The sound of champagne corks popping is about to ring over our land as New Year’s Eve approaches.
But if you love the sparklers, why limit yourself to one kind, boringly passed around at midnight? Break out of the bubbly rut this year. Host a festive champagne tasting as a different kind of celebration.
Organizing a tasting at home is simple, with a little knowledge and advice. Some wine shops will even put together private tastings for you.
Because you’re tasting small amounts, you could splurge on that more expensive bottle you’ve always wanted to try. Foods to complement the wine — go as fancy or as simple as you like — make an elegant party.
First, the guest list. Eight to 12 people is a good number for dividing the bottles and to get conversation going about the champagnes, says Natalie MacLean, author of “Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.”
A typical tasting will take two to three hours. You could start in early evening, or if you’re celebrating New Year’s Eve, time the tasting to wrap up with a grand finale champagne at midnight.
The number and types of sparkling wine you serve depend on your budget and level of interest. MacLean suggests serving six or eight bottles of the wine in two flights, or groups, of three or four, broken up by time for discussion.
“If you want true French champagne, that will be fairly expensive,” says Emily Howard of Seaboard Wine Warehouse in Raleigh, which held an in-store tasting of sparkling wine earlier this month. “I will sometimes suggest they try ones from around the world. It will be fun and less expensive.”
Take a tasting trip from sparkling Shiraz from Australia to Austrian gruner veltliner.
“I suggest comparing non-vintage French, such as Veuve Clicquot and Roederer, with California bubbly such as Domaine Carneros or Chandon, and Roederer,” MacLean says. “You could also throw in Spanish cava and Italian spumante.”
Consider wines that will surprise people, such as Gruet Brut from, believe it or not, New Mexico, says Arturo Ciompi, wine writer for The Independent in Durham.
“It’s really good, not too expensive and a real conversation starter,” he says.
You could toss in a North Carolina sparkling wine as well. Biltmore Estate, Childress Vineyards and Duplin Winery all make them.
Here’s another approach: Rip the veil of mystery from champagne by holding a blind tasting. Get a variety of American (did you know there’s Michigan sparkling wine?) and French sparkling wines and hide the bottles in numbered paper bags.
“See if people can tell the difference,” says William Daley, wine writer for the Chicago Tribune. “Give the guests little score sheets to write down their favorites, and ask them to guess which wine comes from where. Give a bottle of bubbly to the winner.”
Because this is a tasting, you won’t be serving a full glass of every champagne, unless you want your guests to end up sleeping on your floor. A 2-ounce pour (about 1/4 cup or slightly more than a jigger) will allow a good taste without going overboard, and should allow one bottle to serve 10 people.
Since you want to show off the wine to its best advantage, use the right glasses. Flute-shaped glasses — not saucer- or trumpet-shaped ones — are best for retaining the bubbles and aroma of the wine. If you don’t own enough, borrow or rent some. This is not a time for disposable plastics.
Provide mugs or cups to use as spittoons for those who want to taste without consuming too much champagne.
Sparkling wine should be served colder than white wine, says MacLean, who also publishes a wine e-newsletter at www.nataliemaclean.com. Aim for 40 to 45 degrees. A room temperature bottle should chill to that point in the refrigerator within two or three hours, or put them in ice water for 30 to 45 minutes.
“Just don’t put it in the freezer, unless you want exploding bottles to be part of the night’s entertainment,” she says.
Keep the bottles chilled during the tasting by placing them in a large bowl or bucket of ice water, or pop them back into the fridge.
The order in which you taste the wines is important. Start with the driest and end with the sweetest. Also, lighter wines should be tasted before heavier ones.
The food you serve with the tasting should complement but not compete with the sparkling wines, since they’re the stars of this show.
You can’t go wrong with traditional oysters on the half shell or caviar, but there are many more foods to explore.
“One thing to look at when pairing food with champagne is you need some fat to cut through all the bubbles,” says Phil Evans, executive chef of the Umstead Hotel and Herons Restaurant in Cary.
Evans likes the combination of foie gras and sparkling wine. But if that’s a budget-buster for you, other good matches are shrimp, black cod, sablefish or halibut. Heavily smoked fish may overwhelm the wine, but cured fish, such as gravlax, or tuna carpaccio may pair well.
The mild flavor of chicken won’t compete with the wines, but beef or lamb is more problematic, Evans says, although Ciompi enjoys beef carpaccio with champagne.
Choose rich but mild cheeses, such as a ripe, creamy brie. The stronger flavors of sparkling Shiraz would work with a heavier cheese, such as gorgonzola, or try bite-sized gorgonzola quiches, Howard suggests.
Evans says that one fallacy about matching food with sparkling wine is the romantic idea of champagne and chocolate. It doesn’t work, because the extreme sweetness and heaviness of chocolate makes dry champagne taste bitter.
If you’re determined to serve chocolate, pair it with a sweet dessert sparkling wine. But there are other good dessert options that work with dry champagnes, such as crème brûlée or fresh fruit.
The main thing to remember is that this is champagne — have a good time.
“The holiday is a time to be creative and have fun with drinks as well,” Evans says.