Play’s Grayson McDiarmid shares his fave bubbly picks for New Year’s Eve

Grayson McDiarmid is an absolutely stellar sommelier and the wine director at Play food & wine in Ottawa’s beautiful Byward Market (1 York Street). He also serves as an instructor at Algonquin College’s sommelier program and as a wine judge at the annual Ottawa Wine & Food Show. Drop by and pay him a visit some time! (Or follow his tweets for Play on Twitter @playfoodandwine)

If you’ve been to the LCBO over the past couple of days, you’ve noticed that it’s the time of year that the folks at our local booze monopoly dust off their sparkling wine and place them front and centre. As an aside, I’d like to just quickly mention that it’s a shame when people only open sparkling wine for one day a year. It is so food friendly, so refreshing and there are so many delicious styles, many of which are at very attractive price points. So with all this selection, how do know what to buy for the big night? We thought we’d help. Here are some picks from the LCBO at King Edward and Rideau.

(But www.lcbo.com has a great search feature with a “find stores” option that will tell you exactly how many bottles are at each store. Tax dollars at work!)

Let’s start in Champagne and with some words of advice. The big names are expensive because they are big names. They are often quite delicious but there are many better deals in Champagne. Champagne is an anomaly in the world of wine in that the artisan, small-production, hand-crafted wines are the lowest price. Someone has to pay for Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot ads in GQ — and in this case, it’s the consumer. If you’re not into paying for someone’s marketing budget, then try exploring names you may not know. My LCBO pick is the Baron-Fuente Grand Millesime 2003 Brut (Vintages #155119). It’s Vintage Champange (meaning all the grapes were picked in 2003) at a great price ($47.95) from a small family producer. Expect a nuttier, bready style with beautifully integrated fine bubbles. If you’re opening a cheaper bubbly too, it would be fun to taste them side by side and get a lesson in what length means in wine. You’ll taste the Baron-Fuente much longer.

Next up are a couple great sparklers from both of the major Canadian wine regions. Sumac Ridge’s Steller’s Jay 2006 Brut from B.C.’s beautiful Okanagan Valley is consistently delicious and a steal at $24.95 (Vintages #264879). It’s slightly pink from a little skin contact of the Pinot Noir grape used. On our side of the country, Henry of Pelham in Niagara crafts both a white and a pink sparkler called Cuvee Catharine. Both are very well made if you’re looking for some great Ontario grapes. You will not be disappointed to pay $29.95 for them (LCBO #217521 for the white, #217505 for the rose).

So far everything mentioned has been made in the traditional (Champagne) method, meaning the second fermentation (what gives us the bubbles) happened in the bottle and not in a big tank. What this gives us is finer, more integrated bubbles, which really feel like part of the wine and not an injected afterthought. A couple great options at a lower price point are Cremants, from France, and Cavas, from Spain. Both, by law, must be made in the traditional method in order to be labeled as such; so they are wonderful everyday Champagne alternatives. They are not as nuanced and interesting, but they can be pretty yummy nonetheless. One of the LCBO’s best-value sparkling wines is Segura Viudas Brut Reserva from Penedes, Spain (LCBO # 158493) and is available all year. For $14.95 a bottle, it’s great for a larger party and no one has to know what it cost you. Vintages has been good lately with bringing in interesting Cremants from all over France. One that I’ve been pouring by the glass at Play for a few weeks now is Moncontour’s Cremant de Loire Brut Rose (Vintages #183533). Great fresh acidity with strawberry-cranberry flavours and a steal at $16.95.

A last, an off-the-beaten-track bubbly is red and sweet. If you’re thinking chocolate in any capacity for New Year’s, you need to pick up a bottle of Ca’ dei Mandorli’s Brachetto D’Acqui 2009 (Vintages #30536, $17.95) from Northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Very low in alcohol (5.5%) and full of flavours of macerated raspberries and roses, it would be a very fun way to cap off the year that was with a big mouthful of the chocolate truffles someone spent far too much on for your stocking.

Happy drinking!