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Sales of Canadian bubbly are fizzing over, say winemakers

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When the countdown is on and the noisemakers are blowing to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, what high-end bubbly will you reach for as your first taste of 2007?


A decade ago it likely would have been a French Champagne, but these days it seems more Canadians are looking to homegrown sparkling wine to add "fizzazz" to their celebrations while satisfying their palates Ñ and their wallets.


"Our sparkling is on fire right now," says Daniel Speck, co-owner of Henry of Pelham Family Estate winery in St. Catharines, Ont. It markets both a premium blanc-de-blanc and rose version of its CuvŽe Catharine: Sparkling Wine for about $30 a bottle in-house and in LCBO stores.


"Ontario, in particular, has done with icewine 15 years ago what we're starting to do with sparkling now," he says.


Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland, B.C., which makes three different premium sparkling wines for $30 and under, says it, too, has experienced a boost in sales in recent years and has increased production as a result.


"What we're finding as well is less people are using it just as a celebration drink," says Sumac Ridge marketing manager Christa-Lee McWatters.


"Because of the acidity and the great fruit that's there, it's so food friendly and goes with so many different types of food."


And Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars in Okanagan Falls, B.C., which also produces brut level white and rose sparkling wines for $23 to $30 a bottle, has seen a similar trend.


"I would say that the demand has probably increased a minimum of 50 per cent in the past two years," says owner Ian Mavety.


"We tend to see it being poured by the glass in restaurants, which really adds to the demand. Private customers that used to buy a few bottles now buy six bottles or a case at a time."


Sparkling wine Ñ not to be confused with Champagne, which comes from a region of France with the same name Ñ is made with underripe grapes that are usually harvested earlier than normal, in late August or early September.


The traditional French Champagne method involves hand-picking the grapes and either bottle fermenting them from one crop and aging them for at least 30 months (vintage), or blending from several years' worth of crops and aging them a minimum of 14 months (non-vintage).


McWatters says virtually no Canadian wineries were making premium sparkling wine in the traditional method before Sumac Ridge started producing their award-winning Steller's Jay Brut in 1987.


"There wasn't really any being made in Canada other than the cheap method Ñ just add carbon dioxide to the wine Ñ you know, the sweet and bubbly pop-type scenario," she says.


Now, most of the sparkling wines in Canada are crafted in the traditional fashion, typically with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Blue Mountain also adds a bit of Pinot Gris to its product while Sumac Ridge offers Canada's first Sparkling Shiraz. You'll know you're getting a product made in the traditional French style if you see the words "Methode Traditionnelle" on the label.


"The challenge as a winemaker is to make this wine taste consistent from bottle to bottle and yet make it in (small) batches," says Speck, who touts his Henry of Pelham sparkling wine as being on par with some vintage Champagnes, only with a much smaller price tag.


"It is the most handcrafted wine you can make."


That might explain why regions like Nova Scotia and Ontario's Prince Edward County, which are prime for sparkling wine production because of their climates, haven't tapped into the market yet, says wine expert Tony Aspler.


"It's very labour intensive," says Aspler, who wrote the recently published book, The Wine Atlas of Canada.


And right now there's not that kind of interest in sparkling wines as there is in icewine or Pinot Grigio or Cabernet Sauvignon.


Still, sales are increasing as the Canadian wine-producing world benefits from the esteemed reputation of its Vintners Quality Alliance quality-control system, and a growing global demand for fruit-forward wines from the "New World."


"(Wine making) is one of the fastest growing sectors in Canadian industry," Aspler says. "Between 1997 and 2005, it grew at a rate of 7.1 per cent, although the GDP was three per cent at that time, so I mean, it really is extraordinary."




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Sparkling wine at its best served cold in tall flute glasses

Tips from the experts on how to enjoy premium sparkling wine to its fullest:



  • Serve it very cold to keep the bubbles lasting their longest. The warmer the product, the less fizz it has.

  • Use a tall flute or tall wineglass. The bubbles dissipate quickly in fish bowl-style wineglasses.

  • Refrigerate unused portions and drink them within a couple of days if they don't have a stopper on them.

  • Consider buying a high-end sparkling wine stopper, which retails for around $5 in liquor stores and can help the product last for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

  • Make a cocktail out of it. The Kir Royal is one part Creme de Cassis and five parts sparkling wine (or Champagne). When blended, the two have a layering effect inside the glass.

  • Henry of Pelham Family Estate winery in St. Catharines, Ont., serves up a variation of the Kir Royal. Called the Kir Catharine, it involves pouring a one-ounce shot of Henry of Pelham Cabernet France Icewine over a spoon and into a glass containing three ounces of its Cuvee Catharine Brut.



 
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