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A Winemaker's Journal


By Elias Fernandez

It must be the holidays … colored lights are blinking on rooflines, Christmas trees are strapped to the tops of minivans, and Champagne corks are flying. I see more flutes of sparkling wine on restaurant tables, at friends’ houses, and even here at the winery, where we pause for a toast to the vintage that has been and the one that’s to come.

Makers of bubbly certainly have reason to celebrate at this time of year. They sell more Champagne and sparkling wine between November and December than they do during the other months on the calendar put together.

Why is sparkling wine so popular at this time of year? I’d guess that those long lines of tiny silver bubbles spiraling from the bottom of your glass fit right in with strings of holiday lights and all the glittering baubles hanging on Christmas trees.

In my own life sparkling wine brings back wonderful memories of my first winery internship, which was at Schramsberg Vineyards here in Napa Valley. In doing so I was fortunate to start at the top. Few American producers can match the beauty and complexity of their sparkling wines.

Of course my internship there had little to do with beauty or complexity. It was bona fide hard work – harvesting grapes, loading presses, racking wines and so forth. Even though it was tough, I learned that the best sparkling wines can rival their still wine peers.

It’s a loss that sparkling wine is so widely treated as a liquid appetizer (when it’s not being sprayed all over racecar drivers). The great sparkling wines of the world can be amazing companions throughout an entire meal.

A real holiday treat is to plan a champagne dinner. Start with a light aperitif along with hors d’ouvres. Move to a heavier-bodied sparkler with dinner. Champagne works especially well with fish – the oils and the acidity are a beautiful marriage in your mouth. End your feast with a sweet Crémant to go with dessert.

Check with someone at a good local wine shop to guide your purchases.

And remember, your food/sparkling wine pairings don’t always need to be anything fancy. A well-known winemaker friend says one of her favorite pairings is Champagne and onion rings.

When purchasing sparkling wine, it is important to check the label for the words méthode champenoise. This French phrase indicates that the wine in the bottle was produced in the traditional Champagne method, using the noble varietals of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The bubbles in the wine were produced by a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Seeing méthode champenoise on a label will not guarantee a brilliant bottle, but it’s usually a good sign.

Other key words on the label will be Brut, Extra Brut, Natural, or Blanc de Noirs. These terms indicate the dryness or sweetness of the wine. Again, you may want to discuss your preferences with a knowledgeable wine shop owner.

The most important issue, however, is to drink wine you enjoy, with people you love. Happy holidays and enjoy those bubbles.