Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Holiday Sparkler from Argentina

Party planners have bubbles on the brain this time of year. Do you splurge for Champagne or go with a domestic sparkling wine? How much should you spend? What should you serve? And of course, how do you open that pressurized bottle without making a mess or unleashing a cork missile?
We uncorked last week's food and wine tasting dinner at Cooking with Class with an Argentine sparkler that's sure to jazz up your holiday get-together – Spirit of the Andes. Made by Tapiz, a winery owned by former nephrologist Patricia Ortiz, Spirit is a sparkling wine made from the Torrontés grape. Although Argentina's Torrontés was once believed related to a grape from Spain's Galicia that goes by the same name, genetic studies indicate that the desirable Torrontés riojano variant or cultivar represents a cross between the pink-skinned Criolla chica (Mission) grape and Muscat of Alexandria. It is this Muscat parentage that gives Torrontés its captivating perfumy aromas.  

Winemaker Fabian Valenzuela follows the traditional or champenoise method used in Champagne to make Spirit. At an average vineyard elevation of 3,000 feet, sustainably farmed grapes ripen in high-altitude sun while cool Andean nights allow grapes to retain their essential acidity. Hand-harvested fruit is first stainless-steel tank-fermented and made into a still wine. Once clarified, the wine is bottled and liqueur tirage, a combination of sugar dissolved in wine plus yeast, is added to kick off second-fermentation fizzes. Next, the wine rests on its lees, or spent yeast for 12 months, after which bottles are turned or tilted to funnel sediment in the neck. To finish the process, the temporary crown cap is released, sediment is disgorged and a small amount of extra brut dosage is added – a fudge factor of sweet wine that the winemaker adds to adjust the wine to its final desirable profile. The bottle is immediately sealed with a natural cork and wire muzzle.

Ah, that nerve-racking muzzle. One tip for safely opening a sparkler under pressure is to use a folded dish towel the entire time you handle the bottle. Find a sturdy surface and an area where an errant cork won't cause any damage. Sandwich the towel between your firm hand and the top of the wire cage. Keep gentle downward pressure with the towel hand as you untwist the cage. Now, still holding firm downward pressure with your towel hand, slowly twist the bottle while keeping your towel hand steady. As you feel the cork begin to emerge, be sure you have control over the cork end with your toweled hand. Control your slow twist on the bottle until you feel the cork pop into your toweled hand. If executed gently and properly, you should have total control of the cork and little, if any, spillage. Voilà, you're a pro!

In the glass, Spirit sends up delicate, white flower aromas with sweet nectarine and honeysuckle on the palate. Bubbles are persistent, as is the finish, all crisp, clean and utterly delightful. The barely perceptible sweetness is balanced by lively acidity, a combination that makes Spirit a worthy choice as an aperitif or with lighter first courses.

Chef Andie Hubka served a grilled radicchio salad with applewood-smoked bacon, Rogue River blue cheese, scallions, grapes and a drizzle of cactus honey. The salad's sweet notes played off the sparkler's tropical fruit basket flavors while the wine's acidity handled the creamy Rogue blue with finesse.

If holiday bubbles have you bemused, give this southern hemi sparkler a pop. At about $20 at Cooking with Class, Spirit of the Andes Sparkling Torrontés will turn your occasion into a celebration in no time. And if you're curious to learn more about the many different types of sparkling wines from around the world, catch some New Year's cheer at this month's wine essentials class on sparkling wines Thursday, December 29 at 6 PM. Sign up here, or call the school at 760.777.1161. Cin-cin!

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