Most of us don't drink sparkling wine on a regular basis. Rightly or wrongly, we think of it as something to be reserved for special occasions, and are less likely to pick one up for a weeknight dinner than we are a still wine. Which is a shame, really. Sparkling wine is tasty, and particularly food-friendly with bracing acidity that cuts through richness and salt that can defeat some still wines.
All that said … New Year's Eve is on the horizon, and while I would certainly never discourage anyone from enjoying sparkling wine any other day of the year, it does seem fitting to pay special attention to it now.
Because what better way to usher out 2019 and welcome in 2020 than with a bottle of special bubbly? And by "special" I don't necessarily mean expensive. Sure you could haul out your Visa card and bring home a bottle of vintage Champagne, and your friends will love you forever. But there is plenty of fun to be had with some off-the-beaten track bubblies as well.
First, some background. Contrary to popular myth, Dom Pérignon did not "discover" sparkling wine. He made some, albeit accidentally, but most of his time was actually spent trying to keep the bubbles out of his wine. They were considered a fault.
The first people to intentionally make sparkling wine were the monks at the abbey of St.-Hilaire in the southern French region of Limoux. The first recorded reference to "Blanquette de Limoux," which is widely regarded as the first sparkling wine, dates to the year 1531. Dom Pérignon wasn't even born until 1639.
Believe it or not, some people are still making Blanquette de Limoux today, in addition to more modern, Champagne-like sparkling wines in Limoux. (Remember: it's not Champagne unless it comes from the region of Champagne!) By law, Blanquette must be made of at least 90 percent mauzac, a grape indigenous to Limoux, but can also contain small amounts of chardonnay and chenin blanc.
NV Jean-Philippe Blanquette de Limoux ($17/750ml bottle) is a toasty expression, almost smoky, but with a balance of honeyed green pear and buttery pastry. It's not sweet, but I might almost be tempted to pair it with dessert. An excellent candidate for a midnight cheers, if for no other reason than that it seems appropriate to mark the passage of time with a wine of such long history.
If we want to travel a bit farther off the beaten path, we can head to northern Italy. By far the most widely known and available Italian sparkling wine is prosecco. If you're more of a wine geek, you might have heard of Franciacorta, which is regarded as Italy's answer to Champagne.
The 2012 Contratto Milessimato Pas Dosé ($31) is not Franciacorta, nor is it prosecco; it is entirely its own animal. Comprising 80 percent pinot noir (or pinot nero, since we're in Italy) and 20 percent chardonnay, the wine spends a minimum of four years aging in the bottle before it's released for sale. The attention to quality is apparent in the fine bead (bubbles) in the glass, as well as the elegant and vibrant palate. Aromas of apricot and brioche yield to red apple, cream biscuit, mineral and bright citrus in the mouth. And the "Pas Dosé" in the wine's name -- meaning no sugar was added to the wine before its second fermentation -- means the wine is pleasingly bone dry.
Germany isn't known in the United States for its sparkling wines, and I'm OK with that. Because the fewer people that know about them, the more there is for me. The 2017 Leitz Pinot Noir Rosé Sekt Brut ($28) is a very pale peach in the glass, reminiscent of onion skin. The nose is also on the mute side, with a hint of red cherry and rose. But the wine explodes on the palate with mouthwatering pink grapefruit zest, tart cherry and flint. It begs for a rich dance partner: some cheese, or, since it's German, maybe some würst.
Our final wine destination is as new to the world of sparkling wine as Limoux is old. England was one of the primary drivers of sparkling wine production in France, because they liked it so much, and bought a great deal of it. But it wasn't until the late 20th century that they started making their own. A significant contributor to this development is climate change. It didn't used to be warm enough in cold, damp ol' England to grow wine grapes. Now it is.
NV Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve Brut ($51) is a blend of mostly chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (the only grapes allowed in true Champagne) with a tiny bit of pinot gris. Although classified as a brut, which is on the dry side of the (admittedly byzantine) classification of sparkling wine sweetness, the amount of ripe fruit coming across on this wine gives it an almost demi-sec unctuousness. There is rich lemon curd, toasted almond, apple pie and baking bread - it practically shouts, Happy New Year!
But then again, why wait until Dec. 31? You could enjoy any one of these wines tonight, while you sit on the couch eating potato chips and watching reruns of "The Golden Girls" in your sweatpants. There's no day like today for a bit of bubbly.
Molly Steinbach is a Taos sommelier.