By TOM BENDER

For The Union Democrat

No other night of the year sees champagne corks flying like New Year’s Eve.

And no other year other than 2015 have there been so many options for choosing and popping a bottle of sparkling wine.

While we have traditionally thought of toasting the evening with French Champagne, most of us find this traditional bottle of fizz to exceed our budget for the evening. With their prices hovering around $45 and up, alternative bubbles have taken over a big share of the sparkling wine consumption. And with the exception of 2009 and the recession, our consumption of sparkling wine has been on a steady climb for the past dozen years.

The popularity of Prosecco skyrocketing this decade is a big reason with consumption of this lighter, easy style of bubbles enjoying over a 30 percent growth here in the states and double that increase in the United Kingdom. From the Veneto region in northern Italy, it is a simple, pleasant sparkler that comes in dry to slightly sweet styles and is easily found for less than $15.

Are the French champagne producers nervous? At a regional meeting this past fall, a representative adamantly said “no,” but conversations did include concerns about rapid change to Proseccos instead of Champagne in the by-the-glass sales in bars and restaurants in the United Kingdom and even Paris. He went on to say “Our survival does not depend on price. We must refocus on luxury wine and the expensive end of the market.”

While there will always be a market with wealth that will opt for this luxury option, I think the French are missing the global point. And it is not just Prosecco from Italy that is getting attention. Lower alcohol Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont are pleasant grapey alternatives while higher-end refined sparkling wine from Franciacorta, a small wine-producing area in Lombardy in northern Italy, could challenge as well. The Ferrari family has been producing traditional-method sparkling wine in this region for more than 100 years and, as in Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes play a big role.

In addition to the Italians, other French regions are producing interesting sparkling wines utilizing Method Traditional, the classic production method utilized in producing true Champagne. Look for Cremants from Burgundy. And don’t forget about Cavas, Spain’s famous sparkler.

Then there are our domestic producers who may be stylistically different but offer an equally enjoyable and well-made effervescence experience. A number of these sparkling wine producers have roots in French Champagne houses. Selections from Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, Chandon and Mumm Napa are excellent options for New Year’s Eve. Or check out Gruet Cellars Blanc de Blanc or Blanc Noir, two of my favorites from a French family producer in New Mexico.

Sparkling wines are very food friendly, so pairing should not be too complicated. It goes with a number of easy appetizers, simple seafood and rich cheeses. A smoked salmon and cream cheese crostini or fresh oysters on the half shell are perfect matches, especially since there is a shortage of Dungeness crab this season. Their saltiness plays well with the sparkler’s fresh acidity and bubbles.

Another favorite pairing this time of year are dates filled with spiced cream cheese, rolled with prosciutto and then baked for a few minutes. Or simply bake crimini mushrooms stuffed with chutney.

I turned to our local cheese expert, Judy Creighton, of Murphys, for her favorite cheese and bubble combos. She recommended selections with plenty of creamy richness.

“You want to look for a double- or triple-cream brie or creamy blue to match up with the sparkler,” suggests Judy. “My favorites include Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam or Fromager d’ Affinois Brie, or perhaps a Cambozola or Grand Noir Blue.”

All these food pairing ideas work best with drier style sparklers. Look for Brut on the label. As always, make sure your bottle is well chilled, as temperature is a factor in keeping the bubbles in the bottle. Be gentle and careful with the bottle when opening it. The lighter the hiss, the more bubbles in your glass.

Happy toasting!

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at wineguy@goldrush.com .

12414485