FD: Wine Column December 24, 2009

Whatever you call it, punch livens up a holiday party

When an invitation came to attend a friend’s “Stray Cats” Christmas get-together, the third question (after “Where do you live?” and “What time?”) was, “What can I bring?”

“Oh, I guess you can could bring some wine, if you want,” I was told. “We’ll have Champagne punch.”

I love parties where someone else does all the pre-party thinking and cooking and there’s not much to complain about when the hosts serve bathtub-sized bowls of “Champagne” punch.

But the French might let out a howl. With no disrespect, it’s really sparkling wine punch, since the name “Champagne,” as in the Champagne region of France, is legally protected (see Treaty of Madrid, 1891, and a European Union court decision, 1994, among others).

The U.S., of course, generally thumbs its collective nose at such technicalities and allows American winemakers to use the “Champagne” label in a somewhat generic manner.

The practice occasionally has run into some international problems, such as earlier this year when Belgian customs officials used what was described as giant mechanical claw to destroy 3,200 bottles of E. & J. Gallo’s André sparkling wine — or, as the wine-giant prefers to label it, André California Champagne.

Other countries have long made sparkling wines, and steady readers of this column will recall

I’m a great fan of Prosecco (Italy) and cava (Spain). Both are less-fizzy than Champagne, a fact I find in their favor when it comes to pairing with many different foods.

Champagnes often are rated (i.e., priced) on the size and amount of bubbles. Nothing hints at romance and even decadence as the sight of those thin lines of crystal beads etching up
through a flute of Champagne.

The finer, the better, and sometimes you can tell a cheap sparkling wine by the coarse bubbles bursting on the surface, more like Coke than a fine wine.

And one day, kids, the Grinch will tell you why a flute is the worst glass from which to drink Champagne or any sparkling wine, but that’s for another holiday spoiler.

The better Italian and Spanish sparkling wines also have fine bubbles and you don’t pay through the nose to enjoy them.

By the way, Italian sparklers are known generically as Spumante while the Spanish term cava (it’s actually a Greek term but no quibbling at Christmas) refers to the caves (in Spanish, cuevas) used for aging wines.

These wines also are noticeably less-expensive than the French versions. Cristalino (Spain) is immensely affordable at around $8 a bottle while you can find Mionetto’s top-line Prosecco di Valdobiaddene at under $15.

Gratefully, there are some delightful U.S. Champagne-type wines that won’t cost you an arm and, well, the French did much to promote an invention by one Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, and yes, real champagne prices can be heady.

Some American versions that won’t disappoint the holiday crowd or break the holiday budget include Gruet (New Mexico), Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros (both the latter being the California branch of the French winemakers).

Gee, where was I going with this? Oh, yes, rosés at Christmas.

A sparkling punch isn’t a bad idea, since sparkling wines pair with a immense variety of foods.

Sometimes, though, the mix in the punch might not be a good match.

Rosés, however, are a great match with many foods, so being a contrarian I offered to bring some pink wine to share.

Normally thought of as warm weather drinks, rosés are remarkably versatile and versatile is good during the Christmas holidays.

And during the dreariest part of the year there’s nothing quite as refreshing as picking up a glass of rosé and being greeted with the summery bouquet of bright red berries and fresh citrus.

Plus, after nearly wearing out the plastic paying for Christmas gifts, it’s nice to know you can find very good rosés for less than $15.

The menu also will feature turkey (there’s probably nothing that pairs with turkey) and a ham.

Hmmm. About a medium-bodied red? Pinot noir comes first to mind but after doing some research late last week, I’ve decided on a Barbera, the second-most popular varietal in Italy (behind sangiovese) with low tannins and high acidity, perfect for the medley of Christmas dishes.

Montevina has one for $9, and even the Grinch likes that price.


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