Oxford Town Wines

John JuergensThe power of the bubble

Summer is the perfect time for sparkling wines, especially relatively inexpensive types. Most of us probably can't overcome the urge to hold on to what we consider a special bottle of high-end sparkling wine or true French Champagne for some unanticipated special occasion. So it sits there in the rack like a faithful dog just waiting for "the call."

But sparkling wine can turn any summer time meal into a wonderful event. So I encourage readers to pick up a few bottles of something like the bubbly made by Chateau Ste. Michele, Roderer Estate, Freixenet, Montsarra, or a multitude of other brands from all over the world that sell for less than $20. I guarantee that if you pull one of these out unexpectedly when folks come over for an informal cookout, or you show up for a cookout or a picnic with a sparkling wine, you will change the entire atmosphere of the event.

When I was a single stud-muffin living in a yuppie apartment complex in a fashionable part of Memphis back in the 1970s, I would take a bottle of inexpensive but pleasant sparkling wine to the group cookouts that occurred throughout the summer. It absolutely wowed my contemporaries, and it got me lots of dates with gorgeous women who normally would not give me even a glance, because it made me look like a "man of mystery."

I mention this only as an example to illustrate how sparkling wine can influence the ambience of a situation, never mind that in my case the mystery was quickly exposed as a charade and I never saw any of those women for a second date. But that wasn't the wine's fault. So give this a try at your next cookout or when you go to dinner as a guest. But please do not take one of those really inexpensive sparklers at or under $10. For some reason when these kinds of wines show up at a party, everything comes to a screeching halt, as if somebody just peed in the punch bowl.

As an aside, here's something interesting that happened to me recently when I opened an old (5 or 6 years) bottle of the Spanish Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry sparkling wine I had forgotten about in the back of my wine cellar. Normally, this wine should be consumed when you buy it. It is not like high quality French Champagnes that take on a glorious character as they age. These kinds of wines eventually take on a deep straw color and develop a sort of burnt sugar and vanilla character. But not many people these days get to experience the velvety smooth elegance of these kinds of wine because 1) we don't want to pay that much ($30 - $100) for a Champagne, and 2) we don't have the facilities or the patience to wait for it to mature. But I know where some are scattered around the country. I am monitoring the situation like a sleeper agent and plan to come out of hibernation to be there when they are opened.

I'm not sure if it was just a fluke with this bottle of Freixenet, but when I popped the cork on this "aged" sparkling wine it had exactly the same character as some of those perfectly aged and outrageously expensive true Champagnes. And I doubt that my friends who have had the good fortune to experience fine, mature Champagne would have known this was about a $12 wine. I think the small amount of residual sugar in the Extra Dry version helped protect the fruit flavors over those years, and allowed it to age gracefully. I'm going to get another 5 or 6 bottles and put them away to see if I can repeat that effect. So check back here in about 5 years to see what happens.

And speaking of the sweetness sparkling wine, unless you know your audience I would always take an Extra Dry version as opposed to the Brut. The Extra Dry has just touch of sweetness to offset the bracing acidity of the grapes and carbonation, so it goes down real smooooth like, based on evidence from those yuppie cookouts in Memphis.

One final issue about sparkling wines, and just about any other kind of wine for that matter. This is directed primarily at restaurant waitstaff who might have gotten some bad advice on how to serve wine. As I have mentioned on many occasions, there are very few absolutes when it comes to wine, and one of them is to NEVER, EVER pour a wine by putting your thumb in the punt or indentation in the bottom of the bottle. This is one of those really stupid wine snob affectations that is just plain, well, stupid and risky, because you don't have good control of the bottle.

As with so many things, the punt was a practicality of early glass blowing. It served two major purposes. First, it eliminated the rough and often sharp pontil point as the bottle was finished. This tended to scratch both the table and the person pouring the wine. And second, it made the bottle more stable on the table. It was never intended to be used for pouring the wine. For sparkling wines, the punt also adds structural strength to the bottle, which frequently has internal pressures three times or more normal atmospheric pressure.

This is one of my most annoying pet peeves about wine, so I am putting all restaurants on notice: If I'm ever in your restaurant and a waiter attempts to pour wine with their thumb up the bottle's butt, I will get up and leave the restaurant. For me this as offensive as if the waiter brought the salad with his or her finger up their nose. It's disgusting and I don't want to see it. My brand of snobbery trumps that kind of snobbery.


June 2008

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguyvt@bellsouth.net

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