There’s something slightly risqué about an effervescent red wine. After all, we’ve been trained by the Champagne industry to equate great sparklers with crystal-clear liquid (think of Cristal, Roederer’s coveted cuvée, in its transparent bottle). But there’s only one thing separating bubbly blonde from scarlet sparklers: grape skins.
Leave the skins in the juice for a bit, and you’ll get rosé. Leave them longer, and not only does the color of the liquid deepen, but so do the scents, flavors, and tannins. Add carbonation, and you’re in for an intense sipper, which is why many sparkling reds are just a little bit sweet—a touch of sugar smooths any rough edges.
Before you say I only drink dry reds, think about some of the greatest wine-and-food matches in the world. Port and blue cheese: sweet with funky. Sauternes and oysters: sweet with salty. Lambrusco with Parmigiano-Reggiano: sweet, salty, funky, and bubbly to boot.
Americans have been slow to come around to sparkling reds, thanks to a bad patch in the 1970s with saccharine, commercial versions skewing closer to alcoholic soda than real wine. But that’s rapidly changing. Italy has led the way with Lambrusco—and that’s just the beginning. In the south, there’s bubbly frappato out of Sicily and earthy, red-berried wine from Lettere, a region of Campania devoted to sparkling reds; in the middle, there is Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, a bubbly red mentioned by Dante in his Divine Comedy that’s made a comeback recently. The north has Brachetto d’Acqui, a sweet, strawberry-scented bubbly.
Jeff Berlin, manager and wine director of À Côté, a restaurant in Oakland, Calif., finds some of his favorite examples in Slovenia, where vintners make sparklers from a local grape called teran. Those are just a few examples; every country has its own versions. And when sparkling reds step up to the cheese plate, they bat a thousand.
An off-dry sparkling red from the volcanic hills south of Naples, this might just be the perfect pizza wine. Boasting ripe red-berry flavors and gentle bubbles, it’s also a natural alongside burrata, yet it has enough earthiness under that fruit to take on an aged pasta filata cheese as well.
Maplebrook Farm Burrata + Lettere
Caciocavallo Silano PDO + Lettere
Wines made from teran grapes tend to be metallic and smoky in flavor. Bubbles make them friendlier, especially when produced in the pétillant-naturel style, in which the wine is bottled while it’s still fermenting. It’s a gentler variety, but retains the grape’s herbal edge—echo that element with leaf-wrapped cheeses.
Banon PDO + sparkling teran
Valdeón PGI + sparkling teran
Vernaccia di Serrapetrona
“This is the ultimate food-pairing wine in general, not just with cheese,” Berlin says. Its intense berry flavor is derived from a portion of super-ripe, air-dried grapes in the blend—though it still finishes dry. Ruby-red with a fragrant, almost floral scent, the Italian bottle shines in the company of herbed and spiced cheeses.
Le Chèvrefeuille Fleur Verte + Vernaccia di Serrapetrona
Nicolau Farms Quatro Pepe + Vernaccia di Serrapetrona
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