Delicious, fun and food-friendly, the popularity of sparkling wine continues to expand from special occasions to everyday enjoyment. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
High prices for Champagne coming from big houses has meant increased opportunity for sparkling wines from other regions of France, as well as from Spain, Italy and many other parts of the world. The popularity of classic and craft cocktails has influenced sparkling wine consumption as well.
“Occasion is the driver, then price point, time of day and frequency,” says Julie Galbraith, brand manager for Mumm Napa. Operators say that sales are not necessarily higher during the holidays, but when consumers who drink sparkling wine on an everyday basis do want to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like, they may spend more on a nicer bottle.
Sparkling wine is a great choice before a meal, either as an apertif or instead of a traditional cocktail. “The high acid and bubbles help to prepare you for food,” says Mauro Cirilli, wine director at Press Club in San Francisco. Presenting it as an aperitif is a good way to introduce guests to sparkling wine as an everyday choice.
Cocktail culture is raising the profile of sparkling wine on-premise as well. “A lot of consumers drink it as a way to start the evening,” says Galbraith. “It complements the cocktail craze.”
Outside of the Champagne region, Vouvray in the Loire Valley offers one of the best sparkling wine values, according to Cirilli. “Chenin blanc is one of the most underrated varietals, for elegance, minerality and complexity, and Vouvray can be bone dry to sweet,” he says.
Italy’s prosecco and Spain’s cava continue to gain in popularity as consumers become more familiar with them. “People understand prosecco for value,” says Nicole Kosta, beverage director at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. “There is average prosecco, but some very good ones, too,” she says.
Pedro Goncalves, wine director at Oceana Restaurant in New York, is a fan of cava. Though different grapes are used for cava, “it’s made the same way as Champagne and rarely very expensive. For what you get, it’s great bang for the buck.”
The French had a strong influence on cava, Goncalves notes, “but the Spanish developed it to suit their taste and style.”
Goncalves says sparkling wines may start coming from unexpected places, especially sekt wines from Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Made with native varieties, they pair well with the local cuisine, he says.
Domestic producers are also gaining traction. Goncalves, for one, cites Lieb Family Cellars from New York’s Long Island.
Brian Confair, beverage manager at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, PA, says his outlets do well with Argyle from Oregon and Chateau Ste. Michelle (just rebranded Michelle) from Washington. Michelle is one of Hershey’s house sparkling wines, Confair says, noting that its affordability makes it a popular choice at weddings.
Leading the growth of domestic brands, though, is the preponderance of sparkling wine from California. Goncalves praises the California producers: “Lots of French houses are making sparkling wines in California. It’s a terroir difference, but when you have a vintage sparkling from California, it will remind you of Champagne.”
Kosta agrees, citing a vintage bottle from Napa Valley’s Domaine Carneros she recently opened as an example. But as an Australian, Kosta has a soft spot for Australian and New Zealand wines, which she says lead the way in green and sustainable wine practices.
Her wine list includes Quartz Reef Brut from New Zealand, which Kosta chose because “it’s biodynamic and truly a great value.” It’s a 90-plus rated wine that’s typically found for about $30 retail; she marks it up to just $48.
While she admits they are not always an easy sell, Kosta recently included a sparkling shiraz on a tasting menu, pairing it with lamb carpaccio. “People went crazy for it,” she says.
With the current popularity of cocktails in general, there’s a greater opportunity for sparklers, according to Mumm Napa’s Galbraith. Drinking sparkling wine vs. still wine has the effect of “keeping the energy at the same level” as others who are drinking cocktails, she notes.
Sparkling wine cocktails are becoming an important category. Options abound beyond Mimosas in the morning and the French 75 at night. At family-style Italian restaurant Carmine’s in New York, sparkling drinks include the Pomegranate Spritz, Aperol Fizz and a Berry Basil Bubbly, which is similar to a Bellini, says Erin Ward, beverage director of parent company Alicart Restaurant Group. The bubbly drinks sell for $12.
Hershey’s Confair says he always has a sparkling cocktail on the menu and multiple flavored Bellinis; he also offers Bellini bars for events. Cocktails with bitter flavors are becoming more popular, he notes, “which will help the sparkling cocktail program have even more success.”
The Mandarin Oriental’s Make-Your-Own-Champagne-Cocktail bar is a favorite for meeting breaks, wedding parties, and showers. Guests can indulge in a variety of Champagne Cocktails, creating the drinks themselves with ingredients such as orange and pineapple juice, Angostura bitters, sugar cubes, and a raspberry, blackberry or lemon twist as garnish.
SELLING THE SPARKLE
Operators with robust sparkling wine programs stress the importance of having a range of by-the-glass options. Both Kosta and Goncalves say people are more apt to order a glass than a bottle, so having several choices is crucial.
Likewise, Confair recommends having both a lower and higher price option in addition to a house sparkling wine.
It’s important to train staff so that they can help educate customers and provide solid recommendations. Confair says he holds staff training sessions on a monthly basis. His two sommeliers run through pairings daily with the waitstaff and has them pick what wines will go well with featured dishes.
Ward makes sure Alicart’s staff knows the backstory on the wine. “We talk about the process of how it’s made, the producer, the story of the winery, and we taste the products so they can talk about it,” she says. “The more passionate they are, the better—that’s how we approach it.”
Cirilli agrees. He coaches the Press Club staff on how to approach guests and emphasizes the importance of making eye contact and “not being too geeky, to ensure guests listen.”
Special events also encourage customer education in a fun environment. Recommended styles of events include walk-around tastings and wine-pairing dinners.
You can partner with sparkling wine brands on tastings and pairing dinners. Kosta says the big brands typically have more budget for such events.
Sparkling wine appeals to many consumers because it’s light, floral and not too sweet “It has taken off in the last two years—it’s a huge value and seller,” Ward notes.
As the economy rebounds, Ward thinks guests will start to explore some of the higher-end sparklers. “I hope the higher tier comes back, because there’s a lot there.”
The more people enjoy everyday sparkling wine, she says, “the more comfortable they feel, and the more ready for an adventure they will be.” ·
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, recipe developer and restaurant reviewer. She is the editor of the award-winning food blog “Cooking with Amy” and author of WinePassport: Portugal and Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Appetizers.
Other Italian Sparklers
Beyond the popular prosecco, several other Italian sparkling wines are bubbling up. Mauro Cirilli, wine director at Press Club in San Francisco, likes moscato. “It’s easy to drink, low alcohol and slightly sweet, very aromatic, and enjoyable any time of the day, he says. “It can be an aperitif and it works well with spicy food.”
Not surprisingly, moscato is popular at Italian concepts such as Carmine’s, says Erin Ward, beverage director of its parent company Alicart Restaurant Group. While Champagne does well at the casino locations, she says most of the restaurant’s sparkling selections are prosecco, lambrusco and moscato. Ward likes lambrusco as an aperitif; she finds it to be a great food wine, very versatile with body and weight to it. —AS