Kushman on Wine – Winter Season

Put a little sparkle in the season.


When you talk about wines to match holiday food, you can start and end with bubbly. Literally. Besides the toasts, sparkling wines pair with nearly everything on your table, and it’s a star with salads and desserts, the courses that can embarrass many other wines. Before we get into the pairing, first a story.

It involves the illustrious winemaking monk Dom Perignon. According to legend, he discovered Champagne and said, “Come quickly, I taste the stars.”

Actually, no. The truth is that he went to Champagne, France, to end bubbly wine.

Before I continue, here are a couple facts to remember:

  1. When yeasts eat sugars, they produce alcohol, plus heat and CO2. If yeasts do this in a sealed container — say, a bottle or tank — the CO2 has nowhere to go and becomes bubbles.
  2. Glass bottles first appeared in the 1600s, thanks to the invention of the coal-burning furnace. Those got hot enough to create glass thick enough for wine storage and more.

Back to Champagne in the 1600s. Winemakers then knew how to make wine, but not about yeast or, you know, microbiology. So they crushed grapes, put them in containers, and waited for the gurgling to stop. This meant the yeasts either ate all the sugars or expired. Winemakers only knew it meant their wine was done. Then they put it in bottles.

But Champagne was one of Europe’s coldest winemaking regions. There, the gurgling stopped because the yeasts went dormant from the cold. They woke up in the warm spring inside bottles, finished eating the sugars, and, voilà, wine with bubbles. So many bubbles that bottles often exploded.

So that ol’ monk, Dom Perignon, was sent to fix this. He couldn’t. He did, however, help perfect other winemaking and some marketing. Champagne winemakers decided to embrace it and said, “Our wine is great because it has bubbles.”

Now, back to what I was saying about sparkling wine and holiday food. (And, note, only bubbly from Champagne, France, gets to be called Champagne.) Bubbly goes with everything because the freshness and the bubbles make it a palate cleanser that stimulates your taste buds.

It’s outstanding with salads, vinaigrettes, or acidic flavors, which can wipe out lots of other wines, because most bubblies have their own acid backbone, and for our taste buds, acid cancels acid, so the wine and salad flavors meld.

Sparkling wines rock with dessert for this refreshed-palate reason, while sweeter bubblies and sweets can be magic. (Side food-pairing tip: Your wine — if it doesn’t have bubbles to freshen it — usually should be sweeter than your dessert, or the wine will taste sour.) One last thing. For a dry bubbly, you want brut on the label.

Sparkling wine labeled extra dry is kind of sweet, and dry is borderline soda-like, which only makes sense if you know that in the 1800s, Russian tsars were huge Champagne consumers, and they liked their wine very sweet. For them, extra dry tasted nearly sour. And that’s another piece of bubbly’s holiday charm: It comes with good stories to tell around the table.

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