Wine Enthusiast Discusses Wines of the Season

With just weeks until Christmas, the shopping frenzy is in full force. But sometimes the best gift is a good bottle of sparkling wine. Wine enthusiast Callie Crossley offers tips on wines of the season.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Well, we're more than halfway through December. The holidays are in full effect. And for many people, the holidays are not complete without bubbles, lots of bubbles, the kind found in a glass - especially champagne.

Now, I'm no expert, but I do know that while all champagnes are sparkling, not all sparkling wines are champagne. So, what's the difference? Does it really matter?

Here to help us sort out the mysteries and put our best foot forward when picking special wines for the holiday season is Callie Crossley, wine enthusiast and lover of all things grape. She joins us from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge.

Hi, Callie. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Founding Member, Divas Uncorked): Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great, now that I have you to help us with this important project.

Ms. CROSSLEY: And I'm just coming over.

MARTIN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, let's start with our basics. What's the difference between champagne and any sparkling wine?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, champagne is made in a specific region of France, and they have the total legal name. So anything other outside of France, in the Champagne region, is referred to as a sparkling wine.

MARTIN: But let's decode the rest of what's on these labels, shall we? Demi and du sac.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Demi means that it's pretty sweet. Du is really sweet. And, really, most champagne is brut - B-R-U-T. And if it's extra brut, that means it's extra dry.

MARTIN: Now, I know a lot of people probably know some of these labels like Dom Perignon or, what is it? Taittinger?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Hmm.

MARTIN: Something like that, some of these labels. So tell me about these big labels that a lot of people know. Does it really matter?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes, because when you're looking at a vintage, a premium vintage champagne like a Dom Perignon, what you're paying for is the loving care that's been put into this fermentation. They're getting the finest, finest bubbles, which is an indication of a very fine premium vintage champagne, and the fact that it's done in the bottle.

A lot of fermentation is done in tanks and then put in the bottles, and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But when you want the premium, the best, the yummiest, you'll want something like a Dom Perignon. That's why you're paying $200 a bottle.

MARTIN: Now, if - do most people buy champagne or sparkling wine to pair with food, or is it mainly for sipping? But if you do want to serve it with food, what foods do you think you'd enjoy most with it?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, here - this is, to me, the greatest bargain for sparkling wines and champagne, and that is that it goes with everything. You could start with the caviar, appetizers and go all the way through the dessert. And it's just something about the bubbles and the clean taste of it that just acts as a palate cleanser.

There are some - I just read about a famous chef who said that he doesn't - he would not pair champagne with chocolate. Now, I always have paired…

MARTIN: He's a fool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: I know. Everybody…

MARTIN: He's a fool.

Ms. CROSSLEY: …likes it with chocolate. So I guess he's particularly picky. I don't know.

MARTIN: He must not ever go out on a date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Now, as you were saying, speaking of something that's good value, I'm not trying to go broke. I'm not trying to go broke this holiday season. So…

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, I hear you.

MARTIN: So hopefully, you've got some things for us to try that will still allow us to, you know, pay the mortgage at the end of the month and pay all those other Christmas bills, yes?

Ms. CROSSLEY: You're absolutely right. And good sparklings are just along every price point. And some of them are just downright cheap. For me, that's just, you know, $10 to $15 a bottle - like a Gruet from New Mexico, which is my favorite right now.

MARTIN: From New Mexico. That seems like an odd place for it - for a wine.

Ms. CROSSLEY: From Mexico, and it usually averages about - I know. But you know what, the father of the winemaker today - the guy who started the vineyard there made champagne in France and came to the United States looking for a place to make champagne, and went to California because that's where everybody told him to go. And then he thought, I don't like it here. I think New Mexico has a better climate and better soil to really make a good sparkly. And so he would know. He came from the Champagne region. And, in fact, his stuff is great.

MARTIN: All right. Here we are. We've got three bottles that you've selected for us to try. Do you have any tips on opening the bottle so that it doesn't -you know, at these prices, we don't want it all over the floor. So can you help us?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Absolutely. What you want to do is remember to twist the bottle, not the cork. And when you do that, you should get a very soft pop and all your bubbles will stay in the bottle, and not on the floor.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, here. Let's have a little bit of a pour.

(Soundbite of champagne bottle opening)

MARTIN: Now, you've talked to us about savoring the aroma first. You recommend that?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes, you want to look at the wine first, look at the color and just observe it in the glass. Look at the bubbles, in this case, because you've got bubbles to look at, which is fabulous. And then you want to smell it first.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Just really get a good whiff, put your nose right down there.

MARTIN: I can't really see the bubbles in my plastic cup, Callie. But I'll just try…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: Okay. Well, trust me. They're there.

MARTIN: Hold on, NPR doesn't really hold a big stock of champagne glasses, but we'll do - okay. Here we - have a little sip.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Okay.

MARTIN: Mmm.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Isn't that good?

MARTIN: Mmm. Very nice.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, it's kind of like green appley a little bit, little grape fruity, maybe the a touch of vanilla. And if you're not getting any of that, it's just good, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It is kind of yummy. It is kind of yummy. And I think at that price, you don't mind serving it, you know? It's something that you wouldn't mind bringing out with the Buffalo wings or something for…

Ms. CROSSLEY: And it goes well with Buffalo wings, by the way.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Okay.

Ms. CROSSLEY: And it would be delightful.

MARTIN: Now, you've got something from California for us to try.

Ms. CROSSLEY: My friend from California introduced me to Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut. And this is a sparkling that's even cheaper than Gruet, believe it or not. It usually averages about 12.99 a bottle. But you might be able to get it cheaper on sale.

MARTIN: We did.

Ms. CROSSLEY: And I…

MARTIN: But I digress.

Mr. CROSSLEY: And I said to her, really? This is good. She said, try this. And I love it.

MARTIN: Okay. Let's have a little - let's have a little pour.

(Soundbite of pouring)

MARTIN: Now the bubbles are - now maybe it's just the way we poured it. I don't know. But the bubbles are more - I don't know. What's the word I'm looking for? Stiffer? More - does that matter? Do you care?

Mr. CROSSLEY: The tinier the bubble, the finer the sparkling wine or champagne is.

MARTIN: Well, these aren't tiny.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Okay, so that's okay, though, because they're sparkling.

MARTIN: I don't feel cheated. For 8.99, I don't feel cheated.

Mr. CROSSLEY: There you go. Isn't it tasty?

MARTIN: It is tasty. It's got a - what's more - what's the word I'm looking for here? It's a stronger taste. It's…

Mr. CROSSLEY: Is it more acidic to you?

MARTIN: More acidic to me. To me.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And remember, this is all personal taste. And you don't have to…

MARTIN: Argin, why don't you try to - Argin Hutchins is here. My producer Argin Hutchins is here. He's helping with this array of bottles. I wanted to get a second opinion from him.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Good.

MARTIN: The Gruet, what do you think about that?

ARGIN HUTCHINS: It's delicious. Actually, I'm surprised.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Isn't it good?

HUTCHINS: Yeah, New Mexico is trying to make a - what we call a come up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Trust the wine enthusiast.

Mr. CROSSLEY: That's right.

MARTIN: Wine savvy, not wine snobby. That's what we're doing here.

Mr. CROSSLEY: That's exactly right. That's right.

MARTIN: All right, we've got one true champagne that we'll be tasting today. What did you choose for us, Callie?

Mr. CROSSLEY: Nicolas Feuillatte is - and it's a French. Obviously, it's French because it's in from the Champagne region of France. And…

MARTIN: Okay, let's try.

(Soundbite of pouring)

MARTIN: And it's pretty.

Mr. CROSSLEY: I like the light, pale color.

MARTIN: I like the aroma. Kind of - I like the light, fruity aromas.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Some people feel that it has even a better finish than the Gruet. It has a good citrus flavor. Here's what the big wine experts will tell you, is that what you will get from champagne is a kind of baked bread toastiness. There is yeast put back into the wine on the second fermentation when you're making a sparkling or a champagne. And so, those that are more refined, the champagnes and the premium vintage champagnes sort of bring out that breadiness.

MARTIN: So, Callie, if you've been a very good girl this year, what would you most like Santa to bring you in a bottle?

Mr. CROSSLEY: On the sparkling side, I would say, Gruet, because I love it. And I'll drink the Gruet brut or the Gruet brut rose. I love both of them. If it's on the champagne side, my very favorite is Gosset, and now that's $50 to $60 a bottle. And I'm not going to ask Santa to go premium vintage. I'll just stick with the vintage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Because you haven't been that good?

Mr. CROSSLEY: No. I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or because you know your friends?

Mr. CROSSLEY: I know my friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Callie Crossley is a writer and wine enthusiast. She joined us from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge. Thank you so much for joining us, and happy holidays.

Mr. CROSSLEY: Happy holidays to you.

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