What is champagne anyway?
First, let's get our definitions straight. All champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne. Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, east of Paris, is technically champagne. Everything else with bubbles, from anywhere else, is correctly called sparkling wine.
Real French champagne is delicious but pricey, truly a special occasion wine. But there's lots of tasty bubbly around for $10 or less a bottle, made in the United States, Spain, northern Italy and parts of France. Ask your wine merchant for help finding the best values. Sparkling wine tastes great with many foods. Its zippy acidity makes tart flavors like tomato or citrus taste sweeter and rounder. Its prickly, bubbly texture makes a pleasant contrast with smooth, creamy or rich foods, like cream-sauced pastas -- try it with fettuccine Alfredo -- or poached salmon.
Sparkling wine really shines with ethnic foods, the sort you'd usually serve with beer. Like beer, it's yeasty, light, cold and bubbly, but it doesn't have beer's bitterness. Try it with Thai dishes or spicy Szechwan Chinese specialties like kung pao chicken; even delicate sparklers have a way of calming spicy chiles. Sushi and sashimi make another pleasant pairing.
A glass of sparkling wine makes a festive aperitif for any occasion, special or not. Drop a couple of raspberries into each glass, or add a half teaspoon of raspberry liqueur for a rosy glow. A tiny bit of a flavored syrup like the sort used in espresso bars -- try peach, mango, hazelnut or strawberry -- adds a fillip of extra flavor.
Don't forget slightly sweet sparklers like Asti-Spumante and Moscato d'Asti from Italy; they complement fruit or vanilla desserts with panache. From the beginning to the end of the meal, you'll find a place for sparkling wine.
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