The Magic Flute
Although associated with New Year’s Eve, weddings, christenings and other special occasions, sparklers, with those refreshing bubbles, sing “summertime” like no other wine.
“Our customers think of sparkling wine as more of a summer drink,” says Barb DeVos, a manager at Spill the Wine Restaurant in Minneapolis. Though she notes that sparklers are also big sellers on Valentine’s Day and in the run-up to New Year’s Eve — “all the big bubbly holidays.” But as warm weather kicks in, Spill the Wine sells more sparklers. Prosecco is the top seller, due to its fresh fruity qualities and good price.
Producers have long walked the fine line of encouraging people to enjoy sparkling wines on casual occasions while retaining the wine’s festive reputation. And it seems like American consumers may have gotten the message. Sales of sparkling wine were up 10 percent in 2010 to 15.4 million cases, according to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report. That suggests that Americans are expanding their imbibing of sparklers beyond special occasions, say the California-based industry consultants.
However, to keep those statistics in perspective, sparkling wine accounts for only 4.6 percent of all wine sales in the U.S. And on many restaurant wine lists, sparkling wine is often underrepresented. Sometimes even wine-savvy servers don’t know enough about sparkling wines to hand-sell effectively or are unsure how to pop the cork and properly serve the wine. Thus they don’t push this high-margin category.
Certainly, there’s a lot to know about this complex and widely produced wine. Here’s a short primer and guide to sourcing sparklers.
Pleasure Principles. There are two processes for adding sparkle to wine: the traditional methode champenoise and the bulk Charmat method.
As the term implies, methode champenoise was first used to make champagne. Now this time-honored process produces fine sparkling wines around the globe. First, a base wine is fermented using the same techniques as with still wine. Then the wine undergoes a second fermentation in thick, strong glass bottles, which creates carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. The wine is aged a year or more in the bottle. During that time, the yeast sediment, called the lees, adds complexity, biscuity flavors and a creamy texture. Slow absorption of carbon dioxide makes for tiny bubbles that dance in the glass.
In the Charmat process, secondary fermentation occurs in large tanks, and the wine is then bottled under pressure. Carbonation is aggressive, with larger bubbles, more like soda pop. It is faster and cheaper but generally produces lower-quality—but lower-priced—wines. Because the wines are given little or no aging, they are generally fresher and fruitier—ideal for summer quaffing or mixing in a cocktail.
The Queen. Champagne is the wine against which all other sparklers are measured. A propitious combination of cool climate, chalky limestone soil and centuries of winemaking tradition creates this renowned wine. Most champagnes are nonvintage (NV) wines blended to a consistent producer style, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. For certain customers, champagne is the only sparkling wine, and it pays to stock at least one bottle of NV. Step up to a vintage bottling for special occasions.
Outside of champagne, French sparklers are called cremants, which are also imbued with that je ne sais quoi that induces customers to order imported bubbly. Look for cremants from the Loire Valley, made from indigenous grapes like Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc, variously labeled with place names such as Cremant de Saumur, de Touraine and de Vouvray.
The French Connection. Produced via the methode champenoise, but in a different style, many California sparkling wines are considered the equal of champagne. Indeed, several champagne houses such as Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger and Moet et Chandon also produce sparklers in California. Native wineries such as Iron Horse, J and Schramsberg are well-regarded. The quality is high and prices points are reasonable; one or two bottles deserve a place on your list.
Washington and New York states both make credible sparklers at bargain prices; look for bottles with methode champenoise on the label. Gruet, made in New Mexico, is getting a lot of play on sparkling lists because of its novelty, but it’s a well-made wine.
European Alternatives. Spumantes are made all over Italy, usually with the Charmat process for a fruity, easy-drinking style. Asti and Lambrusco are two well-known types, currently being upstaged by the seemingly ubiquitous Prosecco. Marketing has made Prosecco top-of-mind with many consumers, making the wine an easy sell. A less-known newcomer is Brachetto d’Acqui; a rose-hued sparkler made from the red Brachetto grape.
Spanish Cava is made largely in Penedes via the methode champenoise from five white grapes; marketing campaigns by Cava biggies Freixenet and Codorniu have made selling this sparkler easy. Sekt is Germany’s contribution; the bubbly is usually made from Riesling via the Charmat process. Further afield, look for Espumante from Portugal and English sparkling wine.
Although brief, Spill the Wine’s list is well-represented by key regions. Five selections encompass a champagne, a rosé from a top California producer, a Prosecco, a Cava and an inexpensive California sparkler. Bottle prices range from a reasonable $26 to a splurge-worthy $82.
Popping the Cork. Opening a bottle of sparkling wine may seem daunting, but it’s easy. Chill to serving temperature, around 45 degrees. After presenting the bottle to guests, loosen but don’t remove the wire cage. Cover cork with a towel. Turn the bottle while grasping the cork. The cork along with the cage should ease out into the towel with a subdued “pop.” Keeping the bottle slightly tilted, pour the host a sample, then pour around the table; go round again to completely fill glasses after initial bubbles have subsided.
Selling bubbly by the glass presents more challenges than selling still wine. Only pour the most popular sparklers that will sell before they spoil. Investing in secure stoppers designed for sparklers will make the bubbles last longer. Alternatively, you can offer 187ml single-serving bottles, with their longer shelf life; Spill the Wine offers a mini-bottle of a California sparkler for just $7.
Selling the Sparkle. The theater of popping the cork, the sight of a tray of effervescent flutes crossing the dining room naturally encourage sales. Spill the Wine entices customers with flights of sparkling wines. “We do at least one sparkling flight during the summer,” says DeVos. The flights are often a testing ground; winners move onto the permanent wine list. Introducing your customers to the food-friendly qualities of sparklers during the summer can lead to a lasting romance.