Champagne is the wine of choice when New Year's Eve approaches, but too often we overindulge, and it's easy to do.
That's because we usually have dinner at a normal time, between 7 and 8 in the evening, and wine accompanies it. Later, as we wait around until the ball drops, in the two or more hours left, a lot of folks sip something, and then have a glass at the top of the hour.
It's no wonder a lot of people have headaches the next morning. Not only does sparkling wine contain the normal amount of alcohol that wine has (about 12%), but it also has bubbles, which helps accelerate the heady feeling we'd get from normal wine.
Add to that the festive spirit in which the bubbly is often served and some folks get the notion that they'd be a bad sport not to have "one more glass," and then one more. . . .
Doing New Year's Eve with sanity, then, calls for a rigorous approach to moderation, a plan of attack that allows you to enjoy the morning after as well as the evening before. And I contend it's easier to do when you have only great sparkling wine around.
Greatness, of course, implies high price. But I have found that great Champagne gives you fewer problems. It has to do with the way it's made: dry.
Sweet Champagne, such as that $1.99 special you serve because there are so many people coming, is far easier to slug down than the bone-dry stuff that has delicacy, finesse, and an austere aftertaste that seems to go better with food than alone. Expensive Champagne is not made to be swigged.
So here are a few suggestions about the structure of a dinner or late-night gathering to celebrate the new year, some of which may seem awfully obvious, but which deserves repeating.
--Serve Champagne with food early in the evening. Almost nothing is worse than sparkling wine on an empty stomach. The food should be something that will absorb some of the alcohol, and carbohydrates are very good. So are oils, and one grand match is toasted Italian-style bread with olive oil, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. This is a bit caloric, but it sops up some of the early evening alcohol.
(One person I know takes some activated charcoal capsules before going to a Champagne party on the theory that the charcoal will absorb some of the alcohol and he feels he has fewer problems the next morning.)
--Have bread and cheese, chips and nuts, set out for the guests to nibble on before dinner. And at dinner, make sure there's plenty of bread and water.
--Use flutes. Those tall, slender Champagne glasses keep the effervescence in the wine longer, allowing people to nurse their drinks longer. (As soon as a glass of Champagne goes flat, the temptation is to swallow what's in the glass in a gulp and look for more. If the wine retains its bubbles longer, people often sip slower.)
--Offer what Brooks Firestone calls a spacer, the English term referring to a non-alcoholic beverage served in between those with alcohol. Firestone, the winery owner from Santa Barbara, has been using the term spacer in radio commercials for his Firestone Non-Alcoholic beer, an excellent and quite flavorful "extra beverage" no party should be without. Designated drivers will be pleased (as will the weight-conscious; it has a lot fewer calories than regular beer), and so will those who want to sip something after having had enough.
This last suggestion goes too for other non-alcoholic products, including non-alcoholic beers such as Clausthaler, Kalibur and Moussy and non-alcoholic wines from Ariel. The Ariel Blanc de Noirs ($9) is a surprisingly tasty product. It doesn't remind me of wine as much as I had hoped, but it is dry and serves a useful purpose: it goes with food a lot better than soda pop.
--Serve Champagne cold. Warm or cool Champagne tastes less lively and often is consumed in larger gulps. Served cold, it retains its bubbles longer and will be sipped more slowly.
What kind of bubbly to serve? That depends on the budget. Good French Champagne can cost $50 to $100 a bottle, though wines as lovely as Perrier-Jouet or Veuve-Clicquot, both non-vintage Bruts, are wonderful choices for less than $20.
If the party is going to be large and price a factor, Champagne-style punch can be made with white table wine, sparkling water and fruit juice, with fruit added for garnish. Recipes abound in numerous cookbooks. This is usually a safe way to create a festive atmosphere, and the alcohol in such a drink is lower because the wine is usually diluted by the addition of other liquids.
However, Champagne-style punch is inadequate where wine lovers are present, so a few bottles of something good must be at hand. Often, in such larger gatherings, not much of the expensive stuff is needed. (A couple of years ago I attended a Dec. 31 wedding at which there was much "punch" to consume. But the host had an ample supply of his "house Champagne," which turned out to be the exceptional Charles Heidsieck from France. He and I were among the few who consumed it.)