It's New Year's Eve and to many people, that means bubbly! Clinking a glass of Champagne as the clock ticks to midnight and the ball drops is a time-honored tradition for most Americans. But those of us who aren't wine experts--which I'm certainly not--are prone to making some easy-to-fix mistakes when it comes to selecting and serving their New Year's beverage. Avoiding these errors will make for a better-tasting New Year's, and might save you some money as well.
1. Insisting on something called "Champagne."
Many people think Champagne is the name for any dry white sparkling wine. Not so. Champagne is a specific region of France and only wine that comes from there, made from a specific assortment of grapes and prepared following very specific rules can carry that name under French law. American law is a different matter, and some producers slap the name Champagne on beverages that would be illegal in France. They may be called Champagne but they really aren't.
The good news is that there are lots of lovely sparkling white wines to drink on New Year's Eve that aren't called Champagne but are still perfectly wonderful and possibly more affordable. Prosecco from Italy or Cava from Spain can be good choices, as can American white sparkling wines, or white sparkling wines from France outside the Champagne region. Sparkling Rosé wines can be wonderful too. Explore prices and ratings and don't get hung up on the word "Champagne."
2. Serving it too cold.
You might be tempted to serve your Champagne or other sparkling wine as cold as you can possibly get it, but that would be too cold. The ideal temperature for Champagne is between 47 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit when you drink it, whereas the ideal temperature for a refrigerator is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. As a practical matter, this means you should take the bubbly stuff out of the fridge 15 minutes before you drink it. (Don't let it warm up to room temperature, that will ruin the flavor in a different way.)
3. Not opening it with a towel.
To open a bottle of bubbly, remove the wire cage on top of the cork. Then put a dish towel or other cloth over the top of the bottle and gently work the cork out so that the towel catches it. Seriously, do it this way. Emergency rooms fill up with flying cork victims on New Year's Eve.
4. Pairing it with something sweet.
Champagne paired with chocolates has a romantic ring to it, but the two things just don't taste good together. To bring out the taste of the dry sparkling wines we typically drink on New Year's Eve, you need something salty and richly flavored. Caviar is, of course, a classic pairing and it's delicious but good caviar is very pricey and cheap caviar usually isn't worth eating. Oysters are another classic choice--in Paris, people are out on the street shucking oysters all night long on New Year's Eve, but oysters aren't for everyone, nor are they easy to come by.
Instead, consider smoked salmon, a rich, salty cheese, or even popcorn or potato chips. Or something more substantial: Asparagus, dry salami, or deviled eggs.
What about pairing Champagne with strawberries, as immortalized in the film Pretty Woman and recommended by many people? Yes--but not with the very dry ("Brut") styles of sparkling wine most Americans drink on New Year's Eve. The sweetness of the strawberries will bring out the acidity in the drink and it won't be fun. If you want bubbly that goes well with strawberries, get "extra-dry" (which is sweeter than Brut) or try a sparkling Rosé, or Asti wine.
5. Using the wrong glass.
Wide "coupe" Champagne glasses were popular in the first half of the 20th century, partly because the sparkling wines people drank were typically sweeter back then. Experts say they don't give the taste enough space to develop, and also you have to drink your drink quickly because the larger surface area allows the bubbles to fizz out fast. They're fun and nostalgically elegant, but not the greatest choice.
Narrow Champagne flutes are most popular now, and they'll help your drink stay fizzy longer, but experts again say there's not enough space for the taste to develop. They're beautiful, but not the experts' top choice.
So what should you use? One good option is a tulip flute, so called because it's tulip shaped with a round bowl and a narrower opening on top. This preserves the bubbles but gives the aroma room to bloom. That said, someone at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust actually conducted a blindfolded taste test with a group of wine experts to determine which glass made the champagne taste best. The winner hands down was what they called a "white wine glass" and what you and I would simply call a wine glass. So if all you have in the house are wine glasses, you're in luck--they'll make your bubbly taste great.
6. Taking the whole thing too seriously.
I've listened to many wine experts in my day and after they've dived into the nitty-gritty of tannins and the various undertone flavors, they all say this: The best wine is the wine you enjoy with your friends or loved ones.
So, forget everything I just said about tulip glasses and caviar if you like. Pick out a wine you like, gather your friends and/or family, pop the cork, and celebrate the passing of 2018. If it makes you happy, you're doing it just right.