Retail Training

Mary Ewing-Mulligan.SMALL

Bubbly Options for the Holidays

When customers buy a bottle of wine, most of the time they’re buying a beverage. But when customers shop for sparkling wine, they most likely are looking for more than that. Champagne and other sparkling wines represent ritual, luxury and status even more than they represent something delicious to sip with hors d’oeuvre. The route to offering customers a satisfying bottle lies in understanding what they expect to gain from the wine.

Sparkling wines run the gamut of price from budget to extravagant, and represent a quality range from pedestrian to exquisite. At the highest and lowest price points, quality and price correspond — but in the middle, from $10 to $100 a bottle — price is not necessarily an indicator of quality. And, of course, sparkling wines represent a whole range of tastes, from fruity astis to dry, complex, compelling brut champagnes.

Someone who is buying bubbly for the ritual — the toast at Thanksgiving, the clinking of glasses at the new year, and so on — will most likely want the label to say “champagne.” These are probably the least discriminating customers, willing to settle for a domestic product with a plastic “cork.” If you can trade them up, the best bet in terms of taste is an extra dry champagne — actually a bit sweeter and softer than “brut” champagnes; although the label doesn’t say so, Moët’s best-selling “White Star” is made in this style.

If you sense that a customer wants a nice bottle of wine and isn’t wedded to the name “champagne,” your options are many. Sparkling prosecco is a good bet if the wine will be served to less sophisticated drinkers. Prosecco has a delicate apply flavor, its bubbles are not very aggressive, and it is extremely versatile with food, so almost everyone will like it. Loire Valley bubblies made from chenin blanc, such as sparkling saumur, also deliver a good amount of flavor, and are round and harmonious.

High-end domestic sparkling wines are other options for the customer who’s buying for taste as much as ritual. Blanc de noirs bubblies from California’s top sparkling wine houses have enticing red-fruit flavors that will intrigue tasters and they are also very high in quality. From New York, bubblies in the blanc de blancs style are excellent, and are a provocative, conversation-worthy choice because they are often overlooked in favor of wines from more conventional regions. Champagne itself can also interest this customer, especially if it’s a bit unusual, such as a rosé champagne.

Knowledgeable customers on a budget will appreciate cava, Spain’s native sparkling wine. Because Cava is made using the same labor-intensive method of second fermentation in the bottle as is used in champagne, it carries a true pedigree. And yet its price, especially for the best-known brands, is low enough that many customers could afford to buy enough for a party.

For the luxury buyer, however, champagne is the answer. The choice of which quality level — basic non-vintage brut, vintage champagne, or prestige cuvée — depends very much on the customer’s budget. Prestige cuvées really are the finest and obviously the most luxurious, but not everyone will throw $100-plus at a bottle of champagne. Vintage champagnes are a good substitute; they are finer than basic non-vintage champagnes because they are made entirely from the grapes of a single, very good year, from the best vineyards that a particular producer has access to. The 1996 vintage was a particularly good one in champagne and some 1996s are still available.

While you’re at it, remind your customers to chill their bubbly thoroughly, to return it to the fridge or an ice bucket between pours, and to enjoy it with food. Status symbol and ritual that it is, bubbly is wine, too — and wine is always more enjoyable with food.


Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW is president of International Wine Center, a NYC school for wine professionals. She is also executive director of the internationally recognized Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) programs for the U.S., and co-author of Wine For Dummies. Contact her at info@internationalwinecenter.com

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