In our family, celebrations are always accompanied by bubbly! Whether it’s mimosas for a birthday brunch, a baptism, a wedding, or any one of the holidays, the event will include Champagne or some other sparkling wine.
Sparkling wines have been a part of human celebrations since at least the 17th century where the tradition of drinking Champagne became popular in the royal courts. The expensive sparkling wine fascinated the upper class who held that by drinking it, men would become wittier and women more beautiful.
Champagne is the name of the appellation where the delicious bubbly drink is produced under a legally mandated process. Today, most people call their sparkling wine “Champagne,” even when it is not. It’s sort of like how Americans drink a “Coke” even when it’s Pepsi or blow their noses on a “Kleenex” even if it’s Puffs. The term “champagne” has become part of the vernacular— though it really is a total misuse of the word.
REAL champagne is generally made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier in Champagne, France. Champagne is produced using what is known as “the traditional method,” or in France, Méthode Traditionnelle. The traditional method is a labor-intensive process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles. Basically, a wine solution of sugar and yeast is added to a bottle of still base wine triggering a secondary fermentation inside the bottle which produces both carbon dioxide and spent yeast cells (lees) which are collected in the neck of the bottle during the riddling process. The lees are then disgorged from the bottle, and replaced with a solution of wine and sugar, giving the sparkling wine its sweetness. All Champagne and many high-quality sparkling wines, such as Cava from Spain, as well as sparkling wines from California, Oregon, and the Finger Lakes region of New York are made by this process. If you’ve ever wondered at the disparity in prices between sparkling wines and Champagne or other traditional-method sparklers, you are paying a lot for the labor involved.
The Charmat (tank) method, whereby the second fermentation happens in a stainless-steel tank, is much more cost-efficient and is the method used to produce Prosecco in Italy. Many American delicious, high-quality sparkling wines are made using the tank method.
Lastly, another popular tank method is the Asti method. With the Asti method, CO2 from the primary fermentation is retained. Asti sparkling wines are generally made from aromatic grape varieties and the fermentation is stopped early, creating a sweet wine with a lot of character.
To be honest, apart from the occasional family gathering, I really have never given sparklers much thought. I rarely, if ever, have them on hand and I only gone out to buy them when I’ve needed them for mimosas. Until recently, I never even thought about ordering one in a restaurant. So what changed?
This summer, I spent an extraordinary amount of time confronted with sparkling wines. First, my friend Sarah had a birthday. Now, Sarah isn’t a big wine drinker, but she is really big on celebrating her birthday. So, when I took her to lunch at Lescombes Bistro in Las Cruces, she insisted we order the sparkling flight followed by a bottle of their Bellisimo.
Over the Labor Day weekend, I worked the St. Clair tent for Lescombes Family Vineyards at the Southern New Mexico Harvest Wine Festival. The ABOLUTELY MOST POPULAR WINE (to my dismay at the time) was their Imperial Kir—a raspberry flavored semi-sweet bubbly. The second most popular was the Belissimo—a sweet sparkler. I served and sold sparkling wine all day, every day during the festival.
A couple of weeks later, my friend, Joy Anna, had a bubbly-tasting party where we tried real Champagne, Crémont (another sparkling wine from France), and two or three other wines from the United States. Each one was unique and had their own character.
I wasn’t prepared to choose one over the other at the time, but I did learn a lot about the qualities I prefer in a sparkling wine. So, here are some things to think about when choosing a sparkling wine.
SIZE MATTERS: There is a vast range of bubble size between sparkling wines. For the most part, the smaller the bubbles, the higher quality the sparkling wine. In general, I want my sparkling wine to have small, dainty bubbles that create a light, fine, almost frothy mouthfeel. The larger the bubbles, the “harsher” the mouth feel.
LOOK AT LABELS: All sparkling wines (except those using the Asti method) have some dosage—the added sugar and yeast that produce the second fermentation. Even with added sugar, there are very dry sparkling wines. Decide what “sweetness” level you like and then read the labels to see if it will fit your needs. BRUT is the most common type of sparkling wine. It is dry and I recommend it as the standard to compare your own personal taste with something more dry or sweeter. Terms you are likely to find on the label include:
Brut Nature, sometimes called “Brut Zero”is the driest level of sparkling wine with less than 3 grams of added sugar per liter.
Extra Brut is quite dry with less than 6 grams of residual sugar.
Brut sparkling wine has a lot more wiggle-room for sweetness than its drier cousins. A Brut label can have anywhere from 0 to 12 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Extra Dry sparklers have 12-17 grams of residual sugar while its little sister, Dry (sometimes labeled “secco”) can have 17 – 32 grams.
Demi-Sec comes in sweet with 32-50 grams of residual sugar and Doux can have any amount of sugar over 50 grams per liter.
With all this exposure to sparklers, I can no longer just run out to Sam’s Club and choose a reasonably priced sparkling wine. I have been putting a lot of thought into choosing which sparkling wine(s) to purchase for our family reunion in December. Everyone always expects me to bring the wine (not complaining) and, since almost all of my family lives outside of New Mexico in other great wine-producing states, I always want to highlight New Mexico’s wine and winemakers. The list below barely touches the number of sparkling wines in New Mexico, but these are the ones I’ve tried—so far!
Noisy Water has several wines to choose from. Their most popular is Jo Mama’s Bubbly—a sweet sparkler. I haven’t tried it, but that’s because it’s sold out—again! I have tried two of their sparkling wines. The 2021 Ruidoso has won a wine-barrel load of awards. It’s a sweet sparkling wine that’s perfect for mimosas. My favorite, however, is the 2020 Forbidden—a wonderfully dry (Brut) sparkler made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
New Mexico’s recognized specialists for vintage and non-vintage sparkling wines! Someday I’m going to try them all. But, for this holiday season, I have tried three that I’m considering. The Sauvage is bone-dry—which is a plus for me. The bubbles are not as fine as in Champagne, but a little smaller than the bubbles in most of the other sparklers I’ve tried from New Mexico. That’s probably true of most Gruet wines. The NV Brut is outstanding. It’s a classic sparkler with a really nice finish. The price is beyond reasonable at only $15.00 a bottle, but the quality is far better than the price would suggest. My favorite Gruet, however, is the 2018 Blanc de Blancs. Oh my goodness! Blanc de Blancs is so delicious. It’s perfectly balanced and has such a great finish. This is one to drink straight up. Don’t use this one for your mimosas. Gruet has some sweet bubbly for my sweet friends. You can read about all their wines on the Gruet website.
Lescombes makes several types of bubbly at many price points. I’ve tried all of the Heritage line of sparkling wines. They are the ones I came to know while working at the wine festival. The Heritage Bellissimo is a Moscato based sparkling wine. It’s sweet with notes of peaches and other stone fruits. I will often order the Bellissimo now when I eat at the restaurant. It can be fun to sip while relaxing on a Sunday afternoon or to level-up any celebration. The Heritage Imperial Kir is a demi-sec wine with the flavor of fresh raspberries and notes of melon. It’s crisp, acidic, and great for all kinds of special events. Lastly, the Heritage Brut, a perfectly dry, green apple and lemon zest bubbly with the minerality I enjoy in my sparkling wines. It has a great finish. You can’t go wrong with this one.
I don’t mention La Viña nearly as much as I should. They are in the Mesilla Valley, but closer to El Paso than other wineries. They have great events and I recently went to their harvest wine festival. I tasted two sparkling wines that were both advertised as “sweet.” The best seller is a sparkling muscat called La Dolce Viña. It is a very sweet sparkling wine that is definitely not my taste, but I was clearly in the minority at the festival. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy La Piñata which is a White Zin and Black Muscat blend with the motto “party in a bottle.” It wasn’t nearly as sweet as I thought it was going to be and I thought it was a lot of fun.
I know that New Mexico has several other sparkling wines that I have yet to try. I’m planning another New Mexico wine trip or two before I make my final decision(s). I’d love to hear your suggestions on wineries to visit and bubbly wines to try. Send me an email or comment here.
Until next time…