Perhaps no other beverage can generate attention like sparkling wine. Uncorking a bottle in a crowded dining room is known to elicit heads turning to find the origin of that quiet “pop,” not to mention fear of missing out (FOMO) if the ritual is not happening at their table.
Watching the glass fill with a liquid that’s at once alive, festive and full of history can lead to giddiness well before the first sip is taken. As the season for bubbly now extends well beyond the December holidays and Valentine’s Day, wine lovers have discovered a wealth of fun options with year-round appeal.
“The biggest trend I’ve been seeing everywhere is a frenzy around sparkling rosé,” says Vincent Samarco, general manager of Workshop Kitchen & Bar, a new 120-seat restaurant in Los Angeles. Fizzy pink wine takes the rosé craze that began last decade one step further, he says. The restaurant plans to offer a Crémant d’Alsace Rosé by the glass.
At Aba, a 250-seat Mediterranean restaurant in Austin, TX, with influences including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, rosé cava and prosecco are the most popular sparkling wines on the menu. “We select [sparkling] wines from the regions that influence our food,” says Senior Beverage Manager Thomas Mizuno-Moore. These include the 2019 Raventos Blanc “De Nit” Cava Rosé from Spain for $16 a glass and $76 a bottle.
Guests opting for a bottle instead of a glass tend to show more interest in a wide variety of regions and styles. Kir-Yanni “Akakies,” for example, is a sparkling rosé made in Greece using the xinomavro grape; it’s available at Aba for $60 a bottle. The restaurant’s by-the-glass sparkling selections range in price from $12 to $18, while bottle selections range from $58 to $1125.
“Recently we’ve seen a regression in prosecco and ‘cheaper’ forms of sparkling wine that have been more popular in the past,” says Nick Baitzel, director of operations for Sojourn Philly Restaurant Group. The company’s concept Rex at the Royal, a 150-seat Southern-inspired restaurant and curated bottle shop housed in the historical Royal Theater, offers three sparkling options by the glass and 14 by the bottle.
Baitzel deems the creamy and full-bodied Sauvage by Gruet, a Blanc de Blancs from New Mexico, as the most Champagne-esque of Rex’s glass pours; it’s available for $19 a glass and $78 a bottle. And Bouvet Brut Rosé ($14 a glass, $56 a bottle) is a pink option that’s versatile any time of day, including brunch.
Franciacorta Finds Fans
Franciacorta, Italy’s answer to Champagne, has become decidedly more popular — and familiar — to sparkling wine fans. It can also be a great foil to counter recent price increases on Champagne.
At The Betty, St. Julep and Willow bar at the Kimpton Sylvan Hotel in Atlanta, Laurent-Perrier Brut RosÉ is priced at $39 a glass. Manager and sommelier Joe Billesbach started pouring the Ca’ del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Brut ($23) from Franciacorta as an alternative to Champagne, and guest feedback has been positive.
“It has all the depth of flavor, structure and effervescence you would expect from a great Champagne, but at a much better price,” he says of the Franciacorta. It’s also a tableside teachable moment for diners who’s only experience with Italian bubbly has been prosecco.
But while its shared pedigree, including production methods, lends comparisons to its French cousin, Franciacorta’s terroir, tradition and varietals make it distinctly unique. “The result in the glass is a riper fruit profile leaning towards citrus and stone fruit notes, coupled with more approachable acidity and drier dosage levels at most brut styles,” explains May Matta-Aliah, U.S. Franciacorta Educational Ambassador.
Longer aging after secondary fermentation lends Franciacorta elegance and a creamy, luxurious texture. “The wines have beautiful balance, are very vinous, can easily be enjoyed on their own but really shine with food.”
Baitzel is also excited about lightly sparkling wines from another Italian region. “Producers like Contratto have been at the forefront of quality sparkling wines from Piedmont, but I am excited about the more natural, frizzante-style wines.”
Rex at the Royal features Marchese Luca Spinola “Col Fondo’ frizzante ($80 a bottle), made exclusively with the cortese grape. “It’s approachable enough for less adventure drinkers, but has enough nuance and funky notes to excite the natural wine drinkers as well,” Baitzel says.
Grower Champagnes Popping Up
Despite the plethora of sparkling alternatives, Champagne is like the little black dress that will never go out of style, perpetually garnering legions of fans. But what Champagne devotees are drinking — and when they are drinking it — may be changing a bit.
At Bresca, a 60-seat Michelin star-rated restaurant in Washington, D.C. that’s focused on the Paris bistronomy movement, the curated selection of Champagne including both larger houses and grower producers. Bottles range from $80 to $1,200, with the sweet spot for most falling between $140 and $240.
“We are seeing more guests comfortable enjoying Champagne not just as an aperitif or for special occasions, but as a pairing throughout their meal,” notes beverage director Will Patton. Bresca has also seen an uptick in interest in grower Champagnes, those made by the vineyards that grow the grapes vs. the large Champagne houses.
For instance, Georges Laval Cumineres 1er Cru Brut Nature ($220 a bottle) is a top seller, as is J.Lassaigne ‘La Colline Inspirée’ Extra Brut Blanc de Blanc, which is on the list for $240 a bottle. And Bresca is the only restaurant in Washington, D.C., that carries Valentin Leflaive CV1540 Blanc de Blancs by the glass, for $40.
A recent Rosé Cuvée event at the restaurant introduced guests to pink sparklers, while another dinner served five sparkling wines from around the world (including Champagne), paired with five of chef Ryan Ratino’s summer dishes. “Spring and summer are premier sparkling wine seasons, but there really isn’t a downtime for Champagne sales,” Patton says.
Bubbly from Britain
One under-the-radar region that’s slowly gaining traction for its sparkling wine is England, represented by producers including Nyetimber and Balfour. Champagne house Pommery sees the potential for British fizz, as it’s often dubbed, crafting a Louis Pommery England Brut.
“The region surrounding the Cliffs of Dover is nestled on insanely pure limestone, making for sparkling wines of extreme minerality,” explains Jordan Deis, bar supervisor at the 105-seat Peacock Room, a New Orleans craft cocktail bar with an extensive selection of rare spirits and enticing selection of wines. “These wines can be a little tricky to find, but when they are made with care, they can rival some of the most respectable Champagne houses.”
Amy Mundwiler, wine director of Maple + Ash modern steakhouse in Chicago, agrees. “Too often, people only think of France and Italy, but I have been loving what Digby Fine English and Sugrue South Downs have been doing.”
Maple + Ash’s wine list runs deep with bubbles from all over the world ranging from $53 to $2,100 a bottle; they offer Digby Fine English Leander Pink Brut Rosé and Reserve Brut for $145 and $180 a bottle, respectively.
Other often-overlooked regions for sparkling wine can dazzle guests looking for something a little bit different. Aba offers the 2018 Bodegas Los Bermejos Brut Nature Lanzarote from the Canary Islands for $90 a bottle. “It’s made entirely from the malvasia grape and it’s just an insanely good food wine with great acidity, texture and minerality,” Mizuno-Moore says.
As a sommelier who used to manage a large sparkling wine list at his former Boston restaurant The Beehive, Bertil Jean-Chronberg has seen the market for bubbly dramatically shift in the past few years, from lower-end prosecco and cava to wines made in the ancestrale and charmat method as well as crémant and mousseux. He attributes much of that to the natural wine movement that’s taken hold in his market and around the country.
Jean-Chronberg’s Bonde Fine Wine Shop in Cambridge, MA, specializes in eco-responsible wineries. Pét-nats — pétillant naturel or naturally sparkling — represent 60% of the yearly sparkling wine sales. The shop carries 100 labels total. “
“A domestic pét-nat at the price of Champagne today is completely acceptable by the consumer,” says Jean-Chronberg, “[with its] funky aromas, low alcohol, low PSI and visually attractive label.” Bonde’s pet nats range in price from $22 to $42.
He cites the category’s popularity having an impact on other less expected bubblies — such as red sparkling wines — and is excited about offerings from regions including Vermont, Maine, Quebec, Ontario, Massachusetts, the Finger Lakes, Long Island, Maryland, Michigan and England. “Cold climate and short maceration [are] the most important factors in producing a quality sparkling wine.”
While Bonde opened in 2021, wine shop Bacchanal Wine has been a fixture in New Orleans for two decades. It has expanded over the years to include a kitchen, dining room and bar and live music.
Director of operations and wine director Coryn Caspar has also seen pét-nats surge in popularity among its 350 offerings. “They are often fizzy and fun and really easy to down,” she points out. “And some of them are actually complex enough to keep you interested.”
Each December (except for a two-year hiatus during Covid), Bacchanal hosts Bubblyfest, which highlights grower Champagne houses and other sparkling producers around the world who use estate-grown grapes. It’s a great opportunity for guests to try some new wines and shop for the holidays, Caspar says.
While the price and complexity of some bubbly doesn’t lend itself to mixing, other bottles can deftly elevate a cocktail, adding freshness and more easily delivering aromas with each sip while moderating the alcohol content of included spirits. Peacock Room features the Copper Canvas ($15), with Malfy blood orange gin, Grand Marnier, Pimm’s No. 1, cucumber and sparkling wine, and the Squawk of Shame ($14), which mixes Ford’s Gin, basil, passionfruit, Contratto Aperitif and rose water, topped with bubbles.
At Workshop Kitchen + Bar, bar manager Jessi Lorraine offers The Queen of Hearts ($16). Watermelon is salted and made into a cordial, stirred with blanco tequila, blood orange vermouth and Chareau aloe liqueur, topped with sparkling wine and served in a large wine glass over ice garnished with thinly sliced lime wheels. “Watermelon, blood orange and aloe dance along the bubbles of dry Champagne, making a drink truly fit for a queen,” she says.
Wine drinkers are finally looking beyond sparkling wine as a celebratory toast and seeing it as the versatile, food-friendly option that it always is. Somms and chefs are answering the call with surprising pairings that seamlessly work.
At a recent dinner, Bresca paired Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois, an oak-fermented style, with Wagyu beef. Baitzel believes full-bodied Champagnes with brioche notes and a creamy mouthfeel are the perfect match for sushi, sashimi and tempura, but doesn’t underestimate the synergy of pimento cheese spread with an off-dry moscato or prosecco. And Mizuno-Moore “melts into his chair” just thinking about bubbles with chicken and waffles at brunch.
When in doubt, Samarco keeps it simple: Pair bubbly with someone you cherish, and a cured meat and cheese plate with fresh bread. “To me, there is no such thing as an unexpected pairing for sparkling wine — and there is no wrong pairing with it, either,” he says. “Sparkling elevates moments shared.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator based in the Washington, D.C. area.