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How to Use Sparkling Wine to Make Your Cocktails Even Better

How to select the right bubbly for your Mimosa and more.

champagne cocktail bartender pouring Photo: courtesy jamurka/Adobe Stock

It’s Sunday morning in late summer and you’re at the grocery store. What was much-welcome A/C when you first walked in is beginning to chill you now as the small beads of parking-lot sweat turn cold, because you’ve been stuck in place for 10 minutes in front of a wall of sparkling wine. You pick up and read the bottles, then put them down, then pick them back up, all while other masked shoppers dance awkwardly around you and each other in a futile attempt to stay six feet away.

Someone said “Mimosas” 45 minutes ago and everyone agreed it was a good idea, and now you’re here trying to figure out what to buy. Which one are you supposed to get? Does expensiveness denote quality? All the recipe says is “top with sparkling wine.” What kind?

Drink recipes are always saying “top with sparkling wine.” It’s frustrating—it’s like reading a recipe for a dish that says “chop and bake a vegetable.” How much of what vegetable for how long? In a way it’s not absolutely critical, and whatever sparkling wine you get will probably be good enough for brunch, but what if you don’t want “good enough.” What if you want it to be great?

Here’s a handy guide for how to choose the right style of sparkling wine for your cocktail, be it mimosa or otherwise.

Champagne

Jordan Cuvee by Champagne AR Lenoble

Courtesy of Jordan Winery

This is the part where I wish I could tell you to not believe the hype because the best bottles are actually on the cheaper end, but sadly I can’t. Champagne is and has always been the gold standard of sparkling wine. The soil and the process and the generational knowledge all yield an inimitable complexity and quality, and using actual Champagne in your cocktails, expensive though it is, is the quickest and most dramatic way to increase their quality.

As for what kind: you want “Brut,” which is generally between 6 to 10 grams of residual sugar. Most or all of the Champagne you see in the grocery store is Brut. You might instinctively feel that you want as little sugar as possible, and that’s certainly possible—Extra Brut (0 to 6 grams) or Brut Nature (0 to 3 grams) exist—but I would advise against them for cocktail work, as they might mess with the balance. There’s so much natural acidity in Champagne that the driest ones can be a bit too lean and tart, sometimes searingly so.

Wine stores will have a larger range on the budget end, and producers like Deutz or J. Lasalle are phenomenal for $35 or so. If you’re at the grocery store, whatever you can find works. If it’s for use in a cocktail, I’d wouldn’t spend more than $60.

Crémant

Think of Crémant like budget Champagne. By and large it follows Champagne’s rules, but can be made in more regions of France, from more grapes, and the aging laws are a bit less intense. The crucial thing is that it still enjoys a secondary fermentation inside the bottle—a process which is difficult and tedious, but which creates a bready depth and complexity you can’t fake.

Stick with Brut, and enjoy your discount—they’ll run you between $15 to $25 per bottle. This is about half the price of entry-level Champagne, but (according to my hugely subjective generalization) about 80% of the quality.

Cava

Cava, like Crémant, is made in the Champagne method (secondary fermentation in the bottle), and comes mostly from the Catalonian area of Spain. There certainly are expressive and dynamic Gran Reserva Cavas that can hold their own against anything, but for cocktails, Cava is embraced for its place at the intersection of quality and value. Some totally solid brands, like Anna de Codorníu Brut, are widely available for between $10 to $15.

It’s made largely from native Spanish grapes and artisanal or older bottlings can throw some slightly unusual flavors, but most you find will be very recognizable as quality sparkling wine, just somehow less expensive.

Prosecco

ruffino-stickybaby-prosecco-purse-01

Courtesy of Ruffino/ReserveBar/Simon Lewis Studio

Prosecco comes toward the end here not because there aren’t wonderful Proseccos (there are) but because it is made differently than the above wines, with less yeast contact, so it has less structure and depth. At its best, it is bright and fruity and floral—if it were an instrument, it would be a flute—so while it can be absolutely lovely, I personally find it a bit redundant in a cocktail with citrus juice.

That being said, if you like Prosecco, go with it. I would just warn that the lower price ranges tend to be a bit sweet, which can throw off the balance of your cocktails or mimosas. Orange juice doesn’t want any more sweetness.

American Sparkling Wine

One of the reasons everyone says “top with sparkling wine” is that the categories can be too broad to generalize about. Some American Sparkling Wines, like the regal Schramsburg of Napa or the improbable Gruet of New Mexico, are exceptional. Some, like Korbel, are less so. It’s impossible to recommend either way as a category, but just know that quality ranges wildly. Caveat emptor.

Moscato d’Asti

A lovely wine, but too sweet and perfumed for cocktails, unless they’re specifically built for it.

Andre

I know what you’re thinking—it was good in my early 20s, it’ll be good now. Except it wasn’t good in your early 20s, it was just that in your early 20s, you didn’t care.

Tips on Creating the Perfect Mimosa

mimosas and champagne

Photo: courtesy Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock

Now that you have a better idea of the sparkling wine you should use in you cocktails, when it comes to Mimosas specifically, there are some pieces of advice I want to share with you to ensure you’re making the best ones possible.

  • Fresh squeeze your juice: The difference between fresh OJ and bottled is stunning.
  • Keep everything cold: Put your oranges in the fridge before juicing them, or put the juice in the fridge once you’ve made it.
  • Keep juice amounts low (unless you can’t): I know it’s brunch, but when you’re using the right wine, I like mimosas with just a splash of juice. Maybe 2:1 wine to juice. But if it’s morning and you need to do stuff later, adjust as needed.
  • Pour slowly: Even filtered juice will foam like a demon when poured into sparkling wine. Pour slowly, or otherwise, combine in another larger container like a pitcher, and just pour freely from there.
  • Use the right wine: Based on how much you feel like splurging on this particular day.

Mimosa Recipe

  • 2 oz freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 4 oz Champagne, Crémant or Cava

Pour wine into a champagne flute. Add juice, slowly, and enjoy, for you have conquered this day and it’s not even noon.


Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.

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