco (Argentina); Domaine Ste. Michelle (Washington State); Greg Norman (Australia); and Lindauer (New Zealand). These wines are all basic bubblies that represent good value (usually under $12).

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Staying Within the System

To minimize hassles when selecting a sparkling wine for your wedding, it’s helpful to remember the system that caterers and restaurants already have in place. Namely, most venues provide set packages for events, with per-person prices encompassing the room, menu, service—the whole deal. And within a given venue, there will usually be several choices at different price points, offering distinct food and wine options.
So the first step is to determine exactly what bubbly your venue or caterer offers at each price point, and how it handles upgrades. Then, the simple and fair way to proceed is to ask the caterer to work your choice in based on its price point relative to the options it already offers. In other words, if it has one package featuring Freixenet, another with Domaine Chandon from California, and a third with Moët & Chandon “White Star” Champagne, you can reasonably ask to replace one of those options with a comparably priced bubbly of your preference. Assuming the venue has a lead time of at least a couple weeks, ordering a different bubbly should not be a problem. Ocassionally, a caterer may prefer to have you purchase wine and then charge a corkage fee (in the $15 to $25 per bottle range). In this scenario, you get leftovers.
It’s also entirely reasonable to ask to sample the sparklers (and table wines) used as “house” wines—just as you would a tasting of menu options. One caveat to keep an eye on: some caterers still use house wines that are sold strictly for restaurant service. Designed to be unrecognizable to diners, they are usually très cheap. This is your wedding—you deserve to be choosy!

Making Bubbly Part of the Scene

If you make the effort to choose a specific bubbly for your special day, why not incorporate it into the reception? Have the caterer include bottles in stationary displays. Waiters passing filled flutes might also feature empty bottles on their trays. Months, even years after your wedding, guests may still fondly recall your reception when they see the label of your chosen bubbly.
If you really have a hankering for the dramatic, take advantage of the fact that Champagnes, more so than most wines, are often bottled in large formats. A magnum is the equivalent of two standard bottles; a jeroboam, four; a methuselah, eight; and a salmanazar twelve. These are special orders, no doubt, but they can make an incredible impression.

Tiny Bubbles

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The finest Champagne displays a continuous stream of pinpoint bubbles. In fact, the French consider big bubbles so ugly that they refer to them as oeil de crapaud—toad’s eyes. Fine, persistent bubbles are the reason sparklers are best served in tall flutes rather than old-fashioned saucer-shaped glasses. The tall vessel provides a better stage for the bubbles. At the same time, the smaller surface area keeps the wine from losing its fizz, or mousse, too quickly.

The Champagne Paradox

The Champagne wine-growing region, about 90 miles northeast of Paris, is France’s version of frozen tundra. Its marginal climate and chalky terrain can support grapevines, yes, but the grapes typically yield thin, harshly acidic wine that could double as spiked lemonade. And yet, when this sour wine is induced into refermentation in the bottle, the result is a magical elixir. The puckery wine becomes citrusy; the yeast sediment of the second fermentation imbues a toasty complexity; and the CO2 from the process—trapped in the bottle—gives the liquid its signature fine bubbles.

Best of de Best

Prestige cuvées. Luxury cuvées. Tête-de-cuvées. These are the über-Champagnes, the top-of-the-line, created only in exceptional vintages using exceptional lots. The first prestige cuvée was Cristal, made by Roederer for the Russian Tsar back in 1876. Decades later came Moët’s Dom Pérignon in the 1921 vintage. But neither was produced in significant quantities until the 1950s. Nowadays, it’s hard to keep track of them. The reason, simply, is commercial success, especially here in the U.S. These luxury bottlings account for no more than 3 percent of Champagne’s output, yet they comprise about 15 percent of our imports. Must be a sign that the Good Life is still kicking here in America.

Based in Katonah, W.R. Tish writes frequently on epicurean topics and develops custom wine events and seminars via his website, www.wine forall.com.

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