Tastings: Always romantic -- A bubble bath

Tiny bubbles in wine are as romantic as it gets, which makes sparkling wine the best way I know to celebrate Valentine's Day with your special someone. The amazing thing is that bubbly bottles come in so many styles and prices that there is a great bottle waiting on the shelf for just about everyone. And the best part is that they are all great food wines to pair with salty or sweet foods (but with something sweet, be sure to get a demi-sec and not a brut wine).

This past New Year's Eve friends introduced us to a divine treat. They passed trays of potato chips garnished with a spoon of creme fraiche topped by caviar. The saltiness of the potato chip and the caviar combined with the smooth and creamy middle layer was a perfect foil for brut or demi-sec sparkling wine.

Sparkling wines are made from many grape varieties in every wine-producing region in the world. The only one which has the right to call itself Champagne comes from the Champagne region northeast of Paris and is made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes or from a blend of those two. If it is 100-percent Pinot Noir it is called Blanc de Noir and if it is 100-percent Chardonnay it is Blanc de Blanc. These wines are the noblest form of sparklers and the most expensive, but they have numerous cousins from all over the world.

In the German-speaking world, it is called sekt and in Spain it is cava, while Italy uses the term spumante. The best sparklers get their bubbles from a second fermentation in bottle called methode traditionelle. The grapes are first fermented in the usual fashion to make still wines and those are blended to make the "base." To create the carbon dioxide, sugar and yeast are added to bottles of base wine that are securely capped.

Modern sparkling-wine techniques have found ways to replace the old labor-intensive step of slowly twisting and turning the bottles until they are eventually standing on their heads with the dead lees trapped just under the cap. The bottle neck is passed through a freezing solution and when the cap is removed the gas pops the lees out of the bottle as a solid pellet of ice. Bottles are then topped up with a mix of wine and sugar syrup called the "dosage." The amount of sugar in the dosage determines the sweetness of the wine.

The European Union has classified the terms and the amount of sugar in sparkling wines and requires that the terms be clearly stated on all labels:

Brut nature: Less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar (no sugar added after primary fermentation)

Extra brut: 0 to 6 grams per liter

Brut: Less than 15 grams per liter

Extra dry: 12 to 20 grams per liter

Sec or dry: 17 to 33 grams per liter

Demi Sec: 33 to 50 grams per liter

A less labor intensive process is called the charmat or closed-tank method. With charmat, the second fermentation takes place in a pressure tank. This is the method used for Prosecco and a number of less-expensive bubbly wines.

Here is a selection of bubbles from many countries. No matter which you choose, you can make this Feb. 14 a sparkling day with at least 100 million bubbles in every bottle!

Juve y Camps Cinta Demi-Sec, NV, Spain

PLCB No. 32913, $11.99

A blend of Macebeo, Xarello and Parellada grapes, this semi-sweet cava would be great with a box of macarons from Jules et Gaby on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. As is true with all cavas, this is made in the traditional way with second fermentation in bottle.

Dr. Loosen Riesling Mosel Saar Sekt, Mosel, Germany

PLCB No. 39087, $11.99

Made by charmat process entirely from the Riesling grape, this sparkler is off-dry.

De Chanceny Vouvray Brut 2011, Loire Valley, France

PLCB No. 32980, $13.99

Made from Chenin Blanc grapes with a touch of residual sugar.

Peter Weber Cremant d'Alsace Brut, NV, Alsace, France

PLCB No. 33208, $12.99

100-percent Chardonnay grapes. As is the case with all French wines labeled cremant, it is made by traditional method.

Brut d'Argent, NV, Jura, France

PLCB No. 31286, $11.99

Again the base wine is 100-percent Chardonnay; this bubbly gets high marks from highly respected wine tasters.

Villa Chiara Prosecco, NV, Veneto, Italy

PLCB No. 32955, $9.99

Proseccos are low in alcohol (7 percent), light and fruity. They get their bubbles from the charmat process. The grape name is Prosecco, too.

Mederfil Lambrusco, NV, Piedmont, Italy

PLCB No. 33196, $7.99 (Chairman's Selection)

This sweet, bright ruby red sparkler with aromas of raspberries and cherries is made from the Lambrusco grape.

Elvio Tintero Moscato d'Asti, Piedmont, Italy

PLCB No. 43277, $11.99

A slightly sweet and very fruity, low-alcohol bubble made from the charmat process.

Arlaux 1er Grand Cru Grand Cuvee, NV, Champagne, France

PLCB No. 39670, $38.99

This is CHAMPAGNE! The top of the bubble heap! It is the traditional blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

And while you are in the wine shop you probably should pick up a special sparkling-wine bottle recorker, a handy tool that anyone who likes bubbles will eventually need. They are currently marked down to $2.99 (PLCB No. 29940). If you don't finish a bottle it will preserve the bubbles for a day or two.

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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