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Buying sparkling wines when it's not a holiday

Many restaurateurs think about purchasing sparkling wines only for the holidays, but that’s a mistake. While the bulk of bubbly is drunk from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, sparklers are a good match for most menus year round. Sparklers can be divided into three basic categories: Champagne, methode champenoise and charmat or bulk processing. The queen of bubbly—Champagne—can only be made in the Champagne region of France following strict regulations. The chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes used undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle...

Many restaurateurs think about purchasing sparkling wines only for the holidays, but that’s a mistake. While the bulk of bubbly is drunk from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, sparklers are a good match for most menus year round.

Sparklers can be divided into three basic categories: Champagne, methode champenoise and charmat or bulk processing. The queen of bubbly—Champagne—can only be made in the Champagne region of France following strict regulations. The chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes used undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce those famous bubbles—a process that adds to the cost.

Brut or Natural Champagne is a dry wine, Extra Dry is sweeter, Sec and Demi-Sec are sweeter yet and Doux is sweetest of all. (Most other sparkling wines follow the same naming convention.) Brut makes a good aperitif and all-around food wine. The sweeter varieties are better matches with spicy Asian or Latin dishes and Doux goes well with dessert.

Champagne is not the only place in the world where fine sparkling wine is made in the traditional way (methode champenoise). Great, less expensive choices also come from other parts of France (called cremant), Spain (cava), Germany (sekt), Italy (spumante and prosecco) and the wine-growing regions of the United States. The cheapest bubbly is made by the charmat process—basically pumping carbon dioxide into wine. If the base wine used is decent, charmat sparklers are acceptable, especially in cocktails.

How you purchase sparklers depends upon how you are going to use them. Large-format bottles, the equivalent of two (a magnum) or more standard bottles, are great for large parties and certainly make for a big show in the dining room. Standard bottles are 750 ml. and work well for deuces or four-tops; half bottles (375 ml.) are also available. For bar service, there are single-serve (187 ml.) bottles; many come with straws. Sparkling wine bottles are made of thick glass to keep the bubbles in, and are therefore heavy. Take that extra weight into consideration when storing or carrying cases.

Pop, Pop…No Fizz

Do your servers know how to open a sparkler—and then serve it—correctly? Here’s how.

  • After presenting the bottle to diners, remove the foil. To take off the cage, pull down the little wire loop and untwist it to loosen. Drape a clean side towel over the bottle, covering the cork.
  • Keep the bottle at a slight angle to allow gas to escape and prevent any gushing of wine. Hold the cork firmly in one hand and rotate the bottle. The cork should slide out gently on its own without much of a pop.
  • Sparklers show off best in flute glasses. The saucer-shaped coupes are old-fashioned and don’t keep the bubbles bubbling as long. Fill all the glasses around halfway up, then go back and top them off to about two-thirds of the flute.
  • Keep the remaining sparkling wine cold in an ice bucket that’s a bit bigger than standard to accommodate the fatter bottle.

Bubbling Away

Swanky Bubbles in Philadelphia offers some 25 different bottles of bubbly as well as 12 sparklers by the glass. Bottles range from $35 to $500; by-the-glass pours start at $9 and go up to $22 a flute.

Also on Swanky’s roster are 14 Champagne Cocktails (using Spanish Freixenet, not Champagne). Some of the unusual concoctions are the Fizzy Vampire, with Bacardi Razz and Chambord; the Barcelona, with Red Bull; and the Asian-accented Kampai, using plum wine.

Swanky Bubbles used to carry splits of Asti Spumante, says head bartender Shannon Jackson, but has since switched to Sofia, a California blanc de blancs sold in bright pink single-serve cans with a straw. (It’s made by Niebaum-Coppola Winery, owned by Francis Ford Coppola and named for his daughter.) “The Sofia sells really well,” notes Jackson. “A lot of that is the novelty, but it’s also really good wine.”

Staff training is key to Swanky’s success. “Every month, we have a refresher course for the servers. They get to try the wines and learn about them,” Jackson says, adding that guests ask a lot of questions about Champagne. “People come here because they haven’t had a lot of experience, and they know we have an extensive selection.”

Don’t want such an ambitious list? Jackson suggests offering 10 sparklers that span a wide quality and price range. “Have something for every taste,” he advises, focusing on quality for by-the-glass selections. “Customers who have a bad first experience with Champagne turn away from it completely.”

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