Shuck this Winter Weather

Seeking shelter from the snowy streets of Philadelphia earlier this week, I found myself bellied up to the oyster bar at Oyster House on Sansom Street near Rittenhouse Square. I had been (trying) to sell wine all day, to restaurants in and around the city that have seen more than their share of slow business due to the relentless storms hitting the northeast this winter. Despite the increasingly icy sidewalks, and wet, sleet-like flakes tumbling from the night sky, Oyster House was filled with customers and bustling with activity.

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of which types of oysters I enjoy, and which types I don’t. I usually tell myself I am going to take notes so that I remember, but that never happens.  Maybe this is similar to how you approach wine? At any rate, what I have learned is that I generally like east coast, smaller, salty, briny oysters, which is very useful in ordering and getting what I like. (See, you can try this approach with wine!).

My server helped guide me to Wellfleet (from Cape Cod, MA), Old Barney Salt (Barnegat Bay, NJ), and East Beach Blonde (Charlestown, Rhode Island) oysters and he was spot on. My favorites were the East Beach Blondes, which were crisp, fresh, smooth, and salty. Oyster House changes the list often, sometimes even twice a day, so the opportunity to try new types of oysters is boundless. These beauties didn’t need much but a squeeze of fresh lemon, but the mignonette sauce was so perfect I couldn’t help but add some before slurping away. Expertly handled by the skilled shuckers behind the bar, these oysters were completely free in their shells. I sipped a lively cremant (French sparkling wine) from Burgundy, which was the ideal accompaniment.

All of the other fresh, chilled seafood behind the oyster bar looked very tempting, but just thinking about my frosty slog back to the hotel after dinner, led me to order the smoked fish chowder. Cream be damned, this was exactly what I needed.  The chowder had just enough smoke and spice to balance out the cream. The balancing act was complete with a glass of minerally Chablis from Domaine Servin. I scraped the bowl clean and then made my way safely back to the hotel, with a happy belly, and not-so-appropriate footwear.

Oyster House will absolutely become one of my go-to restaurants when I’m in Philly. If you’re looking for an easygoing atmosphere with some of the freshest seafood in town, you should check it out too.

Oyster House 
1516 Sansom St. (Center City)
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 567-7683

Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere

Lately I have been pondering just how many options we have when it comes to sparkling wine.  You may think that Champagne and Prosecco are your only real options, but I am here to tell you that is simply not the case.  Sure, Champagne is the standard bearer, and Prosecco is your “cheap and easy” option, but consider there is also Cava, Sekt, Cremant, Franciacorta, American sparkling wine, and British Sparkling wine too.  Any of these bubbles can serve you well on a special occasion as well as with a bowl of popcorn, a bag of chips, and a good binge watching session.

Let’s break it down before you pop some corks:

How Sparkling Wine is Made:  There are two basic methods of making sparkling wine. The Traditional, or “Champagne Method”, and the Tank, or “Charmat Method”. Bubbles in sparkling wine are produced when the wine goes through a second fermentation (the first fermentation turns the sugars in the grapes in to alcohol).  In the Champagne Method, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing small, precise bubbles. In the Tank Method, the second fermentation takes place in a large tank (go figure), which produces larger, softer bubbles. The Tank Method is faster, produces more volume, and results in less complex wines.

Champagne:  Champagne is from the Champagne region of France; period.  A sparkling wine cannot be called ‘Champagne’ unless it is from this place. Champagne is located in the cooler part of France, north of Paris. These wines are made from one or a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier (a red grape).  Styles range from citrusy, crisp and bright, to toasty, rich and full.

There are what we call the “big Champagne houses” of France, for example Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Tattinger, and smaller Champagne producers such as Marc Hebrart, Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Peters, and Agrapart & Fils. The larger houses make consistent styles of Champagne that are easier to find out in the marketplace, but I would encourage you to seek out the smaller producers for better value and diverse styles. You really can’t get a decent Champagne for less than $50 so don’t fool yourself in to trying.

Cremant:  Cremant is sparkling wine from France, but from regions such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley, not from the Champagne region. Cremant is made from grapes that are native to the region where the wine is being made. For example, Cremant from the Loire (Cremant de Loire) can be made from Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and a few others. Cremant is made using the Champagne Method, and offers good value.  You can get a lovely Cremant for $20 bucks, give or take.

Prosecco:  Prosecco comes from Italy; the village of Prosecco to be precise. The grape used to also be called Prosecco, but in order to make sure that no wine outside of the Prosecco appellation could use the name, the grape became known by its alternative name, Glera. Prosecco is made using the Tank Method and is generally simple, crisp, and may have a touch of sweetness.  Not all Proseccos are created equal. If you want to find a Prosecco with a little more depth of character, then look for “Valdobbiadene” on the label. Grapes from the Valdobbiadene province grow on the cool hillsides and produce more complex wines.  You can find a decent Prosecco for $12-15 on up. If you are going to dump orange juice in it and make a mimosa, by all means go with a cheap one, but if you are going to drink it straight, choose one in the $15-18 range.

Franciacorta:  Also from Italy, Franciacorta comes from the Lombardy region in the north, bordering Switzerland. These bubbles are made in the Champagne Method and cost more than Prosecco. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the grapes used to make Franciacorta. Although northern, Lombardy is warmer than Champagne, France, resulting in slightly riper wines with fuller fruit flavors.  A good Franciacorta will cost you $25-40.

Cava:  Cava is the often overlooked sparkling wine from Spain. There is admittedly a lot of bad Cava brought in to the U.S., but there are good examples worth seeking out too. Cava is generally around the price of Prosecco, and is produced using the Champagne Method. Pronouncing the grapes, which include Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada, may prove challenging, but the fruity, citrusy flavors are bright and welcoming. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes can also be used. The name Cava comes from the caves the wines are aged in and not a region, so Cava can be produced in various areas around Spain.

Sekt: Sekt is synonymous with sparkling wine in Germany and Austria, and the standards for quality are loose at best.  Germans and Austrians drink a LOT of Sekt, but you don’t see much of it here in the states.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier are used, but indigenous German/Austrian grapes, such as Riesling, Kerner, Pinot Gris, Silvaner, etc. are also used to produce Sekt.  Most Sekt wines are made in the Tank Method and are low in alcohol with juicy pear and floral aromas and flavors. If you can find it, expect to spend in the $18-$30 range.

British Sparkling Wine:  Sparkling wine from England is having a bit of a moment. It makes sense that the English should focus on sparkling wine; they don’t really have the climate for anything else. The weather and soils on the coast south of London are, in fact, quite similar to Champagne, and some Champagne producers are looking to purchase vineyards in England. The wines are made using the Champagne method. Until recently, you couldn’t find British bubbles in the U.S. but they are now making their way on to wine lists and in to retail shops in the states. The latest sparklers coming out of England are made from traditional Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with an English grape variety aptly named Bacchus. Some are made from traditional German varieties as well. English fizz is not cheap; look for bottles in the $50-65 range.

American Sparkling Wine: With no rules as to which grapes have to be used in sparkling wine, bubbles can be made almost anywhere in the U.S.  Most quality sparkling wines from America are made in California, and many Champagne houses have invested in California vineyards for this reason. The coolest areas, such as Anderson Valley on the North Coast, are best suited to sparkling wine production. There are also areas of Oregon and NY State that are befitting for making bubbles. Most American producers choose the traditional Champagne grapes and the Champagne method of production, and styles can vary as much as they do from Champagne. Expect to spend $30-50 for a quality American sparkler.

There are other wines with bubbles, including Lambrusco (sparkling red from Italy), Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (sweet sparkling wines from Italy), Pétillant-Naturel (trendy, naturally sparkling wines from anywhere), and of course sparkling wines from other countries (such as Australia and South Africa), but the above examples are the best place to start if you are looking for a “Champagne-like” experience.

Now you are ready to pop some corks. Just make sure to hold the cork and turn the bottle to slowly ease the stopper out. Contrary to popular thinking, a loud “pop” is not what you want to hear when you open sparkling wine, rather a faint “hiss”. And please don’t aim the bottle at you, or anyone else. Oh, and it’s up to you of course, but I like to drink my sparkling wine out of a regular wine glass.  It may not look as elegant, but you’ll get more out of the aromatic experience. I also like the Coup, pictured above.