Restaurant Reviews

Sparkling Leftovers

Put a couple of drops of good old Angostura bitters on a sugar cube. Drop the cube in your champagne flute, fill the glass with bubbly and garnish it with a twist of lemon. Voilà! You've got a London special, the traditional British champagne cocktail. The sugar cube not only sweetens the drink a little, it also emits a constant stream of bright and shiny little bubbles.

The London special had some ardent admirers among our champagne cocktail tasting panel, but it finished second. The winner, by a few fractions of a point, was the poinsettia, a brightly colored holiday libation made with cranberry juice cocktail and named for the potted plant.

Every year at this time, we hold a champagne tasting event to help you with your holiday bubbly buying. Our past tastings have yielded some startling results. Last year, a panel of wine experts blind-tasted sparkling rosés from all over the world (see "Drink Pink," December 12, 2002). In that tasting, two $10 sparkling rosés tied for second, while a $170 bottle of Palmes d'Or rosé, Nicolas Feuillatte's prestige cuvée, scored dead last. And in a blind tasting held two years ago by the Houston Press editorial staff ("Blind Drunk," November 29, 2001), Freixenet, the familiar and inexpensive Spanish cava, was rated just as highly as Mumm Cordon Rouge, a real French Champagne.

This year's champagne judges were enlisted from a not-very-exclusive group that calls itself the Houston Wine & Social Club. Basically, the gang consists of anybody who responds to wine tasting invitations posted on their Web site,

The subject of our tasting this year was a little different from the usual, and so was the methodology. In the blind tastings of the past two years, we've pretty well established that most of your friends can't tell the difference between a $25 bottle of French Champagne and a $6 bottle of Spanish cava. As a result, I for one have begun buying a whole case of highly rated but inexpensive bubbly for the holiday party season, thus saving scads of money.

But I've also discovered that, even if the cheap stuff does taste just as good as some French Champagnes, I get a little bored with the flavor somewhere around bottle seven. And when the parties are all over, I usually end up with a few leftovers. Which is one reason why my New Year's Day brunch always features mimosas, the half-orange juice, half-champagne breakfast cocktails, alongside the black-eyed peas.

But champagne isn't just for breakfast anymore. So in the interest of more creative drinking, this year I decided to dedicate our annual tasting event to champagne cocktails. There was no reason for a blind tasting, since we used the same sparkling wine in each and every cocktail. Our choice was François Montand Brut, a French bubbly from outside the Champagne district (which makes it a sparkling wine rather than a Champagne). It sells for $9.99 a bottle at Spec's, and it's one of wine buyer Bear Dalton's favorites, so there's plenty in stock.

Our tasting focused on some new and unusual champagne cocktails along with some old stand-bys. A few, like the Southern Comfort champagne cocktail and the melony (made with champagne and melon liqueur), scored so low we won't bother to include them here. But I guarantee the winning recipes will make your leftover holiday champagne taste more interesting. Once you try them, I'm willing to bet you'll be tempted to serve them at your New Year's Eve party, too. Either way, Happy New Year!

1. Poinsettia (average score: 7.7)

Note the festive holiday name. Nice color too, as the cranberry juice cocktail tints the champagne a glowing pink. The touch of triple sec adds some tartness. The addition of one red raspberry makes a striking garnish. Judges' comments included "subtle, simple" and "turns so-so wine into a great cocktail."

1 teaspoon Cointreau or triple sec
2 teaspoons Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine
1 fresh raspberry

Pour the Cointreau and cranberry juice cocktail into a tall six-ounce champagne flute. Add the wine, pouring a little at a time to avoid overflow. Garnish with a raspberry.

2. London special (average score: 7.5)

Three of our voters gave this drink a 9. Among the comments were "clean finish" and "light and delicate." People who like the taste of bitters absolutely love this drink. But the judges who liked the fruit-flavored cocktails hated this one. Everyone agreed that the constant stream of bubbles made it very attractive.

1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine
Twist of lemon

Sprinkle the sugar cube with the bitters. Drop the cube into a tall six-ounce champagne flute. Add the wine, pouring a little at a time to avoid overflow. Garnish with the lemon twist.

3. Ambrosia (average score: 7.1)

This traditional champagne-and-apple cocktail was once made using apple brandy with orange liqueur added for tartness. But the invention of the schnapps liqueur called Sour Apple Pucker, which is used in the popular apple martini, has made the recipe much easier. Comments included "great aroma" and "perfect balance of champagne and fruit flavors."

1 teaspoon DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine
Thin slice of apple for garnish

Pour the schnapps into a tall six-ounce champagne flute. Add the wine, pouring a little at a time to avoid overflow. Garnish with the apple slice.

4. Craft cocktail (average score: 6.9)

This ingenious champagne-and-pear cocktail was invented at Craft Restaurant in New York. If you macerate the pear cubes for just the right amount of time, they will "dance" in the glass, floating up and down in the stream of bubbles. Comments included "very fresh" and "love the dancing pears." Don't forget to dice the pear and soak the cubes in pear liqueur (such as Mathilde) precisely two hours in advance. If they soak too long, they sink.

1 teaspoon fresh Bartlett pear, cut into quarter-inch cubes and macerated in pear liqueur then chilled
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine

Pour a teaspoon of pear cubes and pear liqueur into the bottom of a tall six-ounce champagne flute. Add the wine, pouring a little at a time to avoid overflow.

5. Kir royale (average score: 5.8)

Crème de cassis is an intensely colored black currant liqueur. To make the French wine cocktail called kir, you put a little crème de cassis in the bottom of a wine glass and add white wine. To make kir royale, you substitute champagne. Sounds good, but the classic French champagne cocktail was rated only slightly above average by this crowd. Comments ranged from "delightful color" to "tastes like a grape Popsicle."

1 teaspoon crème de cassis
5 ounces chilled sparkling wine

Pour a teaspoon of the liqueur into the bottom of a tall six-ounce champagne flute. Add the wine, pouring a little at a time to avoid overflow.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh