It’s almost the holidays, and as we celebrate the season and ring in the New Year, many of us will be popping open a bottle of bubbly: prosecco, Lambrusco, pét-nat, cava, and of course, Champagne. But for the average drinker, telling the difference between all of these forms of fizz might be a challenge — not to mention picking the right one to bring to your seasonal get-together, without breaking the bank.
Thankfully, Gastropod is here to help. In the latest episode, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley break down the science and history behind sparkling wine, from the monks and widows, kings and celebrities who made it so special, to the tricks that the rest of us mere mortals can use to make sure we get the best out of our bubbly.
Featured on the episode is Gastropod’s favorite sommelier, Lauren Friel, founder of Somerville, Massachusetts’s Rebel Rebel natural wine bar and co-founder of the restaurant Dear Annie in Cambridge. An award-winning veteran of the wine scene with a laid-back, open-minded approach, Friel also had some recommendations for Eater readers looking to pick the perfect bottle of bubbly for upcoming holiday events. Whether you’re a sparkling wine connoisseur or a novice looking to try something new, read on for the lowdown on bubble basics, Champagne pairings, and a few brands you should be stocking in your refrigerator. Fizz the season!
Gastropod: First of all, why do we drink Champagne and sparkling wine for celebrations? What’s the connection?
Lauren Friel: Champagne being known as a celebratory beverage dates back to almost 900 AD. Reims, which is a town in Champagne, became the coronation site for French royalty around that time. So the wine that was made from that region was associated with aristocracy. And there’s something about it: the wine itself is special, the experience of drinking the wine is special, and the way it makes you feel is special. Every life event can be marked with a bottle of champagne.
For those of us without a wine education, what are some things that distinguish true Champagne, made in Champagne, from other sparkling wines?
Champagne has to come from the Champagne region, and it does specify the use of specific grapes: The three big ones are pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier; it can be a blend of all three, it can be all of one variety. Similarly, there are regulations in other parts of the world that are famous for their sparkling wines. So if you’re making prosecco, there are some rules about the grapes that you can use. If you’re making cava, there’s some rules about the grapes that you can use, and so on and so forth.
Champagne wines are also usually bottled under higher pressure. The production method creates a really fine bead — a really tight bubble — that will persist in the glass for a very, long time. Other wines that are made in the pét-nat method or the Charmat method are not going to hold their bead as long. The bead tends to be a little bit bigger: Not quite foamy, but what I would call like a fizz instead of a real true Champagne bubble. I do also think Champagne is uniquely mineral-driven. There’s often a tension and power in the structure that’s hard to find elsewhere.
What would you recommend to someone trying to pick a bottle of bubbly — or multiple bottles! — for all of the different holidays up ahead?
For your holiday table, particularly if it’s you and your family, or your chosen family, go for something nice. That’s where I would spend the money. If you’re not wanting to spend Champagne money, it’s not hard to find beautifully made wines that have a really lovely story.
For New Year’s, people are generally drinking all day, and I often feel by the time the Champagne comes out, it’s wasted on folks who’ve had too much [to drink] already. So what I would say is, if you still want to drink Champagne: incredible. Get a nice affordable bottle, and do one bottle. Don’t buy a half case of Champagne for your New Year’s Eve party. New Year’s Eve is a great time to explore some of these other styles of sparkling wine, and then maybe splurge on one bottle to be opened at midnight — or however late you are able to stay up.
Are there specific foods that we should pair with Champagne during holiday meals?
When I was working in restaurants where I was doing tasting menus, I often didn’t have the opportunity to taste the dishes in advance of service, and was kind of having to come up with pairings on the fly. Champagne was always a really nice kind of ace up the sleeve because it goes with more or less everything. Its natural, cleansing acidity makes it a great pairing for dishes that have a lot of fat or richness; or for things that are fresh and vibrant. It’s just a great chameleon. I like it with pizza.
What are some specific Champagne brands that people should look out for, especially if they want to try something new?
Laherte Frères are wonderful. They make a wide range of styles at a very friendly price point. Lelarge-Pugeot, similarly, though it may be a little harder to find. Tarlant is a longtime favorite of mine. I will say none of these are producers that you’re going to be able to walk into, like, your local package store and pull off the shelf. But if you spend 15 minutes Googling a boutique shop in your area, they’ll like have one of these on the shelves.
Finally, when do you drink Champagne?
I am one of those annoying people who will suggest that you should try to drink Champagne as often as you can. I’m aware that’s not fiscally responsible. However, I think that Champagne is an easy way to make an everyday moment feel special.
This interview has been edited for clarity.