wine features Wine: Sparkling wine for Summer: Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and California, on StarChefs
Celebrating in Summer or Just Cooling Off
July 2009

Red wine: suggested serving temperature approximately 60°F. White wine? 55°F.  Champagne? Ten degrees colder still. The prefix “ice-cold” sells a lot of beer in the summer, so why is the only wine that’s best served the same way the most popular in the winter?

We’ve certainly got it in our heads that Champagne is for special occasions: New Years eve, holidays, weddings, and graduations. Indulgent festivities—in summer, that generally means weddings and graduations—are not the sole occasions that call for bubbly (though they can be an important way to keep the restaurant busy, whether with in-house events or with catering opportunities). Fortunately, sparkling wines can be enjoyed all summer and they don’t have to break the bank.

Sparkling wine very well might be the wine world’s best answer to summer heat. First of all, both the wine’s temperature and the bubbles themselves make it a refreshing, cooling beverage, and one that restaurant guests will down a lot more quickly than a big Cabernet when temperatures rise. Additionally, sparkling wines are high in acidity, which suits them perfectly to a number of summer foods: ham, salads, chilled soups, seafood…all take well to a crisp bubbly.

Unfortunately, these days the classic choice for bubbles, Champagne, comes at a price that stands in the way of it becoming an everyday wine for most people; it’s rare to find anything good under the $40 mark retail. (Making Champagne is a time and labor-intensive—and therefore expensive—process.) On top of that, world-wide demand has stretched the supply into new markets in Asia and Russia, and prices are following the classic economic model we learned in high school. So, there are plenty of Champagnes worth splurging on, but few well-priced values.

It can even make it hard to pour real Champagne by-the-glass, especially given the added waste of pouring out flat wines. The Piper-Heidsieck Brut is one good by-the-glass option; at $25, its rich, fudgy style is what Champagne is all about. Nicolas Feuillatte, at about twenty five years old, one of the younger Champagne houses, has been aggressively shouldering their way into the US market; their Brut Gold Premier Cru ($24) is another full-bodied bubbly, with a good mix of fruit and nutty flavors.

Still French, but limbo-ing under the $20 mark, Cremants are ‘classic method’ (i.e. they’re made using the same techniques they use in Champagne) sparklers that hail from elsewhere in France. The Loire Valley and Alsace use Chenin Blanc and Pinot Blanc grapes, respectively, for their Cremants; I especially like the cinnamon and apple tart aromas of the latter. Lucien Albrecht and Albert Mann both have well-made and well-distributed Cremants in the $15 range, and Domaine Taille aux Loups and Gratien & Meyer make some of the Loire’s more elegant sparklers. An elegant French label can also help restaurant guests overlook the lack of the word “Champagne.”

Spain and Italy both get plenty of hot weather, and their sparkling wines often counter the heat by working the light and refreshing side of bubbles. Spain’s Cava is another classic method bubbly; it ranges from steely and austere to fruity to rich and foamy in style. A great many, unfortunately, are steely, plain, and sometimes harsh. The leanness typical to many owes itself to the traditional grape varieties Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Parellada; many producers are breaking with tradition and turning to Champagne varieties or other Spanish indigenous grapes. Another similarity to Champagne is the way bigger companies, in this case Codorníu and Freixenet, seem to dominate the scene, but there are smaller, family-owned producers finding their way into the US market with high-quality, artisanal wines; look for Avinyó and Parés Baltà, for starters. The best wines are more structured, smooth, and flavorful; good values rather than just cheap.

While Cava can err toward harshness, Italy’s Prosecco, heads toward softness and sweetness when it goes off the rails; nonetheless, the best make virtues of those same qualities without losing their freshness and a crisp finish. Made from the Prosecco grape, they typically show some minerality offset by citrus and peach aromas. Bele Casel makes a drier example; for something a touch sweeter but still well balanced look for Riva di Rocca or Bisol.

Cava and Prosecco both have their own identity, lighter and fresher, if less complex, than Champagne, and well-suited to summer. But in California, the names Mumm, Chandon, Roederer, and Taittinger appear to speak of more serious ambitions. In fact, what they actually speak of is serious investment on the part of those very companies back in Champagne, and that money and pedigree really started to pay off in the past ten years. Quality has reached new heights; while prices have followed a gentler trajectory, the good wines still tend to hover above the $20 point and go up from there. However, they can be good values, offering weight and complexity more reminiscent of Champagne than Cava or Prosecco, and the names look reassuringly familiar on the winelist. For that matter, there are the locally-owned wineries as well: Iron Horse, Schramsberg, and the J Wine Company among them. If for some reason those names don’t suggest the sophistication you’re looking for, it’s time to look again.