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Break out the Bubbly

A primer on the fizzy drink preps the palate for the sparkling social season to come. Plus, recipes for cheerful accompaniments.

photos by Elise Poché

It’s prime time for partaking in a bit of bubbly. Most folks toast with a glassful to ring in the new year. Then, a flurry of other festive champagne occasions follow that first night, running right through Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras. Nothing adds the extra effervescence and magic to an event better than a flute filled with the ebullient elixir.

Ah, but which bubbly to buy? Perhaps, you are searching for something to sip with your sweetheart or an affordable alternative for serving at a big bash. In either case, you’re in luck — there is the perfect pick to suit just about every palate and pocketbook.

Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine

First things first — true champagne comes exclusively from Champagne, France — hence the name. Everything else is, and should be called, sparkling wine — period. However, just because it’s not champagne doesn’t mean it’s not high quality. The best sparkling wines share an important similarity with their kin: They are created by methode champenoise. This snazzy term means that the second fermentation occurs in the same bottle in which it is later sold, instead of in a vat — like many of the inexpensive bulk bubblies.

There are a multitude of fine domestic sparklers on the market. Most are under, or around, $20. If you have a favorite import, consider quaffing its California counterpart. They are usually created in a similar style with a more pleasing price tag.

For instance, Louis Roederer lovers should look for Roederer Estate, Taittinger devotees Domaine Carneros, Möet & Chandon fans Domaine Chandon and so forth. There are also a number of nice sparkling wines from strictly American producers such as  Iron Horse, Schramsberg and Jordan Winery. And for the Francophiles, there are a number of French options from areas other than Champagne, along with ones from other parts of the globe.

Blends and Vintage

If it is absolutely a champagne occasion, and you want the best bang for the buck, buy a nonvintage blend. To craft these, juice from the current harvest is combined with reserve wines to achieve a specific house style that remains relatively unchanged from year to year. Most of the nonvintage champagnes fall within the same price range (between $20 - $50), so what you are really searching for is the style you prefer. Möet & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier Jouet and Taittinger all tend to be light-bodied, crisp and elegant. Deutz, Pol Roger, Pommery and Laurent Perrier are medium-bodied and slightly richer. And for those who prefer full-blown, full-bodied, old-style champagnes, Louis Roederer, Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, Bollinger and Krug are prime producers.

Vintage champagne is the next rung, in both price and perception. These wines are made entirely from the juice of a particular year; so while most are in keeping with the house style, the flavor varies from vintage to vintage.

The luxury champagnes are the top-of-the-crop, the “tete de cuvees” (or head of blends). They are created from the finest grapes and only in exceptional years. They are made in relatively small quantities, aged to perfection, and priced accordingly. This is the category that includes Möet & Chandon Dom Pérignon, Roederer Cristal, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne, Krug Clos de Mesnil, Veuve Cliquot Le Grande Dame, Schramsberg J. Schram and several others.

Rose champagne is another splurge. These rather rare wines range in hue from gloriously golden to shimmering pink. And, they have a lovely richness to them that makes them grand with food and better with sweets. If you love the color and concept, but suffer a bit from sticker shock, opt instead for a bottle of blanc de noirs. Champagne is traditionally made from both white and black grapes. Rose champagnes and sparkling wines labeled blanc de noirs (literally white of blacks) are made strictly from the black grapes. The opposite of blanc de noirs is blanc de blancs (white of whites), champagne or sparkling wine made entirely from chardonnay grapes. These wines are usually fairly expensive, clean, crisp and classy – and so light in tint that they are nearly crystal clear.

There you have it — that should be enough information to allow you to add a little extra sparkle to all your upcoming celebrations. Have a safe, splendid new year!

Winkie’s Gravlax
Winkie Case Wright is one of my favorite foodies. This is her divine recipe for classic gravlax. The cured salmon is extra-special served with something sparkling alongside.

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon coarsely
crushed juniper berries
(optional, but extraordinary)
2 (3/4 - 1 pound) fresh salmon
fillets (approximately the same size) center-cut, scaled with skin on and bones removed
fresh dill

1. Combine sugar, kosher salt, pepper and crushed juniper berries to make a dry rub.
2. Rinse salmon fillets with cold water, pat dry, and place on a flat surface, skin-side down.
3. Cover each piece of salmon with a thick layer of the dry mixture. 
4. Place a large bunch of fresh dill on one fillet, and place the second fillet face-down on top of the dill-covered one.
5. Wrap tightly with several layers of plastic wrap and place in a dish with at least 1-inch sides.
6. Put another dish on top of the salmon and weight it with a brick or a few canned goods. Refrigerate for three days, turning the salmon over every 24 hours and draining any liquid.
7. Remove salmon from plastic, brush the curing mixture off the surface, and slice very thinly on an angle, away from the skin. Serves approximately 10 - 12.

Pâté
Good pâté is an indulgence, as is good champagne or sparkling wine. The delectable duo works wonderfully together. This is a traditional recipe from my treasured, well-worn copy of “The Plantation Cookbook,” published by the Junior League of New Orleans.

1 pound duck or chicken livers
3/4 cup sliced mushrooms
2 sticks butter
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup cognac
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon powdered allspice
1/8 teaspoon thyme
parsley, to garnish

1. Rinse livers, pat dry and chop.
2. Sauté mushrooms in butter for 5 minutes. Remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon and set aside.
3. In the same pan, sauté green onions for approximately 5 minutes.
4. Add the chopped livers to the pan, stir and cook until barely pink inside, about 5 minutes.
5. Pour liver and onion mixture into blender or food processor along with mushrooms. Add cognac and seasonings; process until smooth.
6. Pack into crocks, ramekins or a mold and chill. Serve in crocks or ramekins or unmold and decorate with parsley. Serve at room temperature. Freezes well. Serves approximately 12 - 14.

Jo Ann’s Caviar Pie
Lavish caviar pie, Jo Ann King’s specialty, makes a showy appetizer for an elegant event.

1 large sweet onion, finely chopped
butter (enough to grease the pan)
6 hard-cooked eggs, shells peeled
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup sour cream
2 - 3 (2-ounce) jars different colored caviars
3 tablespoons minced green onions, using green and white parts
1 cup small parsley sprigs
1 lemon, halved and sliced thin
water crackers or mini toasts, for serving

1. Place chopped sweet onion on paper towels to drain for 30 minutes.
2. Butter bottom and sides of 8-inch springform pan.
3. Chop 1 egg and set aside for final garnish.
4. Chop remaining 5 eggs and mix with mayonnaise. Spread on bottom of pan in even layer. Sprinkle with drained sweet onion.
5. Beat cream cheese and sour cream together until smooth. Drop by spoonfuls onto onion. With a wet butter knife, spread gently to smooth. Cover. Chill 3 hours or overnight.
6. Thirty minutes before serving, drain the caviar.
7. Just before serving, distribute caviar over cream cheese layer. To make a 3 - 6 wedge pattern, mark top lightly with knife into equal wedges. Fill each wedge with a different variety or color of caviar, holding the straight edge of knife along marked line to form a neat edge on caviar.
8. When all wedges are complete, outline wedges with chopped egg.
9. Run knife around inside of pan. Loosen and lift off sides. Outline top edge with minced green onions. Surround base with parsley springs.
10. Trim tops with pieces of lemon. Serve with water crackers or mini toasts. Serves approximately 14 - 16.

Ginger-Laced Chocolate Truffles
Make these easy, decadent chocolate truffles as a Valentine’s gift for your sweetie. Pair with blanc de noirs or a rose champagne or rose sparkling wine.

1 (8-ounce) block cream cheese, softened
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
5 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
cocoa powder, powdered sugar and/or chopped nuts

1. Beat cream cheese. (A food processor makes this remarkably easy.) Add in confectioners’ sugar a little bit at a time.
2. Melt chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler.
3. Add chocolate to the cream cheese and sugar mixture. Beat until well blended, gradually adding in ginger.
4. Refrigerate for an hour or so.
5. Roll into little balls, then roll in cocoa powder, powdered sugar or chopped nuts to coat. Makes approximately 5 - 6 dozen.

*This article ran in the January 2012 issue of Birmingham Home & Garden's sister publication, Mobile Bay.

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