Here’s the situation:
You’re standing in your local wine shop, staring blankly through the shelves of sparkling wine. New Year’s Eve is coming. Parties are planned. You’re going to need some bubbly.
Then comes the inevitable question: “What are you looking for?”
You freeze. The truth is, you have no idea what you’re looking for. But you don’t want to look dumb or cheap — even though, admittedly, you might be both.
You blurt out random words.
“Crisp.” (What is this, a cucumber?)
“Cold.” (Yeah, pretty sure the fridge will take care of that.)
“Smoky.” (Smoky? That’s for red wine.)
But selecting a sparkling wine doesn’t have to be scary — or expensive — especially when you walk into the store with a bit of knowledge and a handful of meaningful recommendations.
“The market is just popping with beautiful bottles at any price point,” said Heather Howard, Möet Hennessy’s local portfolio manager and the director of wine education at Johnson Brothers Companies. “You can find some really enjoyable bottles for $10 if you know what you’re looking for.”
Howard, along with Chuck Kanski — the owner of Solo Vino in St. Paul — helped us out with a serious cheat sheet that will have you poppin’ bottles with confidence in no time.
Choose the right shop: If you can, choose a location where you know there will be experts — not college students — helping you with your selection. Besides Solo Vino, Kanski recommends Thomas Liquors, Washington Wine & Spirits, Zipps Liquors, North Loop Wine & Spirits, France 44 and Stinson Wine, Beer & Spirits. “Try to choose a spot that has some sommeliers running the floor,” said Howard. “And find a trusty wine store that you know is never going to lead you astray.”
Know your budget: Don’t be shy in proclaiming exactly how much green you’re willing to dole out for this fizzy grape juice — and don’t worry about not getting quality for whatever that number is. “There is no sense talking to someone about a $70 grand cuvée if they’re not willing to spend more than 20 bucks,” said Kanski. “At every single level, we have wines in our market that are going to overachieve their price.”
Speak up: Tell your merchant what (or who) the wine is for, what it will be served with and whether you’re willing to step away from your norms. “I always ask people — do they want something they’re comfortable with or do they want to try something new,” said Kanski.
Learn the basics: There’s plenty of information available should you seek it out. “I don’t think there needs to be a discomfort,” Howard said. “You can make yourself a knowledgeable buyer just by reading a few things.”
Practice makes perfect: Yep, that’s right: Bottoms up. You can talk all you like, but you won’t really know what you like until you taste it yourself. “Drink a lot,” Howard said with a grin. “And try different things.”
What’s so special about Champagne, anyway?
Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region of France, where the soil, climate, heirloom vines and nearly 100 percent organic status (experts predict Champagne will reach 100 percent by 2018) make it distinctive (and we capitalize the name because it reflects a region). Champagnes adhere to a specific winemaking process that demands a secondary fermentation in the bottle. “Everything about it is rare,” Howard said. “And that’s what you’re paying for.”
What’s in it?
Champagnes are primarily made up of three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Most labels won’t tell you which (and in what percentages) are in your bottle, but there are hints. A blanc de blancs means a Champagne made from only white grapes — and typically that means it’s 100 percent chardonnay and will have more elegant characteristics such as green apple and pear. A blanc de noirs is a Champagne made from red grapes — thus pinot noir (which adds structure and richness) or pinot meunier (which contributes floral characteristics) or both.
What does the year mean?
If there is a year on the label, it means the wine is a vintage. In a given decade, Champagne houses typically declare three different vintages; single-year harvests represent the best conditions possible and are aged longer than usual.
WHAT ARE MY OTHER OPTIONS?
Sparkling wines come with other names and from other locations.
Cava: a popular and typically inexpensive Spanish sparkling wine
Prosecco: a popular and typically inexpensive Italian sparkling wine.
Crémant: a French sparkling wine that is not from Champagne (the phrase that follows tells you what region it’s from; i.e. Crémant de l’Alsace)
California and Oregon wines: The good old USA sports some very highly touted varieties including Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Argyle, Soter Vineyards, Schramsberg Vineyards and Roederer Estate.
English wines: New to the Twin Cities market, with a handful of local shops carrying two varieties.
A QUICK GLOSSARY
Rosé: a pink version of Champagne typically made by blending a little red wine into the white.
Cuvée: the finest portion of the pressed Champagne was used for that bottle.
Grand Cru: a wine that is sourced exclusively from vineyards in one of 17 grand cru villages in Champagne.
Reserve: an older wine that is blended with the current harvest.
NM (Negociant-Manipulant): producers who buy grapes from other growers and blend finished wines.
RM (Recoltant-Manipulant): growers who make and sell their own Champagne (also referred to as “farmer fizz”).
CM (Cooperative-Manipulant): growers who sell their grapes to houses and also make their own Champagne.
RC (Recoltant-Cooperative): a grower who sells his Champagne under his label but produces it at a cooperative.
The label tells you how sweet the bubbles are. Extra dry is as dry as you get, right? Wrong. And Brut Nature tastes like fruit, correct? No again. Follow our sweetness guide (ahem, it’s called the dosage scale in the wine world) to ensure that you end up with exactly what you bargained for.
(The chart indicates how much residual sugar is in a 5-ounce glass of each.)
Brut Nature: less than 1/6 tsp.
Extra Brut: less than 1/4 tsp.
Brut: less than 1/2 tsp.
Extra dry: 1/2 to 3/4 tsp.
Dry: 3/4 to 1 tsp.
Demi-sec: 1 to 2 tsp.
Doux: over 2 tsp.
BOTTLES FOR EVERY BUDGET AND PERSONALITY
The wine: Primaterra prosecco.
The budget: $13.
The profile: Soft and bright with floral notes.
Where to find it: Hy-Vee Oakdale, France 44, Solo Vino.
You’re buying it if: You want to bring something decent, but your friends would drink anything that hints of spiked grape juice.
The wine: Alloy Wine Works Methode Aluminum Rosé Brut.
The budget: $14.
The profile: Crisp, fruit-driven and dry.
Where to find it: South Lyndale Liquors, France 44, Haskell’s (Chanhassen), Solo Vino.
You’re buying it if: You’re a dude who wants to look super chill while also providing the brosé. (See what we did there?)
The wine: Pere Mata Cuvée Barcelona.
The budget: $18.
The profile: Lots of complexity for the price, mousse-like finish.
Where to find it: Zipps, Thomas Liquors, Haskell’s Minnetonka, Sunfish Cellars, Solo Vino.
You’re buying it if: You want something to truly appreciate without breaking the bank. “This is the best thing we sell under $40,” said Chuck Kanski, owner of Sol Vino in St. Paul.
The wine: Arnoux Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blancs.
The budget: $30.
The profile: Luscious ripe apple and peach with a custard finish.
Where to find it: 1010 Washington Wine & Spirits, Andy’s Crossroads, First Grand Liquors, France 44, International Wines & Liquors, most Kowalski’s, Liquor Barn, MGM West Bloomington, Northfield Liquors, Rite Liquor Store, Scandia Olde Towne Liquor, Scott’s Liquor, Solo Vino, Stinson Wine, Beer & Spirits, Sunfish Cellars, the Vintage, the Wine Shop, Zipps
You’re buying it if: You love a clean, fizzy wine.
The wine: Chandon Reserve Brut.
The budget: $35.
The profile: Robust, rich and creamy with nectarine and hazelnut notes.
Where to find it: Surdyk’s Liquor, Thomas Liquors, Hennepin-Lake Liquors, Total Wine (multiple locations), Lunds & Byerlys (multiple locations), Whole Foods in Minneapolis.
You’re buying it if: You know and love Champagne, but you can’t afford it. “California is lauded for having the second-best sparkling wine,” said Heather Howard of Moët Hennessy. “They blend French tradition and French varietal with new world innovation.”
The wine: Hush Heath Estate Balfour.
The budget: $50.
The profile: Fresh with lemony acidity, crisp apple and dried herbs.
Where to find it: Thomas Liquors, France 44, Sunfish Cellars, Solo Vino.
You’re buying it if: You want to try something truly new — English sparkling wines only landed in the Twin Cities market in mid-October. (The other stellar English bubbly available locally is Digby Brut NV, at $59.99.)
The wine: Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label.
The budget: $57.
The profile: Powerfully complex, finishes with vanilla and brioche.
Where to find it: Most wine stores around the Twin Cities
You’re buying it if: You want to treat your fellow sippers — and you want them to know you’re treating them. “The Yellow Label is just so recognizable,” Howard said. “Everyone will realize you spent some money.”
The wine: Krug Grande Cuvée.
The budget: $200-plus.
The profile: Rich and tangy with notes of toasted bread, nougat and barley sugar.
Where to find it: Haskell’s (multiple locations), 1010 Washington Wine & Spirits, South Lyndale Liquor, Total Wine, Hy-Vee Wine & Spirits.
You’re buying it if: You’ve got money to spend and you can’t help yourself.
WHAT TO PAIR WITH YOUR BUBBLY
All sparkling wines love salty foods. Some of the best options:
• Smoked salmon or trout.
• Potato chips.