Creating and making adult beverages, like cocktails, in the early summer is wonderfully satisfying. We are ready to “shoot the moon” and “go for broke.” All the prep work and all the peeling, juicing, grinding, measuring, mashing and muddling are just fine. Rewarding, to be sure.
Then the season moves on and we are not quite so excited about once again tackling the labor, gathering mundane and exotic raw materials, only to be focused on the final product. Sure, we are still up to show off for friends and guests, but for the most part, if it’s just “us,” let’s open something to beat the heat and just get into drinking the cold liquid.
That’s where the forever appropriate sparkling wines and Champagnes come into the picture – always special and always at the ready. All we have to do is carefully remove the wire cage around the cap, let the pressure in the bottle do the work of pushing the cork out, and settle back. Ahh, summer is good….again.
For those of you who are regular drinkers of Champagne, and aren’t you the lucky ones, obviously very little product that is not Champagne is going to satisfy. While you have moved on from being flexible in your choices, you have stayed near the top of the game. We salute you.
But for the rest of us who are not able to frolic often in the land of $45 or more wine cost, there are many options. That is true even for you Champagne loyalists, but more on that later.
The pioneers of wine with bubbles in California were the Korbel Brothers from Bohemia, founded 1862. They settled in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and followed the traditional Champagne method of creating the second fermentation (the one that makes the bubbles and the gas) in the same bottle you purchase at the store. But the Korbels did not use traditional Champagne grapes. They used Riesling, Muscatel and other grapes from the Old Country home in the cooler climates of Eastern Europe which explains the devotion to the Russian River appellation they still inhabit today.
That same year an immigrant from Germany, Jacob Schram, purchased property in the area of the frontier town of Calistoga in northern Napa Valley and began producing sparkling wines according to the practices of the great wines of Champagne, including the traditional grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Today, Schramsberg is considered the cream of America’s native sparkling wines.
Back in the 1970’s, before many of you were born and most certainly before many of you were of proper drinking age, domestic sparkling wines were, well, quite domestic. Okay, so they were not good. Americans were drinking wines with a little spritziness from Portugal (although at the time most wine drinkers did not know that Lancers Rosé was not from this side of the Atlantic), sparkling wines from New York State (Italian Swiss Colony. Who would have thought that was from America?), and a wide assortment of ersatz wines with bubbles from California. Very little quality stuff.
Then a few of the French Champagne houses had the bright idea that maybe this California place could grow decent traditional grapes for sparkling wine. Although California is best known for achieving full ripening of the fruit, and the Champagne region in France does not really achieve that completion of grape development, why not test the New World area and see what happens?
Moёt et Chandon, the infamous and historic French Champagne house was one of the first to get up off their French butts and check it out. They liked what they found in Napa. The sparkling wines they made in Yountville was not Champagne, of course, but there was potential. Maybe even great potential. They did not change their manufacturing methodology nor did they deviate from traditional fruit selection. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, the only three grapes allowed in Champagne, did well in the Western sun.
Soon the people that brought you Dom Perignon were also creating stylish sparkling wine in California.
Moёt et Chandon was followed by Roederer Estate, Taittinger, and Mumm, to name the French gang operating both in California and Champagne. All began turning out reasonably priced, well-constructed sparkling wines. And over the years, they also have developed quite a reputation for producing still California wines.
The Spanish also came, in the forms of Cordornu and Gloria Ferrer, to Sonoma and produced sparkling wine both satisfying and at a decent cost. But the Spanish retreated back to their homeland, except for Ferrer. And lately, at a time when Cava, the Spanish designation for the classification of sparkling wines, is not showing as bright nor as prominent when compared to other world regions’ efforts, it appears this group of wines from the Iberian Peninsula could use a boost, both in marketing and wine quality.
For whatever reasons, the Italians kept their distance from the New World, preferring to remain on the ground in the Prosecco region of northeastern Italy around the town of Verona. Recently these wines, carrying the Prosecco grape now renamed to Glera, have been setting the sparkling wine world on fire thanks to improvements in quality and as a delightful alternative to the high cost of Champagne.
I mention all of this because the ease and simplicity of opening a cold bottle of domestic sparkling wine is quick to remedy thirst and desire.
Let me also toss in here a way to step-up in quality, but unfortunately also in cost. Rosé. Here is an extra special treat that takes something wonderful and sends the experience beyond the next level. Rosé sparkling wines, especially in hot, humid weather, are just the ticket to happiness.
The great thing about fine sparkling wines from America is that they also support simple cocktails, like the French 75. And I would be remiss if I did not note that there are other domestic sparkling wines, such as New Mexico’s Gruet, made since 1984. I have an appreciation for these wines and respect the efforts and the investment at the winery.
I do not feel the products from these stand-alone domestic wineries located in unexpected states is up to the standards of the West Coast French houses but, again, just to open a bottle of something cold with bubbles at a reasonable price during our hot summer months, may be fulfilling enough.
It’s Summertime. Let’s keep it simple and get to the fermented grape juice as fast as possible.
Read Happy Hour here on MyNewOrleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed at www.wgso.com.