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08.31.10 

Labor Day Champagne Cocktails

by Christy Canterbury, champagne connoisseur, bubbles hipster and wine buyer

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Champagne cocktails are an unexpected twist to a summer party. They work because champagne — and any sparkling wine — always feels like a luxury.

Technically they’re any drink with a sparkling wine included, even if it’s just to top it off. This means a simple, streamlined champagne cocktail menu is easier than you think and the payoff in the vibe it creates is worth its weight in bubbly.

To create your own drink list, let’s start with a guide for how to choose your bubbles. You’ll want:

  • A classic “grande marque” champagne if the focus of the drink is the champagne itself: Deutz NV, Mumm Cordon Rouge, Henriot Brut Souverain all work nicely.
  • A yeasty cava if you want to replicate the flavor of grande marque champagne but are watching your coin: My favorite among the large producers is 100%, absolutely, positively Segura Viudas, which should be easy enough to find if you’re in a non-specialty store. If you’re in the New York area, look out for Dibon. Also, I’d stay away from Cristalino because, although keeps the wallet padded, it’s not yeasty enough.
  • A Roederer Estate Brut NV if you want another really top option to imitate champagne: It’s from Anderson Valley, California, which is usually about $10 to $15 less than champagne. This is the Roederer of the Cristal fame making sparkling wine in California, and they get it done right. As for other California sparklers, I’m less motivated to recommend them for cocktails as their acidity tends to be a bit lower. When you start messing with acid, you mess with the balance — and success — of your cocktail.
  • A prosecco if your desired drink is more fruit-driven. See below on balancing sweetness and prosecco.

Next, I’d recommend greeting guests with an “you’re about to experience an incredible party,” champagne cocktail. And that starts with a Tulio Oro. It’s a quintessential summer drink, right down to the mind candy of limoncello that send guests into your party with thoughts of traveling to Italy’s Amalfi or Sicilian coasts. It’s based on Italy’s prosecco (another reason to think of delightful summer travels) rather than champagne, but it rocks all the same.

I read Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology a few years back and started it on a sultry summer day. I discovered this number in that book and not a summer has passed since that I haven’t enjoyed a few. (Note to self: Need limoncello for the weekend!)

Another lovely aperitif-style, bubbly cocktail can be made with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur. It can’t be easier to make it – 1 part Saint Germain to 1 part champagne. Actually, because elderflowers are so aromatic, I’d go with prosecco or sekt (often made with riesling and other aromatic varieties) and go for an effusively flower and summery nose.

Finally, if you want your summer evening cemented in people’s mind, start by serving the perfect champagne cocktail flight.

First “rule”: Stay away from what most folks know. No bellinis, no mimosas and no kir royales — even if your get-together is based on brunch. The St. Germain option I mention above works just right for an early-in-the-day libation.

Champagnes pair perfectly with grilled and spicy foods, making them ideal for mixing into cocktails.

To show the diversity of champagne in cocktails, it would be good fun to make a punch with champagne. Batch it before guests arrive and add the bubbles when they walk in the door. The more time for the non-champagne ingredients to marinate the better, unless you’re using fruit juices. If they are part of your brew, add them at the last minute with the sparkling wine.

Finally, it would be thoroughly appropriate to include a classic or two, like a French 75 or a Champagne Cocktail. For these two, definitely consider spending the dough for champagne or go for the Roederer Estate NV.

In terms of pairing champagne cocktails with your summer BBQ fare, frankly, I haven’t done it and I wouldn’t worry about it — champagne is versatile and perfect with grilled food. That said, if you’ve got time to play, I think it would be brilliant to experiment with a sparkling shiraz or malbec. Those wines are perfect with BBQ, so the cocktails surely would be, too! Cheers!

The Tulio Oro

Straight from Gary Regan’s notes …

  • 1 lemon twist
  • ¾ ounce limoncello*
  • ½ ounce Punt e Mes
  • 6 ounces prosecco (Note, prosecco varies widely in residual sugar. Go for a brut or extra brut style to balance the sweetness of the limoncello.)
  1. Combine the lemon twist, limoncello and Punt e Mes in a shaker half-filled with ice. Shake and strain into a champagne flute. Add the prosecco.

*Warning: Top-shelf quality most important! Do not — repeat, do not — buy anything in a miniature bottle in your local liquor store! If you’re hardcore enough, order some Ventura Limoncello from California or make it yourself. (If you’re hardcore, but less willing to do the ground work, take a flask into your next dinner at Babbo and take home your — and your companions’ — ceremoniously served glass of lemony deliciousness.)

Christy A. Canterbury is wine acquisitions director at Italian Wine Merchants in New York. You can following her global champagne-trotting via Twitter @canterburywine.