We tasted Breathless Sparkling Wines a couple years ago at the Family Winemakers tasting event and loved them. Turns out there was a good reason why – they’re made by a friend of ours, Penny Gadd-Coster. Not only does Penny have her own label, Coral Mustang, since 2007 she’s been Executive Director of Winemaking at Rack & Riddle, a winery and custom crush facility in Hopland, California. (A custom crush facility is a place where people with grapes can go to make wine commercially without buying and/or building a whole winery.)
So when we wanted to find out how to pick a good bubbly for Valentine’s Day, it only made sense to talk to Penny about Breathless, and other sparklers.
Sparkling wine, of course, is the generic term for wine that has bubbles in it – or intentionally made with bubbles in it. You can sometimes get bubbles in wine that’s not supposed to have them, but that’s a different issue. Champagne is the stuff from the Champagne region of France and you really shouldn’t call wine Champagne unless it’s actually from there. Never mind that darned near everybody does, including us.
Penny explained that there are some differences between Champagne and California sparklers.
“Probably from a California or a Western U.S. standpoint, the difference is fruit,” she said. “You don’t get that out of most French Champagnes, so that makes them a little bit unique. We can ripen the grapes a little bit more and bring out those flavors.”
Like most French wines, Champagne has a little more acid and will often taste a little chalky, unlike sparkling wines from California.
“You compare these to a French Champagne and they’re a lot more fruit forward,” Penny said. “They can have the acidity, but you actually know that there’s chardonnay in there, that there’s pinot noir in there.”
Oh, yeah, French Champagne and most California sparkling wine are made from either chardonnay – called blanc de blanc, or white from white (grapes), or pinot noir – called blanc de noir, or white from black (or red grapes). All grape juice is white, red and pink wines get their color from soaking the juice in the skins before fermenting them.
For that special night out, if you’re not getting an actual Champagne, Penny recommends looking for the words “méthode champanoise” on the label. This means it was made like they make Champagne in Champagne, France. The wine is fermented and bottled, then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Other bubblies are made by the charmat process, which means they shot the fermented wine through with carbon dioxide, basically, like they do with sodas.
“The made in the bottle wine is going to be a lot more elegant,” Penny said. “You’re going to have nicer, smaller bubbles. You’re going to feel more elegant.”
She did point out that méthode champenoise tends to be more expensive because it’s a lot more labor intensive. Nor are charmat-style bubblies that bad. They can be perfectly nice. But we are talking special occasion here.
As for what to serve with your bubbly, well, anything your fuzzy little heart desires. That’s the great thing about sparkling wine, it literally goes with just about everything. Penny suggested having a sparkling rosé if you’re serving a heavy meat dinner, such as a standing rib or steak. If you’re doing something a little on the spicy side, then you might want the slightly sweet bubbly labeled “extra dry.” No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
In any case, bubbles make it special and that’s what you want for Valentine’s Day – or any other special occasion. Even if it’s just surviving another week.