Sparkling wine is like any other vino in terms of quality. There are super-cheap headache producers, everyday bottles, and loveliness to pull from the cellar when something magical is going on. I won’t touch the first and I’ve talked enough about the second in other columns. Today, we focus on the good stuff.
Sparkling wine, more so than any other type of wine that I can think of, has a “top end” dominated almost exclusively by wines with strong name recognition. Let me demonstrate with a quick game of word association. What’s the first wine that pops to mind when I say “good cabernet sauvignon?” Just answer, don’t think.
Were I able to magically see all your answers, I’d probably have a list of hundreds of brands with prices ranging from fifteen bucks to hundreds. Now, try it again. Do the same thing for “good bubbly.” No thinking – just whatever comes to mind.
I can practically guarantee 95% of you immediately pulled something from this list: “Dom Perignon,” “Cristal (or Louis Roederer),” “Krug,” or “Veuve Clicquot.”
These names rise to the surface for a reason. Yes, they’re excellent wines – and they’ve been excellent wines for decades. Because so few wine makers, relatively, make sparkling wine – the top end sparklers prices’ end up inflated simply because of name recognition. Hooters puts a $200 bottle of Dom Perignon on every menu for a reason, no? You won’t find any of those wines for under $60-70.
The other notable fact – all of these wines are Champagnes. There’s romance in the word “Champagne” which adds several dollars to the sticker price. As we’ve discussed here before, most sparkling wine is not Champagne. For a wine to be truly “Champagne,” it must be made in the Champagne region of France using “Méthode Champenoise” – a particular technique for carbonation and aging. (“That Champagne’s not Korbel” is actually an indication of quality.)
There’s a good reason why these wines are as expensive as they are. Wines made in the Champagne are, on average, more complex and of higher quality than similar wines made elsewhere in the world, even if the same production methods are employed. However, there’s plenty of excellent sparkling wine made in other places without as much notoriety.
During this festive season, there are plenty of occasions for bubbly. Some of those occasions might call for a “better than everyday” sparkler. I have a couple of ideas, and I asked some of my local friends in the wine biz for recommendations on some bottles that would be appropriate for when “good” bubbly is on the menu, but you might not want to blow all of your gift-buying cash in one place.
Baumard Crémant Brut-Carte Turquoise ($17-23) – from Anjou in the Loire Valley, a blend of chenin blanc and cabernet franc has a crisp flavor of apricots and a very clean finish.
Charles Ellner Brut Reserve Champagne ($30-50) – a classic Champagne. Plenty of earth and yeast on the nose with long flavors of vanilla and honey on the finish.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($40-55) – one of the “just below the top” producers in Champagne. A little more fruit than many, but a consistent, high-quality product that’s been around for many, many years.
Delamotte Brut Champagne ($40-55) – the flipside of the Piper, this one is tart and crisp. Long and complex. The word that I see over and over again in reviews of this wine is “stylish.”
If I’m getting a good bottle that’s not from France, I’m looking to California:
Roederer Estates L’Ermitage Brut ($35-55) – I had the good fortune to visit this winery on a recent trip to California. Roederer Estates is the California branch of Louis Roederer, creator of Cristal. However, for about $80 less a bottle, you can take the cage off a bottle of this beautiful sparkler. Probably as close to Champagne style as I’ve had from an American bubbly. I highly recommend.
Mumm DVX ($40-55) – From Napa Valley, this is the high-end bottling from this very well-known winery. Like Roederer, they put together some very solid $20 bubbly, but if you need something a little higher end with a bit of an edge, the DVX is a yearly award winner.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($25-40) – K2 calls Schramsberg the “King of the California Sparklers.” Their Blanc de Blancs is a very flavorful, apple-laden blast of flavor that’s a real bargain at the price. I was lucky enough to get a couple of bottles of this as a wedding gift. It doesn’t disappoint.
Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ($25-40) – This sparkler is near and dear to my heart, as I had a chance to try it on our very first trip to wine country. From Sonoma County, this is a little fruity and would probably land in the “extra dry” rather than “brut” category (meaning there’s a little bit of residual sugar). This wine was designed for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings at the end of the Cold War. It’s especially good with a few pomegranate seeds in the glass.
There are also some excellent values from Germany and Argentina, and there’s any number of good producers of Prosecco from Italy. Bottom line? Talk to your local wine merchant. If his or her first recommendation when you ask for “good bubbly” is Dom Perignon, go elsewhere.