I'm not really one to make New Year's resolutions, but if I were, stepping out of my culinary comfort zone more often would be a good one. For example, at my favorite restaurants, I have a really hard time deviating from my go-to dishes. Yes, I'm sure that San Francisco's Liberty Café makes all sorts of delicious food, but I have never once been able to bring myself to order something other than their glorious chicken pot pie.
Thankfully, I'm a lot more adventurous when it comes to wine. I love discovering interesting varieties, regions and producers. Rather than focusing on the tried-and-true wineries at industry tastings, I gravitate toward the ones I've never heard of. And why taste yet another Napa Chardonnay when there's an Anderson Valley Edelswicker to be had at the next table?
It was this try-anything-once mentality that led me to the subject of this column: unconventional sparkling wines for New Year's Eve. While you couldn't go wrong with, say, a lovely sparkling wine like Roederer Estate's L'Ermitage, there's a whole other world of bubbles out there to explore. Why not pop the cork on a dry sparkling Gewürztraminer or effervescent mead when the clock strikes midnight? And who says sparkling wines have to be white?
You won't find these bubblies in the picked-over, last-minute aisle of your local supermarket on New Year's Eve, but they're worth the extra effort it takes to find them. (Hint: Try the wineries themselves or check WineSearcher.com to locate hard-to-find bottles in stores across the U.S.)
Australia is home to many fascinating and unusual creatures, including the koala, the wallaby -- and, sparkling Shiraz. This bubbly red wine is made using the traditional méthode Champenoise process (adding yeast and sugar before bottling so the wine will undergo a second fermentation inside the bottle), and is typically dry in style. Over in Oz, sparkling Shiraz is considered a serious wine -- sort of a manly man's version of sparkling rosé. It can be amazingly complex, and a fantastic accompaniment to foods like roasted turkey and grilled sausages.
One of the best I've tasted is the Majella 2004 Coonawarra Sparkling Shiraz ($27). Deep garnet in color, it has aromas of blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and spice. The wine has lots of lovely fine bubbles and well-rounded flavors of ripe black currant and blackberry. Rich, but still fairly dry, it's delicious on its own, or with mild Italian sausage.
Another tasty option is the Trevor Jones Sparkling Red Wine ($19.99) made from Barossa Valley Shiraz. It's lighter in color than most sparkling Shiraz, with flavors of raspberries, black cherries and spice (black pepper comes to mind). It's nicely balanced, with light bubbles. Easy to drink on its own, or with grilled meats.
For a California twist on the Australian specialty, pick up a bottle of the Geyser Peak 2003 Sparkling Shiraz ($32), made from Sonoma County fruit by native Aussie winemaker Mick Schroeter. Another deep, dark beauty, this sparkler has a fresh plum aroma, with a touch of black pepper. Flavor-wise, it's rich and fruity with intense blackberry flavor. (Note: This wine is only available in the winery's Geyserville tasting room.)
Sparkling Shiraz isn't Australia's only red sparkler. The d'Arenberg 'The Peppermint Paddock' Sparkling Chambourcin ($21) is a serious red wine trapped in a sparkling wine's body. Made from Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid grape, the wine is an inky purple in color. Truly dry and somewhat tannic, it has aromas of blueberries and powerful dark fruit flavors. This is about as masculine as a sparkling wine gets -- and it really is delicious. Make sure you have some meaty food on hand when you drink this one, mate.
The Korbel 2005 Rouge ($12), made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, is somewhat more reserved. It has a beautiful cranberry color, along with medium-dry black cherry and plum flavors. It's nicely balanced, easy to drink and a great value at just over 10 bucks. The Rouge is light enough to drink as an aperitif, yet flavorful enough to pair well with meat dishes and pasta with lighter-style red sauce.
Sparkling Riesling is made in both Germany and Austria, where it may be labeled as 'sekt' (the term is basically the equivalent of sparkling wine, cava or any other 'Champagne' substitute).
If the thought of sparkling Riesling gives you Asti Spumante flashbacks, you're in for a nice surprise. Dry (yes, I said dry) sparkling Riesling can be as refreshing and wonderful as a brut Champagne. Case in point: the Wegeler Sekt Brut Sparkling Riesling ($19.99), from Germany. It has the floral aroma, mineral character and acidity of a great Riesling, without the residual sugar of some still wines. It's light and refreshing, with an abundant supply of fine bubbles. The sparkler is ideal as an aperitif, but is also versatile with food.
Dry sparkling wines also can be made from Gewürztraminer. A very good example from California is the Harvest Moon 2005 Russian River Valley Brut Sparkling Gewurztraminer ($36). The winery made only about 100 cases of this tasty, dry bubbly, so getting your hands on a bottle will require a visit to Harvest Moon's Santa Rosa tasting room, or a phone order: (707) 573-8711. It has a pretty floral aroma, fine mousse and crisp apple flavor with citrus notes.
On the off-dry side, the Lazy Creek 2007 "L'Apertif de Gewurztraminer" Anderson Valley ($20) is a slightly sweet treat. The Mendocino County winery is known for its still Gewurz wines, and winemaker Josh Chandler makes this one from some of his best low-tonnage, old-vine grapes. It's made in the style of a classic Moscato d'Asti: lightly effervescent and mildly sweet, with honeyed apple and pear aromas and flavors. This would be great with a pear tart, or proscuitto-wrapped melon.
If you've never tasted mead (and you probably haven't, unless you happen to frequent Renaissance fairs), the dry, sparkling variety is a good place to start. Made from honey rather than grapes, mead is said to be the world's oldest alcoholic beverage.
While you might think that a drink made from honey would be, by definition, tooth-achingly sweet, it is possible to ferment it dry.
California's Heidrun Meadery, just south of the Oregon border, makes eight different varieties of méthode Champenoise mead that are definitely worth a taste.
Just as the type of plants pollinated by the attendant bees influence the flavors of honey, they affect the flavor of the resulting mead. When I first sampled different varieties of sparkling mead at the same tasting, I was amazed by the flavor differences between them.
For example, the Heidrun 2003 California Sage Blossom Sparkling Mead ($18) has an herbal aroma and flavor, with notes of honey. A little bite kicks in after the initial sip, but it balances out when food is added to the equation. Try it with a mild Cowgirl Creamery blue cheese.
Heidrun's 2006 California Orange Blossom Sparkling Mead ($18) is somewhat sweeter than its sage-y cousin. This one has peach aromas with tangerine, honey and lime/citrus flavors. It's nicely balanced with a long finish and light effervescence. I would drink this with a lightly sweet fruit tart.
If you've already picked up a tried-and-true bubbly for New Year's Eve, it's never too late to expand your vinous horizons: Valentine's Day is right around the corner.
Editor's note: Tina Caputo is Managing Editor of Wines & Vines Magazine and the latest addition to our superb team of columnists here at Wine Review Online. This is Tina's debut column.