Don’t look now but one of those crushingly commercial holidays is lurking around the corner. Valentine’s Day, of course.
And the gifts of choice are the traditional three Cs — candy, cards and Champagne.
Good bubbly tells your beloved this is truly a gift from the heart, whether you present him or her with a gift-wrapped box, or share it over a special meal. There is something thrilling about all those tiny bubbles teasing your palate and making your mouth buzz.
But first, a brief primer on Champagne and sparkling wine. To be called “Champagne,” the wine must be produced in the Champagne region of France. And it must be made with only three grape types, according to carefully specified — and enforced — rules. According to European Union law, and centuries of French tradition, anything else from anywhere else is not Champagne.
The real stuff is a masterpiece of the vintner’s art. Finished wines made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes are selected by the blenders who mix scores of wines together to form a blend in the style of their winery.
That blend is placed in bottles with a mix of sugar and yeast, topped with a crown cap (like a beer bottle) and put to rest in a cool, dark cellar. That mix causes another fermentation to take place inside that bottle — creating the bubbles.
Elena Walch Pinot Bianco 2016
The wine: Medium-bodied, dry white table wine.
The grapes: 100 percent pinot bianco (pinot blanc).
The source: Alto Adige region of Italy.
The verdict: Alto Adige, in the extreme northern part of Italy, produces lovely, well-formed white wines. On the border with Switzerland and Austria, Alto Adige’s cool climate helps grapes develop good acid levels for crisp, tasty wines. Elena Walch is a highly respected wine maker and her name on the label is like a warranty. This pinot bianco comes out of the bottle a beautiful pale yellow. There’s a trace of spice in the nose and an herbal, minerally flavor and texture. I quaffed this with a mixed plate of clams and calamari and found it a fine match. It’s a great seafood wine, but with enough structure to stand up to light chicken or veal dishes. I also enjoyed sipping a glass as a cocktail wine before dinner.The price: About $18.
That’s called “methode traditionelle.” Wine makers elsewhere use the same method and the same grape types. But others create the second fermentation in a big tank — the Charmat, or transfer method. That’s generally the way low-priced bubblies are produced.
Today I’m showcasing a duet of Champagnes and a pair of very good Spanish cavas, the word the Spanish use to designate sparklers made in the traditional Champagne method. All four represent high quality, and the Spanish wines are great values.
RULES: Get the bottles seriously cold; 8-10 hours in the fridge or an hour in an ice-water bath with salt added. Do not agitate the bottle. Be very careful removing the cork. There’s about 90 pounds per square inch pressure in the bottle. As the “Christmas Story” movie warned, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV — Piper-Heidsieck is one of the royal families of the Champagne region. The NV stands for non-vintage, which most Champagnes are. The blending process comprises not only different grape types, but different vintages as well. Vintage-dated Champagnes are produced only in stellar years. Crisp, but not bone dry, it fills the mouth with froth and flavor. It’s toasty and, like most Champagnes, a perfect wine for just about any food. There’s some pear and apple in the mouth. It’s a lovely cocktail wine, and I can channel James Bond with a glass in my hand. About $50.
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve — This is another jewel in Champagne’s crown. “Brut,” by the way, indicates just about the driest level of bubbly. I loved watching the mousse with this grand sparkler. What’s mousse? A beer drinker would call it “the head.” This one foams up beautifully and the bubbles have a long life; it’s the mark of a quality sparkler.
I get a taste of lemon in this one. It gleams in the glass and invites you to sip slowly to enjoy the tiny bubbles and tangy acidity that also mark a fine Champagne. Your sweet’s heart will melt if you hand him or her a glass and whisper words of fondness into the nearest ear. About $48.
Let’s leave France and head to Spain for a pair of wines whose labels will grab your eyeballs. The gaudy images are just that — reflective of the famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, whose buildings and massive cathedral are must-see in a visit to Barcelona, a wonderful city.
Both are Cavas, but produced using indigenous Spanish grapes, except for Pinot Noir in the rose.
Vilarnau Brut Reserva NV — Vilarnau is a small producer, located on the outskirts of Barcelona. This wine is made from a blend of macabeo, parellada and xarel.lo grapes. It carries more fruit aromas in the nose and flavors in the mouth than the French. Both of the Cavas come across as friendlier and a tad softer. Still this is a well-made wine, benefiting from an impressive 15 months aging in the bottle. The folks at Vilarnau put special effort into their bubblies, and that shows in the first taste. About $16.
Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rose Delicat — I just loved this wine with lobster and shrimp New Year’s Eve! The color — a deep pink — wins the heart. And the sensory experience — eyes, nose, mouth — makes one smile. Made from a blend of garnacha, one of Spain’s top-rated red grapes, and pinot noir, this is as good as some brut roses at twice the price. There’s a bit more structure to this, given the red grapes involved. It’s a great food wine. I envision it as the perfect Valentine’s Day match with an offering of spicy Asian cuisine. About $18.Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.