Champagne. Sparkling wine. Spumante. Bubbly. It’s that time of year.
Dom Perignon, the monk who popularized the concept of carbonated wine apocryphally stated, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” upon opening a bottle in the wine caves of his monastery, and generations thereafter have shared that particular sensation, especially around this time of the year, when the loud pop of a cork accompanies celebrations large and small.
As party season cranks up, you might get called on by your friends to “pick up some Champagne” for your next soiree. The word “Champagne” is, for all intents and purposes for most people, a stand in term for all sparkling wine – much like “Coke” in the South translates as “any kind of soda/pop.”
“Champagne,” remember, is not a grape varietal or type of wine. It’s the region of Northern France where this style of wine originated, and where the most famous and most expensive versions of this sparkling wine -- like Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon, and the aforementioned Dom Perignon -- are produced. If you go to the wine store and ask for “Champagne,” you might get steered over to this rack, where you’ll be staring at a bunch of French names and pricetags starting at forty or fifty bucks.
“Waitaminit!” you say. “I’ve seen Korbel Champagne in the store! Isn’t that Champagne?” Nope. It’s sparkling wine made in California that was labeled for years as “Champagne” as a marketing ploy. In 2006, a trade agreement outlawed labeling US wines as “Champagne” unless they’d been using that as a traditional trademark – but they were required to relabel their wines as “California Champagne.” Sparkling wine that’s not from Champagne, whether from California or elsewhere, is now generally labeled “sparkling wine.”
Getting back to the French stuff, and getting down to brass tacks – in all honesty, Champagne can be a real ripoff. Yes, Champagne is wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to try a few high-end champagnes, and they’re delightful. They’re flavorful and sensuous…and completely overpriced for my semi-educated palate. I say this since, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re likely not going to be doing vertical tastings of high enders like Krug or Pol Roger anytime soon. Still, why are these wines so damned expensive?
Simply put? Brand loyalty.
We pay a premium for these wines because of the name on the label – no different from buying clothes, cars, or headphones. In some cases, the quality of actual Champagnes might be slightly higher than other sparkling wines, but at 11:59 on December 31st, are you really thinking about doing a Parker-esque pull-apart of the various flavors? I thought not. If you’re opening vintage Champagne at midnight on New Year’s, you’re either showin’ off, or you’re at a ritzier party than I’m ever getting invited to.
That said, there’s nothing quite like the ritual of cracking open a bottle of celebratory bubbly. Good news! Consumption of sparkling wine has increased sharply in the first half of this decade. (We must be in a collective mood to get down!) Because of this increased demand, there are many options to allow you to have a good experience while still maintaining a grip on your fiscal sanity.
A couple of quick things to consider about buying sparkling wine. Unlike most reds and whites, many sparkling wines do not have vintage dates, as they’re often made from blends of wines from different years to produce a consistent product. Vintage wines often command higher prices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better.
Also, remember that the wine’s sweetness level is on the label. The traditional French nomenclature for sparkling wine is more or less the standard. The ones you’re likely to see are, from sweetest to driest: Doux (sweet) → Demi-Sec (semi-dry) → Sec (Dry) → Extra Dry → Brut. Yep. Brut is “drier than dry.” There are actually another two, even drier, levels -- Extra Brut and Brut Nature, but you’re unlikely to come across those.
What you will come across, however, are plenty of alternatives to higher-end stuff. Here are a few that you’ll be able to find without too much trouble:
Crémant – We’ll start in France. Crémant (pronounced cray-mahn) has come to refer to French sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region. Most Crémant is produced with the same methode Champenoise process that Champagne is, often with the same grapes. The big difference? These are more “everyday” French sparkling wines, and usually can be had for between ten and twenty bucks. The best known will be labeled Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Jura. All of these make excellent alternatives if you’re trying to look classy by putting a bottle of French sparkling wine on the table at your next party. Are they as high quality as high-end Champagne? No. Is that quality difference worth $50 or more? You be the judge.
Cava – Over to Spain. Cava is my go-to inexpensive sparkling wine. This sparkler, produced in the area around Barcelona. The name “Cava” stems from the caves in which these wines were originally stored and aged. These wines are also produced in the same method as Champagne. I find most Cava to be crisper and somewhat more acidic than the creamy gentle bubbles in the French versions. The extra acidity, in my opinion, is what makes Cava perfect for tapas – allowing it to go alongside almost any kind of food. Cava is also quite inexpensive. For a typical bottle of Cava, if you’re spending more than $15, you’re overpaying.
Prosecco & Moscato – The Italian sparkling entries. Prosecco is the more “traditional” version of sparkling wine – and you’ll typically find it nestled next to the Cava in your local wine store. I find it to be fruitier and slightly sweeter than other sparkling wines, which I think makes it a better option for an early evening palate cleanser or morning-after mimosas than for cracking at the end of the year, but your mileage may vary. Moscato, whose popularity boomed in the early 2000’s, is a sweet, peachy, low-alcohol sparkling wine that – as a wine-savvy friend once put it – “you could drink for breakfast.” Produced in both sparkling and still versions, Moscato is a favorite of brunch aficionados and high school shoplifters everywhere.
United States Sparkling Wine – While some more expensive versions of “California Champagne” are decent (for instance, President Obama celebrated his inauguration with a special version of Korbel Natural), in general, they’re best used for christening boats or hosing down your friends after winning the sports contest of your choice. That said, there’s no shortage of high quality bubbly within our own borders. In my experience, the highest quality stuff comes from Northern California, and can be every bit as expensive as its French counterparts. However, there are many of these California products you’ll find in the $15-20 range that are very serviceable for any occasion. Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico are producing very good sparklers at bargain prices.
Bottom line – unless you’re really wed to the idea of having “traditional” Champagne for whatever your occasion may be, you’ll have good luck finding alternatives that won’t break your bank. So snag some bottles and pop your corks. You deserve it.