Here at Drinking With Doug I rely upon two things to navigate the ship: my palate, and Boulderites who know a lot more about boozy things than I do.
So naturally I turned to Mike Elmore, the general manager and wine director at Arcana Restaurant in downtown Boulder, for captain's savvy during my voyage through the Great Sparkling Sea, with ports of call in Franciacorta, Prosecco, Sekt, Petillant Naturel, Cremant, Cava, Lambrusco and more. Elmore gained his advanced sommelier certification this year, meaning when it comes to wine, he is in elite company. As an explorer wishing to skirt the Bay of Champagne for this piece, Elmore was an ideal skipper.
Good Champagne truly is marvel, but you pay for it; entry-level Champagne starts at around $35, with many bottles reaching $75 far beyond. Meanwhile, the rest of the Great Sparkling Sea offers immense value.
"My favorite thing about sparkling wine is its diversity and value," said Elmore during a chat in Arcana. "And it's a perfect match for so many foods."
Indeed it is. I've spent the past month or so sipping nearly every style of sparkling wine available, a liquid adventure much championed by my wife, Annie. We have tossed it back with homemade pizza and myriad pastas; with stir fries and Thai food; with hunks of bread and cheese, tomato soup, salads and tacos. The sparklings improved every meal. So much glass-hoisting counts as smart prep work for New Year's Eve; we will savor beautiful sparkling wine for the night, without breaking the bank.
Let's begin with basics. Winemakers across France craft sparkling wine, but only those made in the Champagne region of the country can use the word Champagne. Most of the rest of the French bottles use the word "cremant" as well as the region from which they come. For example, Cremant de Loire means it's a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley.
Cremants use the same method for achieving bubbles as sparkling from Champagne, meaning after the grapes are fermented into wine, they ferment again in the bottle, which is what produces those bubbles. Another sparkling style, called Petillant Naturel, involves bottling wine while it still is undergoing its first fermentation; the ferment finishes in the bottle. And then there is the Charmat-Martinotti method, where the second fermentation takes place in a tank before bottling occurs.
Annie and I downed quite a bit of cremant during the trip. One of our favorites? A rosé cremant from the producer Gustave Lorentz in the Alsace region of France, which is widely available in Colorado. Elmore prefers cremants from Alsace, as well as Jura, the Loire and Limoux. Another stand-out for us was a sweet sparkling rosé from the Bugey region of France from the producer Patrick Bottex; Rob Linhart at Hazel's Beverage World told me it was "a party in a bottle," and so I immediately placed it in my cart. He was right.
Many of our favorite sparklings came from Italy, where the most predominant dry iterations are Prosecco and Franciacorta. All Prosecco is made in northeast Italy, in the Veneto and Fruili Venezia Giulia regions, and its bubbles mostly come from the Charmat-Martinotti method.
"Prosecco and the Charmat method get poo-pooed, but it shouldn't be," said Elmore. "It's all about fruit and freshness."
Not all Prosecco is created the same. Our favorite was from the heralded DOCG Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (DOCG roughly refers to a small wine region, and is the most elite designation in Italy, followed by DOC and then IGT). Proseccos with Valdobbiadene Superiore on the label are among the most prized, and ours from the producer Bosco de Gica was superb, and around $20. We performed a blind taste test of sparkling at a party, and the Bosco de Gia won.
Our most beloved sparklings all came from an Italian DOCG called Franciacorta, which is within the Lombardy region in northern Italy. Franciacorta is made using the same method as Champagne, and like Champagne, it largely relies upon the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (called Pinot Nero in Italy) grapes; Prosecco, on the other hand, comes from the Glera grape. A killer bottle of Franciacorta might set you back $35 — not cheap, but pocket change compared to a top bottle of Champagne.
Spanish Cava, most of which is produced in Catalonia in northeastern Spain, all must be made using that in-the-bottle-fermentation method for bubble-production, the same as for Champagne. Cava offers tons of value, and as with Prosecco quality runs the gamut, with some producers pumping out oceans of profoundly meh juice and others running petite operations fixed on craft. Our favorite bottle was from a break-away producer called Raventos i Blanc, which decided to shun the Cava designation and make sparkling its own way; the Raventos team felt too many Cava producers were fermenting plonk. Their Brut Blanc de Blancs, which I snagged for around $25, was an ideal accompaniment to a smattering of cheeses we picked up at Cheese Importers in Longmont (Importers is a must visit, by the way).
The Great Sparkling Sea ranges far — we don't have the space here to offer a detailed map. Winemakers up and down the West Coast are making gorgeous sparkling these days. Germans and Austrians, who are the largest consumers of sparkling wine in the world, make Sekt, which can be tough to find. I lucked out, finding a bottle for $20 at North Boulder Liquor and sipping it with homemade pasta during our Christmas dinner (which took place a few days before the holiday). Vibrant with flavors of apple and lemon, it paired beautifully with the goat cheese and spinach ravioli.
For New Year's Eve, we'll open another bottle of Franciacorta, kicking-off the New Year Italian-style. Salute!
Longtime journalist and Boulderite Doug Brown writes about adult beverages for the Camera. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @drinkingwithdoug.