Wine Time

Champagne Socialism for Christmas and New Year's 2018 (A Sparkling Wine Guide for the Holidays)

Champagne Socialist in Milan, Italy. It's one of the city's coolest new wine bars.
Champagne Socialist in Milan, Italy. It's one of the city's coolest new wine bars. Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
"The Champagne socialist," wrote George Cary Eggleston in 1906, "wants everybody to be equal upon the higher plane that suits him, utterly ignoring the fact that there are not enough Champagne, green turtle, and truffles to go round."

The former Confederate soldier, self-described rebel, and memoirist from Indiana was right about one thing: The scarcity of green turtles would lead the federal government to outlaw the harvesting of the chelonian with the United States Endangered Species Act of 1973.

But beyond the regrettable and predictable demise of the cute little green creature (and the disappearance of Campbell's turtle soup), Eggleston would be surprised to learn that in 2018 Americans — even the American proletariat — no longer face a dearth of truffles or sparkling wine.

Today the aromas and flavors of truffles can be endlessly reproduced in a petrochemical lab.

And even though climate change has made it challenging for Champagne growers to produce enough to satisfy the world's thirst for their wines, globalization has reshaped the sparkling wine market over the last 30 years: Today, there are more sparkling wines available to us, from more places across the world, than ever before.

The Christmas and New Year's holiday season is the one time of the year when not all but many of our fellow Americans feel compelled to serve and consume sparkling wine, including those who don't drink it on a regular basis. If you are among them, the following are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when you visit your favorite wine shop or retailer.

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The hills of Valdobbiadene in northeastern Italy where Prosecco, the world's most popular and proletariat sparkling wine is grown and vinified.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.
Champagne: When it comes to Champagne, there are actually a lot of affordable options that don't compromise on quality. If you shop wisely, you can find labels from top houses for under $40. But don't be afraid to ask about "disgorgement" dates, in other words, when the sediment was removed from the wine and it was bottled and shipped. You don't want to go home with Champagne that's been sitting on a wine shop shelf for too long. Some Champagne can age well but not all does, especially when it comes to entry-tier wines.

Prosecco: The most popular and affordable sparkling wine in the world today is Prosecco from northeastern Italy. When it comes to these wines, which are meant to be consumed within a year or so after their release, I can't stress enough how important it is to make sure that you are getting a current vintage. It's pretty hard to find a bad Prosecco but it's sadly all too easy to find wines that have gone stale. Some Prosecco producers now release vintage-dated wines. But in my view and experience, these tend to be overpriced. Ask your retailer about ship dates (i.e., when did the wine arrive at the shop). And look on the back label to see if the bottler included a vintage date. This year we should be drinking nothing older than the 2017 harvest. Look to pay around $15 for a good bottle, around $20 for a great bottle.

Moscato d'Asti and sparkling Moscato from Italy: This category from northwestern Italy is what you want to reach for when you and your guests thirst for sweet wine during the holiday season. While Prosecco and Champagne are becoming increasingly drier, a reflection of the world's growing taste for dry wine, Moscato remains unabashedly sweet. Like Prosecco, the prices are affordable and the over-arching quality is solid. And as with Prosecco and Champagne, make sure you are getting the current release of the wine (2017 is the current vintage). Expect to shell out $15 for a good bottle, around $20 for a great bottle.

"Classic Method" or "Traditional Method" wines from across the world: Champagne can only be produced in the French region of Champagne. But the the "Champagne method" can be employed anywhere else in the world. Outside of Champagne, it's known as the "classic method" or "traditional method." All wine is made to sparkle by fermenting it in a pressurized environment. In the case of sparklers like Prosecco from Italy or Sekt from Germany, the overwhelming majority of wines is made using the "tank method": The winemakers provoke a second fermentation of the wine in a pressurized tank (hence the name) to produce the bubbles. For Champagne and classic method wines, the second fermentation take place in a bottle. Classic method wines are more expensive to produce and the process is reflected in the price. But the wines can be much more nuanced, more complex, and more age-worthy than their tank-made counterparts. Look for classic method wines from Spain (Cava), Italy (Franciacorta and Trento among others), South Africa (méthode cap classique or MCC) and France (Burgundy and the Loire Valley deliver great wines known as Crémant, for example). California also produces excellent classic method wine (although there is no official designation for them).

No matter what sparkling wine you're pouring this holiday season, make sure you have plenty to go around. After all, the sparkling wine socialist is always the life of the party! 
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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen