A Sparkling Wine Guide For New Year’s Eve

29 December 2017

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, and, really, at any time of day. But certain moments practically demand the pop of a cork: weddings, anniversaries, births, occasionally a divorce or funeral… And, of course, New Year’s Eve. The festive nature of sparkling wine works particularly well at that moment, regardless of whether things are going well for you or not. You can toast to the exciting prospect of the new year to come, or drink a relieved good riddance to the 12 months past. Either way, the change of the year is something to celebrate.

I’m excited about the year to come because of my new web series, Name That Wine. My friend Liz Barrett — who is one of the most fun people with whom to taste wine that I’ve ever met — and I have filmed a few more episodes, and we are having a blast doing it. In the most recent episode of this blind tasting-themed show, we attempt to identify two bottles of bubbly and figure out which was the more expensive. We also offer a sparkling wine tips we’ve learned over the course of many years of sparkling wine… research. Check it out, and if you haven’t already, please subscribe! (It’s the red button below the video when you watch it on the YouTube website.)

I’ve also compiled a sparkling wine guide for New Year’s Eve, so that regardless of your taste or budget, you can find something fun and tasty to drink.


If you get a sparkling wine for less than $10 or $11 a bottle, it’s likely not going to be particularly good. The bubbles might be a bit big, or it might taste unbalanced. But you might get lucky and find something perfectly drinkable.

To increase your chances of getting lucky, I recommend avoiding Spanish Cava, the cheap versions of which I find barely drinkable, and opt for Prosecco instead, or perhaps something French.

Regardless of what bubbly you buy, if it costs less than $10 or $11, serve it as cold as possible. That will mask the aroma, which may or may not be a good thing, and it will help even out the flavor.

Alternatively, you can hide flaws in the wine by turning it into a cocktail. As Liz recommended in the video above, you can add a couple of drops of Campari if the wine is too sweet for your taste. Alternatively, I like to add a splash of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), which turns the sparkler into a classy Kir Royale cocktail. A splash of elderflower liqueur like St-Germain also works wonders, as does a very small dose of Crème de Violette (violet liqueur). The latter three options work best in dry sparkling wine.


If you can find it, Gilgal Brut from Israel is a great value at about $15

If you can swing between $12 and $16 a bottle, it’s almost surely unnecessary to adulterate the wine, and you can successfully serve it closer to the temperature of a refrigerator.

My favorites in this price range include:

Blanquette de Limoux claims to be France’s oldest sparkling wine, and it rarely costs more than $12 or $13 (you might even find it for less). It comes in both Brut (dry) and Demi Sec (fairly sweet) versions, so be sure to check the label.

Gruet comes from New Mexico, and perhaps that unhallowed terroir explains the low price tag. I spotted some today in Whole Foods on sale for $13 a bottle, though $15 or $16 is more common. Nevertheless, the wine has very small bubbles and fine balance, both in its Brut and Rosé versions. A superlative value for the money.

Cava starts to taste very good towards the top end of this price range.


A wine costing between $16 and $25 is ideal to bring to someone else’s party, because it shows that you appreciate their hosting efforts without going overboard. You can also have a little more fun in this category.

Crémant, a sparkling wine from France that’s not Champagne, can be an excellent choice in this price range. Crémant d’Alsace can sometimes be a little austere for my taste, but Crémant de Bourgogne tends to be more juicy and acidic. Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Jura both tend to be safe and delicious bets. Wines from the Jura region (bordering Burgundy) are quite fashionable now, so if you’re attending a wine geek’s party, a Crémant de Jura is sure to please.

Riesling Sekt from Germany also tends to sit in this price range, and it can be a delight. Don’t be seduced by a (cheap) bottle simply labeled “Sekt,” however. If it doesn’t say “Riesling Sekt,” it could be made from some random crappy grapes from God only knows where, as opposed to Riesling from Germany. These sparklers are drier than you might expect, and they’re a fun surprise for guests. You can read more about Riesling Sekt in this post.

Prosecco in this price range also starts getting quite interesting, because you start having access to the region’s best grapes. Look for the words “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the bottle, indicating that the grapes come from one of those favored locations. The letters DOCG, as opposed to just DOC, are also encouraging.



Once you get above $25, sparkling wine becomes a real life-affirming joy to drink, with (hopefully) more complex flavors and sharper focus.

Champagne, of course, is always a delight. Well, almost always. Certain ubiquitous Champagnes, notably Veuve Cliquot, have expanded to such a degree that it’s simply not possible for them to include high-quality grapes in every bottle. Yellow Label Veuve, the brand’s entry-level Champagne, is the Santa Margherita of Champagne. It’s no longer worth the money. Seek out a lesser-known brand that spends its money on winemaking instead of marketing. I’m especially fond of trying Grower Champagnes, indicated by the tiny letters RM on the label, as opposed to NM. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with NM Champagne.)

Franciacorta, which I describe in more detail in this post, is also an excellent choice if you’re willing to spend a little more. This sparkler from northern Italy has great elegance and is as satisfying as Champagne. Again, it’s an ideal choice if you want to splurge on a wine geek.

California also has some remarkably fine sparkling wines these days. In the video above, Liz recommends Schramsberg in particular, and far be it from me to disagree. Chandon, which tends to be less expensive, is a very good value.


As Odd Bacchus, I love throwing the occasional vinous curve ball. If you want to surprise and delight your guests with something a little off the wall, consider one of the following:

Sparkling Shiraz from Australia has something of a bad reputation, but I quite like it. It’s great fun to have flutes of bubbly purple stuff for a change, and it’s usually mid-range in price. You can read more about Sparkling Shiraz in this post.

Sparkling Furmint from Hungary is harder to find, but if you see one, it’s worth snapping up. Furmint ranks among the world’s great white wine grapes, and though it’s most famous as the main component of Tokaji, Hungary’s answer to Sauternes, Furmint makes superb dry wines (including sparkling wines) as well.

Cap Classique from South Africa can be quite good nowadays, and the better brands make thoroughly delicious wines, often in the inexpensive category. Graham Beck is reliable and not too difficult to find.

Sparkling Grüner Veltliner from Austria is a little pricier, usually within the mid-range bracket. Szigeti makes a particularly delightful Brut. I love its tiny bubbles combined with Grüner’s acidity and freshness.

And, if you happen to find yourself in Burgundy, don’t miss the chance to try some Sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin.

Most important is that you have a splendid time with those that you love, and you don’t need a super-expensive bottle of wine to do that. Though, of course, it doesn’t hurt, especially if you plan on bringing that bottle to my house.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you have a 2018 worth many a toast!

Unusual Sparkling Rosé For Valentine’s Day

12 February 2016

ValentineThe final time I went out for a Valentine’s Day dinner was about eight years ago. I haven’t given up celebrating Valentine’s Day, but I have given up going out to restaurants on that most overpriced of nights. The last straw was a miserable $80 prix-fixe dinner at the now deservedly shuttered Terragusto, a BYOB Italian restaurant in Chicago. The chef just phoned it in that night, and each course proved more banal than the last.

Because restaurants jack up their prices mercilessly on Valentine’s Day, I highly recommend enjoying a romantic dinner at home instead. Your beloved would surely appreciate it if you prepared a meal, even if it’s a simple one. Just put a little bouquet of flowers and a couple of candles on the table, and whatever food you make will look very romantic. And, fortunately, it’s really easy to pick out a wine to go with your Valentine’s Day dinner, regardless of its flavor profile: sparkling rosé. (Unless you’re making something spicy, in which case you should opt for something sweeter.)

Readers of a certain age may turn up their noses at sparkling rosé, having been scarred by Mateus in their youth. But nowadays, numerous vintners around the world produce rosé sparklers of real quality and interest, with fine bubbles and carefully balanced flavors. If you haven’t tried a fine sparkling rosé, I highly recommend picking one up, whether you plan on celebrating Valentine’s Day or not.

A rosé bubbly is admittedly a predictable choice for Valentine’s Day, which makes it important to select your sparkler with care. If you choose one from an unexpected wine region or made from an unexpected grape, it will show you put some thought into the wine, and didn’t just grab a bottle from the display of pink Asti by the entrance of the grocery store. I just tasted two unusual sparkling rosés myself, and I would certainly recommend picking up one or the other, depending on your taste.

Francois Montand Brut Rose and Szigeti Pinot Noir RoseFrançois Montand Brut Rosé: The François Montand winery stands in France’s Jura region, a bit northwest of Geneva, because the winery’s founder fled to Jura during World War II. The Germans occupied Champagne, but Jura remained a free zone of France. His winery continues to make wines in the traditional Champagne method, méthode traditionnelle, which means that the wine’s second fermentation — the fermentation responsible for the bubbles — occurs in the bottle, not in a big tank. This more expensive method of sparkling wine production usually produces wines with a finer bead and more elegant mouthfeel.

François Montand’s Brut Rosé follows a very non-traditional, non-Champagne-approved route in terms of its composition, however. In Champagne, and in many other sparkling wines around the world, you find only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This sparkler blends Grenache, a grape found in many wines from the Rhône as well as Spain (where it’s known as Garnacha), and Cinsault, a red grape also popular in southern France, notably in Languedoc.

In Jura, these grapes likely ripen less than they do in southern France, ensuring that they retain enough acidity to make a fine sparkling wine (the wine also contains grapes from “additional vineyard sources outside the Jura”). In any case, the result is a delight, and the wine proved to be a hit at a recent tasting I held. A light salmon pink, it smelled of deliciously ripe watermelon and strawberries. The wine tasted fruity, spicy and essentially dry, with watermelon notes, ample lemon-orange acids and a finish of powdered candy. The bubbles, especially at the beginning, felt focused and prickly.

I would never have guessed, either from the pretty label or the taste, that this sparkler costs only about $15.

Flutes of Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé and François Montand Brut Rosé

Flutes of Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé and François Montand Brut Rosé

Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: If you or your loved one prefer your sparkling wine with just a light hint of sweetness, choose instead this well-crafted bubbly. What makes this sparkler unusual is not its composition of 100% Pinot Noir, nor its method of production, which is also méthode traditionnelle. This sparkler comes from Austria, a country known far better for its still Rieslings than sparkling Pinots.

Szigeti makes its home on the eastern side of the Neusiedlersee, a large and shallow lake that helps moderate the climate. “This is Austria’s hottest wine region,” explains The World Atlas of Wine, “so red grapes… ripen reliably each year, yet morning mists help keep their acidity in balance.”

I very much enjoyed Szigeti’s sparkling Grüner Veltliner, and when a wine representative offered me another bottle of Szigeti to try, I eagerly accepted. This wine proved more controversial at the tasting, with some people preferring the drier quality of the François Montand.

The aroma smelled rounder than that of the François Montand, with light notes of cherry and something a bit floral. A crisp apple taste quickly gave way to strawberries and cherries. Tart and lemony acids, in turn, supplanted the sweetness of the fruit, and the finish was dry. The bubbles were pleasantly small and sharp.

“It’s like a Sour Patch Kid,” exclaimed one taster, who found the sweet and sour character not to her taste. And indeed, both the fruit and the acidity were powerful. Another friend complained it was simply too sweet. Several other tasters, myself included, quite liked the wine, but then, I enjoy a little racy tartness in my sparklers.

The Szigeti costs $25, which seems like quite a reasonable splurge for Valentine’s Day. The wine has a certain voluptuousness, which, depending on your taste in wine and significant others, might be just the thing.

Note: These wines were samples, provided free of charge. 

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Szigeti’s Unusual Sparkling Grüner Veltliner

12 October 2015

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutThat Austria makes delightful Grüner Veltliner is no secret — Grüner varietals appear on many a wine list these days, because they tend to be not only delicious but food-friendly, with plenty of acid and spice. I love them. Last year when I visited Vienna, I had the fortune to sample a number of Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines, which blew me away with their rich fruit, focus and power. But until a recent vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’d never tasted a Grüner with bubbles.

You don’t have to go to Austria (or Northwoods Wisconsin) to find a sparkling Grüner Veltliner, however. Szigeti may be a family company, but it’s not a small operation. The winery corks 100,000 bottles of non-vintage Grüner Veltliner Brut each year alone, out of a total production of some 600,000 bottles of various sparkling wines, according to U.S. importer Winebow. That means, in contrast to many of the other wines described on this website, you actually have a fighting chance of finding this one.

At first glance, Szigeti’s location near the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austrian/Hungarian border surrounded by plains, seems unpromising. The lack of beneficial hills is worrisome, and then there’s the fact that the Neusiedlersee region isn’t one of Austria’s best for Grüner, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (it argues that Grüner is at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Weinviertel and Donauland). The World Atlas of Wine isn’t reassuring either, focusing on how the Neusiedlersee region produces appealing sweet wines, because mists from the lake encourage the growth of botrytis (noble rot). Neither book mentions anything about quality Grüner Veltliner coming out of Neusiedlersee.

But then, you don’t hear anything about quality Chardonnay coming out of Champagne. As the Oxford Companion explains, “Wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine-making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavored.” Still wines made from Neusiedlersee Grüner Veltliner may not be much to talk about, but the grapes work beautifully in bubbly.

I brought a bottle of NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut up to Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort, where the family gathered to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. One night, the charmingly old-fashioned resort served a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner, and it seemed like an ideal moment to try this unusual sparkler. Under the gaze of the fish and deer heads mounted on the lodge’s wall, I popped the cork.

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes — I was on vacation, after all — but the wine proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s use of the most time-consuming and expensive means of producing sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, in which the second fermentation — the fermentation which causes the bubbles — takes place in the bottle as opposed to a large steel tank. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to the turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

The Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut isn’t inexpensive — it costs $17-$20 a bottle — but in this case, that’s money well spent. The obvious quality of the wine along with its unique character and versatility make it a value at that price. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, and I’m going to keep my eye out for other Szigeti sparklers as well.

Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Until recently, I’d never had a Brazilian — wax or wine. I found the idea of either one more than a little scary, and frankly unnecessary. But when I spied a table of Brazilian wines by Vinícola Salton at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, I decided it was time to face my fears.

Founded in 1910, Salton is one of Brazil’s oldest wineries, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Brazil has long made uninteresting wine “because of where it was made: near centers of population, in areas of high humidity with fertile soils, by small farmers with rudimentary skills.” And indeed, Salton’s beautiful winery is located in the old Serra Gaúcha region, where, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, where “Average rainfall… is very high for a wine region,” and soils “have a high proportion of water-retaining clay.” As a result, “fungal diseases are a constant threat,” and wines from here tend to be of “basic quality.”

Fortunately, tradition has not stopped Salton from investing in new vineyards in the drier and less fertile region of Campanha along the northern border of Uruguay. In 2010, Salton purchased 1,100-some acres of vineyards in Campanha, which the World Atlas calls “the focus of fine wine development in Brazil, with particular attention now being paid to matching vine variety and soil type.”

It all sounds promising, but really, Brazilian wine? Even this odd wine drinker felt a little skeptical as I held out my glass for a sample.

NV Salton Intenso Brut: Vanessa (pictured above) told me I was drinking a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling (!) from Campanha, but Salton’s website describes this wine as a blend of Chardonnay, Prosecco and Trebbiano from Serra Gaúcha. In any case, it has a subtle aroma of dried herbs, a fruity attack on the palate and a rather savory finish. I liked the flavor journey, and for $17, you can take it too. Other sparklers might be better values, but this is the obvious choice with which to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day (September 7).

2012 Salton Intenso Cabernet Franc: This restrained but still-powerful wine had a dusky dark-fruit aroma, taut dark-fruit flavors, a perk of white-pepper spice and some balanced tannins on the finish. I liked it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it came from Campanha. The next wine, however, was a complete and total astonishment.

2012 Salton Intenso Tannat: “This is a 100% Tannat? That’s brave,” I remarked, trying to sound as positive as possible. I enjoy Tannat in blends, but many of the varietal Tannats I’ve tried tend to be mouthfuls of tannins (see my controversial Tannat post here).

“It’s actually really light and elegant,” Vanessa replied, smiling despite my look of utter disbelief. A light and elegant Tannat seems about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I tasted it and nearly spit it out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Campanha Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

2009 Salton Talento: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat grapes in this Bordeaux-style blend are hand-harvested, and the quality control shows in the wine. It had a clean red-fruit aroma and it tasted beautifully balanced, with ripe fruit, ample spice, classy tannins on the finish and something earthy and funky underneath it all. The grapes come from both Campanha and Serra Gaúcha, which leads me to wonder if coaxing high-quality fruit from Serra Gaúcha might be possible after all. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to guests at a dinner party, ideally with some steak.

Brazil opened its markets to imported wine only in the 1990s, which means local wineries have had only about 20 years of competition. These wines are evidence that they haven’t wasted those two decades. There are some interesting things trickling out of Brazil these days, and should you encounter a Brazilian bottle on a wine list or in a shop, I recommend asking about it. Its quality might surprise you.

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