By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. Photo courtesy of the Internet.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, I find myself thinking not of making a resolution, but rather making a confession. I am working toward my Master Sommelier degree with the Court of Master Sommeliers. The journey is a tenuous one with four levels (few ever pass the final exam on the first try), each progressively more challenging, each requiring immense attention to detail and knowledge of countless wine styles. Among those wine styles are sparkling wines. In my oenophilic “studies”, I have drunk vintage Champagne and Spanish Cava, the bubbly served on the Titanic and Italian Prosecco. And here, then, is my confession. My go-to bottle of bubbly costs $4.99 and is not French, but German. And, I love the stuff. Lest you think I am a complete boor, in a blind tasting among learned friends, it placed #3 amongst a field of real Champagnes.
What’s my point, you ask? I’m not trying to unload my wine snob guilt here; I’m trying to prove a point. Whether you want to spend $5, $50, or $500, there is a sparkler out there for you. You just have to know what you are looking for and what you are getting. So, a little Champagne primer. First, the word “Champagne” can officially only be used in reference to bubbles made in a miniscule region of France by the River Marne above Burgundy. Also, there are only three grapes that can be used in real Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay (all grapes grown in the Burgundy region). Why do you see American sparkling wines with the name “champagne”? Because Americans like the sexy sound of the word and have decided to ignore the French wine laws.
If you can’t afford “real” Champagne, but want something similar, then look for the phrase “méthode champenoise”, which means made in the style of Champagne. It’s a complex and delicate process that takes still wine and, with the addition of yeast and sugar, creates those lovely bubbles and a slight, lingering sweetness. By the way, my $4.99-er is most definitely not méthode champenoise, but more on that later.
Real Champagne comes in varying degrees of dryness – which essentially defines how much sugar the wine has. Even “brut” Champagne will have a perceived sweetness. If you aren’t sure what sort of Champagne you will like, look at the grapes being used and the vintage. Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay grapes, which give the wine a bright, creamy quality, while the less common Blanc de Noirs is made from 100% Pinot Noir. Rosé Champagne gets its color from a quick pressing of the red wine skins producing a light, fruity style. Crémant, basically what they call a sparkler made in France outside of champagne, is less fizzy than real Champagne, but is still made a la méthode champenoise (my other go-to bottle is a Crémant.)
Outside of France, of course, almost every country makes its own sparkling wines, at price points far less than true Champagne, but often offering just as much satisfaction. My little $4.99 bottle uses a blend of German white wine grapes (most likely Riesling and Muller-Thurgau) and is labeled Sekt (German for dry). In Italy, you will find Prosecco, a soft, easy-drinking style, as well as Asti Spumante and Lambrusco; in Spain, they have Cava, which is a bit more acidic and fizzy than Prosecco. Ever-independent Australia has its own sparkling Shiraz (think deep purple), which is a big, boozy fruit bomb with bubbles.
So, there’s the back story. What is beautiful about sparkling wine is that there is a bottle for every budget, every taste, and every occasion. That said, here are some New Year’s Eve recommendations from 12 Bottle Bar. And, apologies for the “wine terms”, but hey, that’s the only way to describe these bottles, aside from saying they are just darn tasty.
Schloss Biebrich Sekt, $4.99 at Trader Joe’s. Yes, finaly, you learn the name of my dirty little secret. In our house, we simply shorten the name to “Schloss” and break out a bottle whenever we need a little zing on the tongue. The flavor is sweet and fruity (apples and pears), the bubbles are big (no nose-tickling here), and the price is bargain basement – which means you won’t cry if you pour the flat leftovers down the drain. And, yes, this is the bottle that placed third in our blind Champagne tasting – beating out Perrier-Jouët and Duval-Leroy, among others. I also recently discovered J. Roget Champagne from California, another super cheapie ($5.99) that fizzles in the mouth with light, citrusy flavor. A restaurant buddy of mine sends this to friends by the case for weddings and other events.
Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé, $17-$20. This soft-pink, 100% Pinot Noir rosé is made in the méthode champenoise in Alsace, a kissing cousin to the Champagne region. Albrecht has won countless awards for good reason. The wine has a complexity usually found in more expensive Champagne with a hint of strawberry. This is a great sparkler with food, just rich enough to cut the fat, but not so overpowering that it competes with the food (it’s to die for alongside grilled ham and cheese sandwiches).
MID-RANGE: $30 – $50
Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne, non-vintage. It’s crisp and fresh with a balance of mineral and fruit flavors. This is a great mid-range Champagne, especially for the price, and the lighter style makes it very accessible to most people, as well as a perfect non-food Champagne. Much to our surprise, Laurent-Perrier was the winner of our blind taste test, beating out some of our favorite boutique bottles. Another one to seek out – Deutz Brut Classic (a little toasty with a hint of lemon).
HIGH RANGE: $100-$150
Krug Grand Cuvée. This is an expensive non-vintage Champagne, but its flavor is immensely sophisticated and consistent from year to year. I love this stuff and wish I could drink more of it, but I wouldn’t crack it if I were just blithely filling glasses all night long. It’s for sharing with someone special and taking the time to do so. Nutty, toasty, a hint of honey – all flavors I expect from fine Champagne. Krug has never disappointed me; it is worth every penny.
A few final notes to all you midnight revelers. I’ve purposely left out vintage champagnes and special bottling like Salon and Cristal. If you want to pour these high-end bottles, be my guest (well, actually, I’d rather be your guest.) However, remember this: Always buy what you can afford to pour copiously. One bottle of $300 Champagne split among twenty guests isn’t much of a party.
Sparkling wine, like generosity and cheer, is meant to flow freely.