The only thing more intimidating than opening a bottle of champagne is buying one. That's why folks like Kenneth Bement are in such high demand come the holiday season. For a quarter century he has dispensed a healthy dose of knowledge along with every bottle from his amazing Madison-based shop Wet Your Whistle (6663 N Ridge Rd., 440-428-5339). On display are roughly 80 bottles of bubbles that range from $10 on up to a couple hundred. We asked him to walk us down the aisle.
The Gold Standard
"Great Champagne or sparkling wine should feel creamy in the mouth from tiny bubbles – not big and gassy," explains Bement. "You should detect aromas of fresh-baked bread and yeast in the nose. The wine should taste attractive, crisp and lively."
Champagne with a Capital "C"
"The first thing I like to ask a customer is if they want real Champagne or sparkling wine," he says. "Champagnes are wines that are made not just in France but in a very, very small little district just east of Paris. It's a very coveted trademark."If the answer is yes, Bement steers the customer away from what he calls "mass produced" Champagnes like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm and Pierre Jodet and toward a small "grower" Champagne – aka Farmer Fizz.
"Unlike the Budweisers of the Champagne world, these wines are the indies of the region," he says. "These are people who are growing the finest of the grapes, adhering very strictly to the traditional methods, and making better crafted wines." And at half the price, he adds.
Priced around $35 to $45, these are often the best deals in the bubbles aisle.
French but not Champagne
If you take a few steps outside the Champagne region of France you land in Burgundy, home to white and rose sparkling wines made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. With these Cremant de Bourgogne wines, as they're called, you're getting the "same French philosophy of making wine but you're saving a lot of money," Bement points out.
Blanc de noirs, white champagne made from red wine grapes like pinot noir, tend to be more full bodied, says Bement, than blanc de blancs, which are made from white grape varieties and come across as more ethereal, lighter bodied.
Cremant de Bourgogne wines often fall in the $20 to $40 range.
"Rosé Champagnes and sparkling wines are tremendously exotic, with flavors of crisp strawberry," Bement says. They are showstoppers both in the bottle and out, making them insanely popular right now.
At the top end, Bement recommends Billecart-Salmon, a dry rose Champagne for roughly $90. On a budget? Grab a bottle of Poema, a beautiful Spanish sparkling rose for just $10.
Cavas, Proseccos, Sekts
In Spain, sparkling wines are called Cavas. In Italy, they're called Prosecco. And in Germany and Austria, they're called Sekts. And all of them, notes Bement, are worth exploring.
"Cavas are a great choice for the lay person who buys with their wallets as they provide wonderful flavors and packages on a budget," he says. Try Dibon Brut Reserva Cava or Dibon Brut Rose Cava, each for around $10.
"Proseccos are just fun," he says. "They are not aged as long, so they are going to be more fizzy, but still really fun." If you like a hint of sweetness, look for the words "Extra Dry" on the label. Great Proseccos can be found for $15 to $20.
Germans are the biggest drinkers of sparkling wine in the world, so they kind of know what they're doing. "Sekts provide a nice alternative to traditional champagne flavors and aromas," Bement says. "For those whose palates demand a little bit of sweetness, they can opt for a Riesling Sekt, which is not too sweet or cloying." If you can find Dr. L Sparkling Riesling, get it for around $15.
Care and Feeding
Chill the bottles well before drinking them. "Chilling brings the crispness and acidity to the fore, but the flavors won't be as intense. But as it warms up, more flavors will open up," says Bement.
Most bottles have a wire basket cap holding back the cork because the contents are under pressure. "The fun way to break lamps and put people's eyes out is to use your thumb and push the cork out, but that's not the best way to do it." Instead, hold the bottle firmly and gently twist and ease the cork out.
Tilt a clean champagne flute and gently pour the wine down the inside of the glass. Allow the bubbles to subside before adding more.
"Champagne is not just for celebrations, it's not just for New Year's," Bement reminds us. "It's the Perrier water of the wine world; it goes with just about everything. And there's always something exciting about pulling the cork on a bottle of champagne."