“Sparkling wine is incredibly popular and only growing in interest,” says Bianca Whitford, manager and wine director at Agapi Bistro + Garden in Pensacola, FL. The Greek restaurant has eight on the menu, ranging in price from $8 to $12 a glass and $30 to $55 a bottle.
That selection includes prestige cuvées as well as Akakies, a rosé sparkler from Greece, and Jansz Brut Rosé from Tasmania. “People love trying something new, and they especially love new bubbles,” Whitford says.
The pandemic significantly dampened wine sales growth as many bars and restaurants shuttered. But retail stores and ecommerce picked up some of the slack, and total wine consumption increased by 0.7% in 2020, according to The Beverage Information Group’s 2021 Handbook Advance.
Those consumption gains were driven by the sparkling wine segment, which grew 1.4%.
Indeed, the sparkling segment had averaged a growth rate of 55% over the past 10 years. Since 2002, that represents 19 consecutive years in which the total category has grown.
Industry experts expect the sparkling segment to bounce back this year due to pent-up demand.
Sparkling Wine for Every Occasion
Champagne and sparkling wines have long been considered a celebratory quaff: Festive groups would gather in restaurants and bars to pop a cork and share a bottle of bubbly — or two. Consumers have discovered more recently that sparkling wine can also be a casual quaff.
“Sparkling wine for celebrations only is a thing of the past, especially after 2020,” says Taylor Berk, wine director for the Animae steakhouse and Puffer Malarkey Collective, a San Diego-based restaurant group.
“People are ready to infuse happy tiny bubbles into their regular weeknight dinners — especially since they can carry through the dinner and pair with more than just traditional dishes,” Berk notes. “As we continue to curate our sparkling section, we’ve seen a genuine interest and uptick in guests’ preferences for bubbles.”
Animae currently offers seven selections, with bottles ranging from $60 to $300-plus. That will soon grow to about a dozen sparklers.
“We’re seeing more and more of our guests just casually start with bubbly or a sparkling cocktail,” says Robert Rodriguez, general manager/beverage director for Cured in San Antonio. Sparkling wine has always been an important part of the restaurant’s sales, he says. “Charcuterie and bubbles are the perfect pairing.”
Cured offers six selections by the bottle or the glass. The price per bottle ranges from $28 to $70.
Rusty Pelican Miami is a dining destination for all kinds of celebrations “so it’s no surprise that sparkling wines are extremely popular among our guests,” says Oscar Anaya, assistant general manager and beverage director. “Our menu is seafood-driven, and bubbly pairs excellently with several of our signature dishes.”
The Rusty Pelican on Key Biscayne stocks a selection of 18 sparkling wines from around the world, ranging from $56 to $1,550 per bottle. “Sparkling wines can definitely be for everyday drinking, but we tend to sell higher-priced selections when a party is celebrating,” observes Anaya.
“With prices ranging from $10 to $16 by the glass, we have options for a celebratory single glass of bubbly or something you might sip throughout an entire meal,” says Finn Walter, chef/owner of The Nicolett in Lubbock, TX. “We have a relatively compact wine list, with four sparkling wines available by the glass, and Pierre Paillard Bouzy Grand Cru Champagne is $90 for the bottle.”
Size Wise for Sparkling Wine
Even though consumers had few reasons to celebrate during Covid-19, people still had occasion to treat themselves. The proliferation of single-serve bottles and canned sparkling wine encouraged that trend.
For example, last year Korbel debuted 187-ml. bottles of its prosecco. At-home mixologists discovered the convenience of this size package when adding sparkle to spritzers.
But as restaurants and bars reopen and people are eager to celebrate, maybe it’s time to break out the bigger bottles. “Magnums had not been as popular as we would like, and in an inspired movement of ‘go big or go home’, we added a few Methuselah [6-L.] Champagne bottles,” says Ricardo Zarate, Jr., director of operations and sommelier for Valentina Bistro & Wine Bar in Leucadia, CA.
Valentina offers more than 15 sparklers, ranging from $34 to $330 a bottle, and by-the-glass options from a $9 prosecco to $59 for a pour of the 2010 Vintage Dom Pérignon.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon recently launched the 2008 Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon in magnums, as well as 750s. The rosé Champagne, one of Billecart-Salmon’s prestige cuvées, launched in 1988 as a tribute to Elisabeth Salmon, who founded the House in 1818 with her husband, Nicolas François Billecart.
Billecart-Salmon vinified the 2008 cuvée in small vats using the house’s signature cold fermentation to preserve the purity of the fruit, and for the first time, with the integration of wines vinified in oak. The 2008 Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon is now available at a suggested retail price of $240 — and $600 for the magnum.
“We don’t currently have any large-format options because our storage is limited, and we haven’t had any requests, but I would love to do large format,” says Diane Clemenhagen, a Certified Level 2 Sommelier at Geraldine’s in Austin, TX. The rooftop pool, restaurant and bar at Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt offers 13 varieties of bubbles, varying from $41 to $700 per bottle.
Pop Goes Prosecco
Although Champagne is the queen of sparklers and a prime choice for celebrations, much of the recent category growth has also been driven by prosecco. Hailing from a DOC (there is also a DOCG version) around the eponymous village, the wine is produced via the Charmat method from glera grapes.
This lively Italian sparkler earned its popularity with its accessible taste profile, inexpensive price points and easy pronunciation. Prosecco flies off retail shelves, and restaurants love to pour it by the glass and employ it in cocktails.
New proseccos are popping onto the marketplace all the time and the field is getting crowded. One of the newest entrants is Vera Wang Party. The American fashion designer was reportedly involved in every aspect of brand development, from choosing the producer to designing the bottle and labels. The bottle is sleek matte silver with Party in neon yellow letters, while the back label is an invitation to “party” from Vera Wang.
“Our customers love our prosecco selections, as well as spumanti from Emilia Romagna,” says Brook Parkhurst, wine director at Angelena’s Ristorante Italiano in Pensacola, FL. Except for some Champagne, all of the restaurant’s 15 spumanti are Italian; prices range $25 up to $125.
Sundays’ Bubble Service is a bottle of prosecco served tableside with a selection of seasonal fresh juices and garnishes. “A lot of prosecco goes into our Spritz selection, which are very popular because they are so refreshing,” says Parkhurst.
“Nothing is more refreshing than a cold glass of prosecco,” says Dakota Marchio, restaurant manager at Corinne in Austin. Sparking wines are a constant seller at the Marriott Downtown’s signature restaurant. Corinne offers nine sparkling wines ranging from $44 a bottle up to $330. Selections include a petillant naturel from Austria.
“Prosecco is a crowd favorite; it’s one of our biggest sellers by the bottle,” reports Greg McLeod, co-owner with wife Karen, of Simply Bubbles in Sutter Creek, CA. He describes the Freixenet prosecco as having citrus and green-apple flavors, which finishes with a hint of sweetness.
The sparkling wine bar stocks a dozen examples, available in flights, from $10 to $25, and by the bottle. McLeod uses Mionetto prosecco to make Prosecco Slushies, frozen and swirled with fruits, such as peaches, blackberries and green apple. “During the pandemic when we were only doing to-go sales, my slushie machine paid my rent.”
Although prosecco is ubiquitous on retail shelves and restaurant menus and Champagne is a must-have item, sparkling wines are produced in regions all over the world. Some operators are delving into interesting niches to add unusual bubbles to their menus.
“Our guests are falling in love with pet-nat (petillant naturel), which is such a fun, interesting wine,” says Walter at The Nicolett, which offers the lightly sparkling Luminaria Ramoro Pinot Grigio. “Its composition changes in the glass, and it hits the spot with its bubbles, but also offers a more interesting and complex flavor profile than many expect.” The glass list also includes a lambrusco, a sparkling red from Italy.
“At Valentina, we’re all bubble fiends,” says Zarate. The bistro offers sparklers of all types: vintage Champagne, vintage American Brut, Alma Rosa Brut 2017, unfined and unfiltered lambrusco, demi bottles of Champagne, Brut Nature cava from Cellers de Can Suriol, the “Azimut” label, and a Cremant de Bordeaux from Tentacion par Maucaillou.
Besides Greek and Tasmanian sparklers, Agapi sources domestic bubbly, such as J Vineyards California Cuvée and Piper Sonoma Brut. “We have Ca’del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Extra Brut Franciacorta by the bottle, which is traditional Champagne grapes, in traditional Champagne style — Italy’s answer to Champagne.”
Animae currently offers grower Champagnes (produced by the same estate that grows the wine grapes), cava, prosecco, riesling sekt, sparkling seyssel and pet-nat. “If you come to see us at Animae next month, that list will expand!” says Berk.
Many bars and restaurants operating in or near wine regions naturally feature local pours, and that includes bubbly.
“Business has been great because we get a lot of wine-oriented tourists,” says McLeod. Located in Amador County wine country, Simply Bubbles showcases an Amador flight: currently, Karmere Vineyard’s Almond, Overlook Winery’s Quill Cuvée and a rotating local rosé. This flight is $10.
A California flight ($15) lists Gloria Ferrer Brut, Roederer Estate Brut and Mumm Napa Cuvée M. Nonetheless, the Champagne flight ($25) is most popular, now pouring Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut and Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut.
“Not everybody can go out and buy three $70 to $90 bottles to taste and compare,” observes McLeod. “So the flight is a bargain.”
Cured features Texas sparkling wines produced with 100% Texas grapes. “Outstanding examples are the pet-nat from William Chris Vineyards in Hye and the Sparkling Pinot Meunier from Lost Draw Cellars in Fredericksburg,” says Rodriguez. Going further afield, he also sources gems from nontraditional areas such as McBride Sisters Sparkling Brut Rosé from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.
Spritzy Sips and Brunch Bubbles
When it comes to sparkling-based cocktails, most bartenders riff on the classics, Champagne cocktails, the French 75 and spritzers.
“Because we keep the list extremely seasonal, the majority of sparkling wine drinks are classics like the French 75 or the Mimosa and Bellini with Texas Hill Country peaches,” says Rodriguez.
The beverage team at the Rusty Pelican Miami created a sparkling-wine cocktail specifically for Pitbull, the Miami-based rapper/singer/songwriter, who frequents the restaurant. The Mr. 305 is a blend of Voli 305 Vodka, St. Elder elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice, mint, basil, cucumber and topped with sparkling wine ($16).
“Brunch is huge in Austin, and we typically go through seven cases of cava in a weekend just on mimosas alone,” says Marchio at Corinne. The signature brunch cocktail is an Old Cuban made with Appleton Reserve 8-year rum.
“The aged rum brings a delicious orange note to the drink, fresh lime juice, mint leaves, Angostura bitters, topped with cava,” Marchio says. “It’s essentially a boozier Mojito and is great for the Austin heat.”
At Cured, the Sunday special is Fried Chicken and Bubbles, which invariably sells out.
Geraldine’s goes through about 10 cases of cava during the two weekend brunches. Mimosas are the most popular, says Clemenhagen, “but we sell some Poinsettias (cranberry), Ruby Red (grapefruit) and Pineapple Spritzers.”
During brunch, the Rusty Pelican Miami offers mix-and-match bottomless Mimosas for $25. Guests can choose from flavors such as Lavender Activated-Charcoal Lemonade, Fresh Cucumber and Mint and Pineapple Jalape–o. “We go through 60 cases more or less on the weekends,” says Anaya.
“We do high-end wine dinners at Angelena’s, with internationally known winemakers,” says Parkhurst. “And for our next round of dinners, I think it would be fun to do an all bubble holiday wine dinner. To show that bubbles are not just for a starter or ender of a meal, but good throughout.”
Geraldine’s promotes Fried Chicken Thursdays: Birds, Bubbles and Blues when glasses and bottles of Moet are half price. “It’s a great deal that a lot of our guests take advantage of,” says Clemenhagen. The rooftop restaurant also hosts an annual Clicquot in the Sun party on the pool deck featuring Veuve Clicquot.
“We’re always looking for more bubbles,” says Zarate at Valentina. “New vintages, and delving even further into the weird world of sparkling. Cremants from Bordeaux, sekts and even fines bulles of the U.K.!”
At Puffer Malarkey Collective, Berk tastes new bubbles monthly with an emphasis on grower Champagnes, small producers, lesser-known sparklers (Franciacorta rosé and sparkling chenin blanc, for example) and pet-nats. “The idea is to show the value of sparklers in both fun and unexpected ways — the subtleties, the range and the oddball stories behind the winemakers,” says Berk. “After all, it’s the experience we seek when dining, and this is a major part of it!”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable. Read his recent piece, Vodka Trends in 2021.