May 22, 2014 at 3:08 PM ET
A Memorial Day barbecue is no place for aged Bordeaux, but what to serve with all the grilled meat, veggies or seafood? Think bubbly. “Sparkling wines are versatile," says Carlton McCoy, master sommelier at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., and a trained chef. "Their effervescence makes them food-friendly, and they’re festive."
There's no need to get fussy when popping open a bottle of sparkling wine: “When you’re barbecuing, you don’t want to worry about fancy glasses or decanting or any of that," says McCoy. "Pull the cooler out, give your friends a bunch of options to try, and everyone will have fun.” Here are his top value picks, from crisp whites to pair with grilled seafood, to fizzy reds assertive enough to stand up to burgers.
Mass-produced Lambrusco fell out of fashion in the 1980s, but smaller growers in Central Italy have revived its reputation with their seriously delicious sparkling reds, like the 2011 Cavicchioli & Figli Col Sassoso Lambrusco ($17). Tannins and rich spice make it a terrific match for almost any red meat, especially lamb and beef. “Burgers and a Lambrusco would be insane together,” McCoy says.
The white Prosecco grape stars in the sparkling wine from Italy's Veneto region. Even its driest versions have a melony sweetness to whet the appetite, so it’s usually served as an aperitivo. Along with bellinis, McCoy pours it with summery starters like grilled melon wrapped in ham, or charcuterie. A classic example is the Col Solivo Extra Dry ($15).
The name Txakoli may look like alphabet soup. Pronounced "chakoli," it’s actually an accessibly low-alcohol, lightly fizzy wine from the Basque region of Spain. There are many small producers; McCoy is a fan of Ameztoi ($20). Both their white and rosé txakoli wines are “cheap, fresh and vibrant.” McCoy notes that the white has a bracing acidity that’s phenomenal with shellfish or light seafood, while the rosé tastes like tart green strawberries and rhubarb.
Along Spain’s Catalan coast, Cava is an everyday pairing for seafood. Some producers add international varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But McCoy prefers traditionalist examples like the crisp, briny Raventósi Blanc L'Hereu Reserva Brut ($18), made from Spanish grapes. Look for a newer vintage.
Summery sparkling rosés are now produced around the globe, but McCoy particularly loves the value options from France. The South of France is famous for its pink wines, like Mas de Daumas Gassac Rosé Frizant ($22). Made mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s got the tannin and ripe fruit to stand up to grilled chicken, pork or veal. From the northeast, the 100 percent Pinot Noir Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé is lighter and more delicate ($20). “To me, it’s the perfect wine for salmon,” McCoy says.
The small French region of Champagne produces less than than 10 percent of the world’s sparklers, but theirs are the only ones in the world who can use the name. Great Champagnes are pricey and often start at $150, but McCoy likes the excellent, food-friendly, good-value Camille Saves Carte Blanche Premier Cru Brut ($50). It has an intense, chalky minerality that makes a fantastic match for oysters on or off the grill.
California produces many our finest domestic sparkling wines, but it’s almost as hard to find an affordable American sparkler as it is a bargain Champagne. McCoy’s go-to is the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, whose 2010 vintage can be found for as little as $26. “It’s gorgeous. It’s 100 percent Chardonnay, so think sparkling Chablis: crisp, minerally, plus a little biscuity,” he notes. No wonder this wine has been chosen as a White House staple by American presidents for the past four decades.