What to drink this holiday season 

VV is an unabashed partisan of Champagne and sparkling wine at all times and for all occasions, feeling that they are extraordinarily flexible with food — and, of course, that they’re just plain fun. But the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s constellation does seem to suggest ginning up the bubble machine, an act that’s made easier by seasonal sales on sparklers. VV is also a partisan of sales.

And this year, if another excuse to pop plenty of corks were needed, you have one: A recent article in the Journal of Nutrition reports on a study, conducted in Barcelona, that suggests that moderate daily consumption of cava (the Spanish term for sparkling wine) “was shown to reduce the levels of substances in the body known to cause the buildup of arterial plaque, which may lead to arterial disease.” Naturally VV is not suggesting you start slugging sparklers as a plaque prophylactic, but we did include cavas in our somebody’s-gotta-do-it tasting for this article — and they also fared well on taste alone.

The Codorniu Original Brut had already topped an Omniboire tasting, but an even more modestly priced Spanish contender, the pretty-in-pink MPX Mas de Monistrol Cava Rosé contained hints of rose petal and strawberry, paired nicely with a creamy Fleur des Alpes cheese, and would make a “wow” wine for a holiday party at about $8.

At $20 but worth it, the Lucien Albrecht Cremant Rosé from Alsace is a substantial sparkler that will stand up to bigger foods such as a peppery Central Market paté. A paler, rose-salmon color distinguished the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico, which presented a pleasant baked-apple profile after opening with a nicely yeasty nose.

Pears came to mind with the Chateau Moncontour Vouvray ($12), a pretty, chenin-based wine that inspired one taster to rhapsodize about “the air before a storm” and remembrances of wild strawberries past. We sipped it with slices of fresh pear, in fact, and fantasized even further.

It’s always good to be reminded of the quality of domestic sparkling wines at all price points, and at around $9 or $10, the Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blanc shows extremely well with its smooth and silky mouth feel and melon-grapefruit flavors. For about $14, the almost-golden Korbel Natural offers comforting, toasty overtones and stood up to sliced fennel with kippered salmon spread (also from CM). One taster liked “The way it plays on my tongue” — just one more benefit of bubbles.

The capability of American soil to produce stellar sparklers hasn’t been lost on the French; the great Champagne houses have simply colonized. Piper Sonoma’s Blanc de Noir ($20) shows little color but counters with citrus and guava on a liltingly light palate underpinned with light toast. That it was great with the creamy cheese was a case of opposites attracting, yet it was also fine with the peppery paté and smoky salmon.

Taitinger’s 2004 Domaine Carneros Brut ($24) opened with the same light toast, then seemed to hold back, waiting for a food partner. Co-dependency is not necessarily a bad thing; the DC made beautiful music with the paté and also complemented some tiny red potatoes that had been boiled, halved, and topped with Icelandic lumpfish caviar, sour cream, and finely chopped red onion. (You have to feed tasters or they get both testy and rowdy.)

The Mumm Napa Brut Prestige showed that the French can retain their characteristic attitude even in foreign climes. Toasty, yeasty, creamy … this was a mouthful, especially good with ripe pear and the buttery Fleur de Alpes. Roederer Estate’s 25th Anniversary ($21) bottling from Anderson Valley played the opposing hand: clean, crisp, and hinting of lime, it was big on the palate in a bright, not plush, fashion that led to good pairing with the potatoes and caviar and a tart artichoke-olive spread on slices of seeded ficelle.

Now, as flexible as VV thinks sparkling wines to be, the temptation to serve them with seasonal sweets should usually be resisted (unless, of course, you have gone for the ambiguously labeled “extra-dry” style). But there are exceptions, both on the dessert and the wine end. A prosecco such as the Rive della Chiesa Montello e Colli Asolani Brut ($15) will seem shy in the company of assertive bubblies, but its “swimming in a clear pond” freshness is perfect with a finale of fresh fruits — and not at all bad with an unadorned pound cake such as the basic one made from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible.

When you start drizzling a chai-spiced caramel over the cake, however, the game changes completely. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper … these are spices that demand some respect — and they get it with the astonishing Scharffenberger Brut ($17), back in form after ownership shuffles. We found (unexpected) chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and more in this multi-spectrum sparkler that was simply stunning with the adorned pound cake.

But if Scharffenberger stunned, the Taltarni Brut Taché, a classic Champagne blend from Australia, no less, elicited a kind of awe normally hard to come by at $17. Its seductively “stained” pale rose color was the first hook; on the nose there were aromas of golden raisins, even (sugar) plums. The same themes persisted on the palate — with added hints of saltwater. The package worked with both the meaty paté and the caramel-coated cake. This is a triumph of terroir over grape types, and the style may not be for everyone. But for us, it was a great Christmas-stocking surprise. It’s good to be surprised now and then.


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