Nothing adds the extra effervescence and magic to the holiday season better than a shared bottle of bubbly. Serving something sparkling makes you, and your guests, feel extra special and ultra-indulged. It’s a celebration in a glass.
Ah, but which bubbly to buy? Perhaps you are searching for something to sip with your sweetie or perchance the affordable alternative for serving at a big bash. In either case you’re in luck—there is something on the shelves to suit just about every palate and pocketbook. It is merely a matter of sifting through the sundry selections. If you are not already an oenophile, the following primer should help get your holidays off to a sparkling start.
if it’s not from champagne…
First things first: true champagne comes exclusively from the Champagne region in France, hence the name. Everything else is sparkling wine—period.
However, just because it’s called sparkling wine doesn’t mean it’s not high-quality. The best sparkling wines share an important similarity with their champagne kin: methode champenoise. This snazzy term means that the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, (the same bottle in which it is later sold) instead of in a vat. Look for this designation on the bottle. The label may also say, “fermented in this bottle.” Bottles labeled “fermented in the bottle” are often created by a less prestigious process known as the transfer method: a step above the vat, but below methode champenoise.
cheap, but not tawdry
There are a multitude of fine domestic sparklers on the market, and for those watching their wallets, this is an ideal area to start shopping—most are under, or around, $20. If you have a favorite champagne consider quaffing its California counterpart. They are usually created in a similar style with a more pleasing pricetag. For instance, Louis Roederer lovers should look for Roederer Estate, Taittinger devotees turn to Domaine Carneros, Moët & Chandon fans look towards Domaine Chandon, and so forth. There are also a number of nice wines from strictly American producers: Chateau Ste. Michelle is a great bargain buy from Washington state at under $15, Iron Horse offers an impressive selection of sparklers from Sonoma at around $20, and “J” from Jordan Winery in California is a classy choice in the over $20 realm. And for the Francophiles, Bouvet Brut at about $15 and Monmousseau at under $10 are both good French sparklers for serving at a sizable soirée.
moving on up
If it is absolutely a champagne occasion, to get the best bang for the buck consider buying a non-vintage blend. These champagnes are crafted by blending the juice from the current harvest with reserve wines to achieve a specific house style that remains relatively unchanged from year to year. Most of the non-vintage champagnes fall within the same price range (between $20 to $50) so what you are really searching for is the style you prefer. Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier Jouët and Taittinger all tend to be light-bodied, crisp and elegant. Deutz, Pol Roger, Pommery and Laurent Perrier are medium bodied and slightly richer. And for those that prefer full-blown, full-bodied, old-style champagnes, Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger and Krug are some prime producers.
Vintage champagne is the next rung, in both price and perception. These wines are blended entirely from the juice of a particular year, so while most are in keeping with the house style, the flavor varies from vintage to vintage.
The cream of the crop are the luxury champagnes, the “tete de cuvees” (head of blends). These opulent champagnes are created from only the finest grapes and only in exceptional years. These are made in relatively small quantities, aged to perfection and priced accordingly. This is the category that includes Moët Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Veuve Clicquot Le Grande Dame, Schramsberg J. Schram, and several others.
Rose champagne is another splurge. These rather rare wines range in hue from gloriously golden to shimmering salmon. And, they have a lovely richness to them that makes them grand with food. If you love the color and concept but suffer a bit from sticker shock, opt instead for a bottle of blanc de noirs. (Schramsberg and Mumm Cuvee Napa, both at under or around $20, are two tasty picks.) Champagne is traditionally made from both white and black grapes. Rose champagnes and sparkling wines labeled blanc de noirs (literally, white of blacks) are made strictly from the black grapes.
The opposite of blanc de noirs is blanc de blancs (white of whites), champagne or sparkling wine made entirely from chardonnay grapes. These wines are usually fairly expensive, clean, crisp and classy—and so light in tint that they are nearly crystal clear.
There you have it—that should be enough information to allow you to add some sparkle to all your celebrations. Have a safe, splendid season. Cheers to you and yours! •