Just in time for New Years: Champagne 101

Published 7:11 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Don’t be intimidated by the thought of choosing a champagne for your New Year’s toast.

“A lot of people think that if champagne is going to be good, it has to be expensive, but that really doesn’t guarantee anything,” said Brenda Gillihan, owner of Bon Vivant in Suffolk. “You can have good bubbles at any price you want. You don’t have to break the bank.”

Because champagne glasses aren’t filled to the top, a single bottle can pour seven to eight glasses, compared to the four to five glasses of wine per bottle.

Although the word “champagne” is sometimes mistakenly used to describe sparkling wine in general, champagne is a sparkling wine from the region of Champagne, France. Three varieties of wine are grown in Champagne, and are put through a labor-intensive process to make champagne.

“There are several good options, if you’re looking for a genuine champagne, from $38 to $150,” Gillihan said. “It’s about your taste, though. There are lots of bubbles starting at $8.75 that can be wonderful and allow you that special toast.”

Bubbles and sparkling wine are common names for wines that go through a similar process as champagne does to create bubbles in the wine.

“You also have cavas from Spain and preseccos from Italy. Depending on the maker’s style they can have a little frizante – or spritz – to a lot of tight bubbles,” Gillihan said. “I have ones from New Mexico and California, too.”

The drinks can vary in taste depending on where and how the grapes were grown and how the maker does the second fermentation, when he adds yeast and sugar to the bottle.

“You can taste so many differences in champagne or bubbles. They can be creamy, yeasty, have more bubbles or less,” Gillihan said. “They all have a little different flavor and component. It’s just like cooking with different ingredients.”

For someone who wants something sweeter, “go with a brut and offer something like a crem de cassis [as an addition to the drink]. It’s like a liqueur dessert wine you can use to flavor the champagne to your own sweetness,” Gillihan said.

To make your toasts unforgettable, add some crushed frozen raspberries in the bottom of the glass, or you can make “dancing raspberries” by putting in fresh ones. The bubbles from the drink make them twirl around in circles in the glass.

Gillihan has an even more exotic idea.

“I have hibiscus buds that are in a syrup. You drop [them] into the glass, pour bubbles over them, and the flower opens up inside while giving the drink a little sweetness,” Gillihan said.

In addition to their versatility in taste, champagnes can be paired with nearly any food. Recommended are clean, crisp items such as cucumbers or strawberries.

“Bubbles are so forgiving. They go with so much,” Gillihan said. “They’re great palate cleansers. You can start with them, finish with them or just serve them.”

After purchasing your bubbles or champagne, make sure you put the bottle in the refrigerator for a nice chill — and remember to open with care.

“The cork comes out of the bottle at three times the pressure the air in your tires is at,” Gillihan said. “Shooting it out can be really fun, but it’s not a good idea. Keep your hand over the cork, apply pressure, and turn the bottle slowly. A little sigh should come out if you do it right.”

Bon Vivant is open until 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.