Unusual Year Calls for Unusual Sparkling Wines

It’s been a year, hasn’t it? At first I was just calling it, “The Weirdness.” But then I turned to my favorite phrase: shitstorm. We’ve muddled through 10 months of lock-downs, mask-wearing, social distancing, restaurant and bars open, closed, open, closed, anxiety baking, eating outdoors in 40 degrees, more mask-wearing, civil unrest, an election and more! Every day called for a glass of wine, or a cocktail or a beer. And as the year winds down and we celebrate the weirdest holidays in the freaking history of holidays – sparkling wine is on my mind.

But not just Champagne. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Champagne – but if this year has taught us anything, it is that we are adaptable and trying new things became a way to add some excitement to this weird life. I received samples of three really unusual sparklers recently — and I’m adding in one of my sumer finds, too. All of these sparklers sit at the intersection of delicious and affordable – or affordalicious, as I call it. Take a look below, hit your wine shop and let’s all raise a glass to slamming the door on this shitstorm of a year!

Steenberg Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc ($18) The minute I saw this bottle, I went bananas, because the package is SO great! The bright orange label and necker, the cage and cork without the traditional foil capsule — everything about it screamed “modern and fun.” And then I popped it open and I was like, “YES! It is just as delicious as I was hoping!”

For starters, it’s from South Africa and is 100 percent Sauv Blanc, made in the Traditional Method, like Champagne is. What this means is that the second fermentation – the one that creates the bubbles – happens in the bottle (as opposed to a giant tank, like Prosecco is made). Wines made in the Traditional Method often have an enticing yeastiness – which comes from the wine spending time on its lees – which are spent yeast cells that have done their job of eating the sugars and turning them into alcohol.

On top of this alluring toasty aroma, this Steenberg Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc is a glass of grapefruity goodness with a side of fresh tangerine. The wine has a really delicate texture and gives you a bright and happy tingle on the tongue. (And Chicago friends – you can get it at Bottles Up! on Broadway near Belmont for $18!) Oh, it’s so much fun, this wine, I love it!

Biltmore Estate Brut Sparkling ($35) Wow, wow, wow …. I’m gonna give it to you straight – I was skeptical about this wine because: North Carolina. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s don’t judge a wine by its origin. And my skepticism disappeared after the first sip. Come on!! If I had tasted this wine blind, I would’ve called Champagne. It’s that similar. Again, made in the Traditional Method, it is like crisp warm toast topped with a rush of green apple, pear, toasted almonds and lemon zest. It goes on for days. It’s a blend of the three classic grapes of Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (but I couldn’t find the percentages, sorry).

I shared it with my neighbor while we watched a streaming theater production of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and we both agreed it went exceedingly well with cheese/caramel popcorn mix, candied walnuts and sharp, salty Cabot Cloth-Bound Cheddar. Well-done, Biltmore! Winemaker Sharon Fenchak is proving that world-class sparkling wines can be made in North Carolina!

Lambert de Seyssel Petit Royal Sparkling ($20) I was super curious about this wine, partly because I got to know the wines of the Savoie region of far Eastern France last year and was blown away by how delicious they are! Again, we have a sparkler made in the Traditional Method and the wine is made from two white grapes that are primarily grown only in the Savoie region: Molette (70 percent) and Altesse (30 percent). This wine is lean and mean – very dry, very crisp — and conjures up thoughts of lemon pie, green apple and honey. I adored it. We thought it would be divine with any salty foods, like prosciutto, oysters with tangy mignonette sauce, buttered, salted popcorn, potato chips, French fries, fondue and more! It seems to be sold-out at the moment, but ask your wine shop person to find it for you. It is fun, fresh, flirty and French and I loved it!

ISC Brut Ombré Rosé ($20) I got to know this wine over the summer, when I took a field trip to Utica, Illinois – that’s right, Illinois – and was gob-smacked by the quality of this wine. It’s 100 percent Chambourcin and 200 percent delicious! It’s got a tantalizing double-Jolly Rancher thing going with both watermelon and green apple flavors. The wine is dry, fun and fizzy and owner/winemaker Mark Wenzel is really putting Illinois on the map for quality sparkling wines. In addition to this bottling, he makes eight other sparklers, ranging in style from Pet Nats to Brut Zero (ultra-dry). This pretty pink fizz was my favorite of his – tied with the exclusive collab wine he does with Chicago’s Pops for Champagne, the Ensemble Extra Brut. The wines are pretty widely available throughout Chicago and Illinois and they ship!

There you have it – unusual sparkling wines to cap a most unusual year. I hope you have some wonderful food and drink planned with friends and family either in-person or not (I’m lookin’ at you, Zoom) and I’ll see you on the flip-side! Cheers, everyone!

3 comments

  1. What a GREAT list and theme! (an unprecedented list even…the word that should be banned in 2021) Glad we got to do the 4th but definitely going to try to find the others–get an extra bottle of the Steenberg in case I can’t and we can share it when I come back? Like you I visited there–my early 40th b’day–and I have NEVER had a sparkling Sauv Blanc! Will share the list with my bubbly-loving pals! Cheers!

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