As the holidays arrive, so do the opportunities to pop a cork (read our feature on how to pop a Champagne cork stylishly), hoist our glasses, propose a toast and wish everyone a merry this and happy that. For these joyous occasions, bottles are most often filled with a sparkling wine. If a social statement is to be made, Champagne is usually the preferred pour. As the years progress, however, the alternative libation is Prosecco or Cava, the Italian and Spanish alternatives to French Champagne respectively.
Admittedly, Prosecco lacks the prestige and diversity of fine wine and the elitism and effervescence of Champagne. But it doesn't pretend to be more than it is, a carefree, inexpensive Italian sparkler somewhere in between frizzante (lightly sparkling) and spumante (fully sparkling). Champagne and Prosecco both billow with bubbles, but that's where the similarity ends. Price points are far apart, with upper-end champagne tabbed at $100-plus per bottle, while Prosecco sells for $3.99 to $40. No wonder Prosecco is frequently referred to as "poor man's Champagne."
Italy's Prosecco is Great Alone or With Food
Originating from Italy's northeastern sector of Veneto, just north of Venice, Prosecco derives from Glera grapes. The golden yellow, late-ripening grape thrives on sloping hills and crisp climate and is harvested in late October or early November, before the weather turns frigid and crops become susceptible to frost. The formal title is Prosecco di Congliano-Valdobbiadene since most of the production occurs between those two towns. Due to the proximity of the Alps, it's a frosty area. Chilly breezes from the mountains combine with a warm air flow from the Adriatic Sea to create an ideal environment for cultivating grapes suitable for sparkling wine.
Prosecco earned Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1969, meaning strict laws regulate where and how it is made. The Glera grape must comprise 85 percent of the total volume, the rest from Verdiso, Perera and Bianchetta. The combination forms a merger of acidity, aroma and citrus-floral flavor. About 4 million cases are exported to the USA annually.
Several versions of Prosecco are offered to satisfy various tastes. Brut, with its rich, intense fragrance and lively body, is the most common, followed by slightly softer extra dry. Both have the fizz of Champagne and a lower alcohol content than most white wines, with no yeasty aftertaste.
Prosecco is harmonious with dry courses. It fits with openers like antipasti, with seafood, chicken or Risotto entrees, and with pannetone holiday cake. Also sipped as an aperitif, it adds a spirited snap in the form of fresh fruit splashed with the crisp, clear potion. Prosecco is so often sipped on its own; it doesn't need a lot of thought regarding what to pair it with. You can sum it up in two words - "party food." It is especially compatible with such snacks as focaccia, quiches, Fontina cheese, sushi and even popcorn. Main courses that work include caviar, chicken, oysters, smoked pork, turkey and risotto. Desserts include fresh fruit tart, figs, melons and crème brulee.
France's Champagne is the Ultimate Holiday Drink
Named after a region in France about 80 miles northeast of Paris, Champagne is experiencing a growing global demand. It's a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, often including small amounts of Pinot Meunier, a trifecta resulting in flavors of citrus, peach, white cherry, almond and toast, with notes of quince, apple and raspberry. Non-vintage versions are aged for 15 months, vintage for 36 months and special cuvee for 6-7 years. The process develops a fine, persistent profile with a nutty tertiary aroma.
Since most Champagnes are intensely dry and high in acidity, it works well as an aperitif matched with shellfish, a raw bar, pickled vegetables and fried appetizers. Sipping it with potato chips may sound gauche, but it's a tasty pairing.
Though Champagne is the classic wine choice for parties and celebrations, it likewise is food friendly. It tends to showcase minerality, a characteristic that adds depth to fruity, meaty and gamey flavors. Preferred pairings for appetizers include asparagus and avocado salad, in which the vegetal taste is counteracted by the wine's steadfast dried fruit flavor. Main courses that match with Champagne are linguini with clams, smoked salmon, sushi, shrimp, scallops and crab cakes. Among the desserts are lemon cakes and mixed citrus fruit.
Finding a wine that stands up to a dessert composed mostly of acidic ingredients isn't easy. But Champagne does the job quite well.
Spanish Cava is Versatile
From the Penedes territory of northeast Spain comes Cava with its medium acidity, ripe fruit flavor and mineral impression. It's the only Spanish wine with a Denominacion de Origen (DO) classification for a style of wine instead of a region. Its primary grapes are Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada, which combine to deliver floral, apricot and berry flavors and tones of apple and citrus, plus acidity.
Aged from nine to 30 months, Cava's versatility with food includes a palate-cleansing factor. In Spanish dining, it mixes nicely with chili, huevos rancheros, nachos and tacos. A bottle of Bodegas Muga Brut Cava Conde retails for around $26. Other brands are in the $10-$15 category. Spanish Cava is versatile with acidity, freshness and carbonic elements, all of which team up to harmonize with the four basic tastes of bitter, sweet, salty and sour. The result is a clean, crisp feel that prepares the palate for additional sips. Among the appetizers and salads it can be served with are seafood, oysters, ham, canapes, chorizo and deviled eggs. Main courses of note are pasta with seafood or Bolognese sauce, Asian noodles, rice, poultry white meat, rabbit, pizza and curry spiced prawns.
Desserts worth trying with Cava include sheep's milk cheeses, chocolate and almond mousse and fruit-flavored pastries.
Skipping the Bubbles for Holiday Meals
For those who prefer to skip the bubbles and sparkles during the holiday season, there are other wines than behave well when served with food. Rich, bold Zinfandel amplifies turkey and dark meat. It is recognized by traces of cloves, cinnamon, allspice and hint of smoke. A suggested holiday Zinfandel wine is Hartford Russian River Zinfandel 2014.
Pinot Noir goes well with dark meat turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes and casseroles. I suggest a Melville Estate St. Rita Hills 2013.
Beaujolais is savory, earthy and pairs nicely with rice, roasted squash and cranberries. Its lower tannin also complements white turkey meat. My recommendation is a Chateau Cuvee Cristal Fleurie 2013.
Rosé acts as a palate cleanser with rich meats and gravies. It features notes of strawberry, white currant and raspberry. A Hervy-Quenardel Rose Grand Cru Verzenay would work well for the holidays in between meals.
Sauvignon Blanc is lean, herbaceous, and complements green bean casserole, brussels sprouts and roast asparagus. A Patient Cottat Anciennes Vignes Sancerre 2015 will pair well with a holiday meal that includes a lot of green vegetables.
Whether poured for sipping, toasting or dining, Champagne, Prosecco, Cava and other sparkling wine stimulate the senses by adding merry sounds (fizz) and sights (sparkle) to the holidays. They all rise to the occasion.