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Tiny Bubbles Sparkling wines—swanky and approachable—can lift your beverage menu to effervescent heights

The slight fizz of this Moscato and Grapes Martini makes it an accessible and enticing addition to the cocktail lineup at P.F. Chang’s.

Sparkling wines have always presented a restaurant conundrum. Wary of the celebratory and luxe imagery that makes cork-popping seem ostentatious or frivolous, American consumers have often shied away from ordering bubbly except when festivity rules. Restaurants that have tried to reshape the narrative into something common in parts of the world where sparkling wines are crafted—that starting a social evening or a meal with glasses of lively bubbles should be the rule, not the exception—have often found themselves with open bottles, slowly flattening by the end of each evening.

But as operators have continued to expand and refine their collection of wines offered by the glass, there’s been a steady uptick in the number and variety of sparklers menued, primarily from Champagne and California, but also from Italy and Spain. Add the growing trend for aperitif cocktails that include sparkling wine (the Aperol Spritz may be the latest to grab attention, but Bellinis, French 75s and other classics have also returned in popularity) and it seems a fad is becoming a trend.

To be honest, restaurant operators can’t be said to be leading this bubbly resurgence; off-premise sales of sparkling wines have surged in the past few years at a much higher rate than in bars and restaurants. Retailers, encouraged by consumer interest in home entertaining with  well-priced sparkling options like Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco, have continued to expand their selections beyond higher priced French Champagne. In 2013, sparkling wine was one of the hottest segments in wine, with off-premise volume up 9.4 percent, led by an 8 percent gain for domestic and a 16 percent leap for Italian sparklers. Even producers of sparkling wines like the softer French crémant produced in regions outside Champagne, and Lambrusco from Italy, have found a more welcoming reception than in years past.

“Right now, restaurants and sommeliers are still in the ‘discovery’ phase,” says Enore Ceola, managing director of Prosecco producer Mionetto USA. “They are trying out different brands, producers, price points, always looking for outstanding value as well as quality. Definitely, they are not replacing Champagne with Prosecco, but are they on the hunt to find a good Prosecco brand they can trust to offer quality by-the-glass and still make good money.”

According to Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of the Adult Beverage Resource Group at research firm Technomic, sparklers like Prosecco and sparkling Moscato are seeing action both on- and off-premise driven primarily by Millennial females. “These wines are also making their way into sparkling cocktails and by-the-glass lists in restaurants and bars, as they’re mixable and drinkable and carry lower price points.”

A number of chain restaurants have taken note: For instance, Fleming’s Steakhouse currently lists 10 sparklers (five Champagnes, three California sparklers and one each of Cava and Prosecco) among their 100 wines sold by the glass. Fleming’s also currently features two Cava-based cocktails.

According to Danny Berger, senior vice president of beverage alcohol practice at Nielsen, Prosecco’s dollar value shot up 28 percent in 2013. Of course, Champagne is a much higher ticket item; the average retail price is more than $50, while Proseccos barely reach $12 and Cavas average under $10, according to Nielsen. Those lower price points are encouraging sampling off- and on-premise. Tied with Millennials’ willingness to experiment with beverages, operators who respond should expect good return.

A Good Match

The real plus for sparkling wines is that their lightness allows service throughout a meal. “It’s a beverage that can do well with almost any dish, with the exception of some dense heavy red meats,” says Michael Page, spirits director at Chicago’s fine-dining restaurant Henri. “Sparkling is one of those beverages that can pair with almost any course, and does so much to cleanse your palate for the next bite and deal with so many different flavors and spices, it’s easy to recommend.”

The willingness to explore at a lower price point is helping to drive the changes, says Maeve Pesquera, wine director of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. “Over the past few years, we have had much success with both Cava and Prosecco (which is also included in cocktails) and we always have one or two domestic sparkling wines of high quality. Because of the trend toward sweeter wines, we have also elected to include a Moscato d’Asti and a sweeter red sparkling. Proseccos, which are usually made with some sweetness, speak to this trend as well.”

She points out that sparkling wines, even in a steakhouse environment, can provide good food matches. “It’s often said that Champagne goes with everything—that may be an overstatement, but Champagnes and many sparkling wines do pair well with a number of dishes and are a great way to start off a meal or at the bar with one of our bar menu items. In general, the sweeter sparkling wines are particularly nice with spicier dishes and dry sparkling wines are great with seafood and/or cream sauces.”

In cocktails, what sparkling wine adds compared to other forms of carbonation depends on the type of wine. Champagnes are likely to provide very tight and long-lasting bubbles, with yeasty aromas and a round mouthfeel; Cavas and Proseccos come in a variety of flavor profiles, but are generally considered slightly sweeter, less alcoholic and more citrusy.

Scott Watson, who runs the bar program at Sage Restaurant Group’s Urban Farmer in Portland, Ore., likes the way sparkling wine’s inclusion in a cocktail can lift a drink and has the added value of appealing to the wine-drinking cocktail novice. “Generally, the sparkling wines we work with are dry, which makes it easier to bridge the gap between sweet and savory. For sparklers done in the traditional method, they offer a mousse that is more persistent than what a carbonated non-alcoholic beverage can offer in a drink.”

He currently includes such cocktails as Follow My Lips, made with Oregon-made bitter liqueur Calisaya, Prosecco and bitters, and for Valentine’s Day he added the cranberry liqueur and Champagne-based Feast of Love. Watson says sweet or herbaceous flavors, like anise and fennel, can work well in sparkling wine cocktails because they add complexity. “I do think the beauty of sparkling wine in cocktails is that it serves as a blank canvas.”

Most bar programs today include at least one customized sparkling wine cocktail. In New Orleans, Restaurant R’evolution takes the classic French 75, made with Armagnac, three ways, and prices it from $17 to $36 depending on the brand and vintage of the Champagne. At Doma in Beverly Hills, the SS Elderflower is made with Prosecco,
St. Germain and an orange slice. Franny’s in Brooklyn serves a Sweet Olive, made with Prosecco, Meletti amaro, Aperol, orange wedge and olives.

Back at Henri, there’s always one or two sparkling cocktails on the menu, says Page. “We find they add a little body and flavor to a cocktail without adding too much sweetness.”

“Hum & Bubbles” is energized by sparkling wine combined with Hum botanical spirits and served in a chilled flute. Photo courtesy of hum spirits. “I love adding a little bit of fizz to a cocktail,” says Mary Melton, director of beverage for P.F. Chang’s, which is rolling out a new chain-wide sparkling wine cocktail made with Moscato-flavored vodka. “Sparkling does go well with our food.” She’s long offered a twist on the French 75 called the Chinese 88, made with gin, lemon juice and sparking wine, and currently includes a drink called the Crimson Spritzer, made with gin, cherry liqueur, Marasca cherries, lime juice and muddled kaffir lime leaves topped with sparkling wine.

Melton, a fan of the Aperol Spritz, placed the drink on the menu at P.F. Chang’s airport locations, where customers tend to be more sophisticated and accepting. She says demographics mean a lot when deciding to roll out new items chain-wide. “I know Prosecco is getting very popular, but it’s still very market driven. If I put it by-the-glass everywhere it wouldn’t sell at the same pace.” Instead, she sticks to California sparkling wine, packaged in 187 ml bottles—less cost-effective but a system that guarantees a full contingent of bubbles per serving.

spritz revivals
Even once-shunned sparkling reds have been finding their way back into fashion, with the right helping hand. In Chicago at Quartino’s Wine Bar, sparkling choices include Champagne, Prosecco, a sparkling Italian rosé, Moscato d’Asti and a red Lambrusco that is served in quarter-, half- and full-liter portions, as are most other wines there. Perhaps helped by the growing-in-popularity Aperol Spritz (Aperol, Prosecco and soda) and Bellinis served in carafes, by the quarter, half and full liter, sparkling wine sales are substantial, says general manager Matthew Graham.

“The Bellini [Prosecco and white peach purée] has been on menus since we opened, and it continues to be one of our biggest sellers,” he says. “The Aperol Spritz wasn’t as well known when we opened but now people recognize and order them.”

Both drinks fit the Italian wine bar environment and cuisine, as does the Lambrusco, a regional sparkling red wine that surged in popularity in the United States throughout the 1980s, but suffered a backlash due to what is now seen as excessive sweetness in some major brands. Quartino opts for a dry version, one that pairs well with spicy and fatty Italian dishes. “We sell a ton of it, which is kind of surprising,” says Graham. “We included it because it’s an important representative of Italian wine, but we didn’t know due to a lingering stigma how it would be received.”

Red, slightly sweet and lightly sparkling, Lambrusco can be the perfect antidote to the snobbery that sometimes surrounds sparkling wines. That Quartino serves the wine in casual carafes and homespun tumblers rather than fancier glassware may help explain why customers have responded so well—they simply want good drinking wine meant to share over food. It’s another lesson in selling sparkling wine of any kind in the 21st century—no fuss, just fun.

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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.