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Friday, Feb. 8, 2008

Sparkling wine for your Valentine


Special to The Japan Times

'I start every morning with a glass of champagne," declared a friend of mine once, a food and beverage director of a hotel in Austria.

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Dom Perignon is only made in great vintages with top-quality grapes

"Oh, with some orange juice for a mimosa, right?" I asked.

"Oh no, a glass of champagne. After that, I can handle anything!" he retorted.

Each February I am reminded of my friend as wine shops around Tokyo stock up on sparkling wines in anticipation of Valentine's Day. These dance on your palate and tingle as they trickle down your throat.

If I had my way, I would start my day James Bond-style, with a glass of Bollinger from Champagne (¥7,875), with its aromas of freshly toasted brioche and citrus fruits.

But while most of us — myself included — can not afford the luxury of starting each morning with a glass of champagne, it did get me thinking — there are many other sparkling wines in the world, and perhaps I could kick-start my mornings with other bubblies.

Before we dive in, a tip: If you are going to start drinking sparkling wines at home, do yourself a favor and invest in some proper flutes. The taste and aromas of sparkling wines are lost if they are served in a regular wine glass.

Sparkling wines made in France but outside of the cool-climate region of Champagne are referred to as cremant. These can be made with the same grapes as champagne — pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier — and with the same technique (methode champenoise), which makes them worth trying.

Methode champenoise is the traditional way of making champagne, the key being that the wine goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, creating tiny bubbles. It is a labor-intensive process and therefore expensive, but these cremant wines often ring in at a lower price at the cashier than the similar champagnes.

One to look for is Voarick Cremant de Bourgogne (¥2,900). Made with pinot noir and chardonnay, it hints of lemon with floral honey aromas.

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Barokes canned sparkling wine

The royalty of sparkling wines are those made in Champagne. Attributes of these great wines include fine bubbles (the finer the better quality), a food-friendly acidity and often a long, rich finish.

The top of the line, or te^te du cuvee, are adored in Japan. In particular, Dom Perignon is only made in great vintages where the weather and conditions permit for top-quality grapes.

Only top vintages are made into "vintage wines." In less than ideal years, the wine is kept in the champagne house and then used to blend into "house-style" wine. As these are a mixture of different vintages, these wines are referred to as multivintage (MV) or nonvintage (NV).

For a richer sparkling wine, sample a cava from Spain. The grapes, traditionally xarello, parellada and macabeo, render a wine that is austere, and as the vineyards' climate is a bit warmer, cava tends to lack the cool acidity prominent in champagne. These are great by themselves as brunch wines to splash with some cassis for a Kir Royale. Freixenet (¥1,700) is a popular brand and is available in Japan.

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Green Point NV Brut, from Australia, is made using traditional Champagne methods

Perhaps some of the best sparkling wines available are coming from the new world — look to countries such as Australia and the United States for some top-quality sparklers. The knowhow is there and the winemakers are not burdened with traditions dictating how things are to be done.

One handy example of this can be found in a can from Barokes (¥398). I had my first on a Qantas flight to Sydney and was tickled with the floral aromas of the rose.

Also from Australia, the Green Point NV Brut (¥2,100) is another favorite sparkling wine made in the traditional method as used in Champagne. The grapes are chardonnay and pinot noir and are grown in cool climates, resulting in wine that is crisp on the palate and goes well with many types of food.

And if that's not enough, there are also sparkling wines made from Canadian ice wine or the effervescent fruity red Lambrusco from Italy. Why limit yourself to champagne? Did I really just write that? Yes! Have fun with it.

While I am not about to start each morning with a glass of champagne, it is nice to dream. And in the meantime, there is a world of sparkling wines to explore.



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