In a couple of days a lot of sparkling wine is going to be opened, sprayed around the room (maybe) and then drunk in celebration of the new year. That’s a good thing. But what sparkler will you be drinking? And how much do you plan on spending? Sparklers will set you back anywhere from $6.99 (stay away from these please) to $699. How do you choose? I’ve done some of the leg work for you. Here are several good options at different price points.
All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In order for a wine to be called Champagne it has to come from the Champagne region in northern France and it has to be made in a very specific way. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier grapes are used to make a base wine. This base wine is then placed in a bottle with some sugar and yeast and then capped. The yeasts eat the sugar giving off some more alcohol and carbon dioxide which is dissolved into the wine since it cannot get out of the bottle. After all the sugar is consumed the yeasts die. The wine is then aged on the dead yeasts, or lees as they are now called, which imparts the distinctive yeasty, bread, biscuit and toasty aromas you get with Champagne. The yeasts then must be removed from the bottle by riddling the bottles. This is a long and labor intensive process. Once complete the bottle is topped off with some reserve wine and sugar (not always) and then corked.
There are other sparkling wines that go through this same process but they cannot be called Champagne. Often they will use the words, Methode Traditionelle or Traditional Method Sparkling Wine but they will not be the same as Champagne. Champagne is unique due to the grapes used, the place they are grown and the process. It is a wonderfully unique, delicious wine that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Some places come close but they cannot match the complexity and energy that Champagne delivers. And for that you pay a premium. Champagne is not cheap. The method, reputation and demand all contribute to the high price we pay for this extraordinary wine.
You can expect to pay upwards of $40 for a bottle of Champagne. There are some out there for slightly less money but I think if you start at $40 it’s a safe bet that you’ll get a good bottle. Some names to look for are: Duval Leroy, Bollinger, A. Margaine, Aubry, Krug (super expensive!), Le Mesnil (one of the great bargains in wine), Tattinger, Billecart-Salmon, Egly-Ouriet, J Lasalle.
If a sparkling wine is made in France using the same method as in Champagne but is made outside of the region of Champagne, then the wine is called Cremant. These are good alternatives to Champagne at much friendlier prices, usually from $15 upward. They lack the concentration and depth of Champagne but are more fruit forward. Look for wines labeled Cremant de Limoux, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant de Jura.
Another wine made in the same way as Champagne but from Spain and one of the great values in sparkling wine. You can get a good Cava for under $10! One of my favorites is the Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rose that can be found on sale for $8.99. Once again, these wines are more fruit driven and less complex than Champagne.
New World Traditionally Made Sparkling Wines
Almost everywhere wine is made there is a producer making sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. Some of these are very good and outstanding and some terrible. I would stick with producers from well-known wine regions that have a reputation of making good wines. These wines will fall on a broad spectrum from sweet to dry and from fruity to yeasty and complex.
In California some safe bets are Roederer, Mumm, Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon. Plan on spending upwards of $25 for a good bottle. I really like a wine from Argentina that we tried recently. It’s pictured above from Domaine Bousquet. The wine is a very pale salmon color made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is just the slightest bit of sweetness but it has great body and a creamy mousse (bubbles). It’s made in the traditional way and is only $14. Buy it by the case if you can find it.
Tank Method Sparkling Wines
There are several ways to make a wine sparkle. The method used to make Champagne discussed above is considered the best way. The worst way is to inject wine with carbon dioxide. And then there is the Tank, or Charmat Method. This involves making a base wine, putting it into a sealed tank with sugar and yeast and letting the second fermentation take place in the tank. The wine is then filtered to remove the dead yeasts and bottled all under pressure. This is much less time-consuming and labor intensive. It is also good at showcasing fruit. These wines are made all over the globe but there are two countries that excel at them.
Prosecco is the first sparkler that comes to mind when Italy is mentioned, and for good reason. It is one of the best-selling sparkling wines on the planet. It comes from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy from the Glera grape. It’s fruity, slightly sweet (off-dry), easy and inexpensive. Everyone likes Prosecco. Chances are you’ll pay about $10-15 for a good one and most producers are a safe bet. Some of my favorites are Zonin, Foss Marai, LaMarca, Carpene Malvoti.
But Italy is not all about Prosecco. Asti, from Piemonte in the northwestern region of Italy, is another famous Italian sparkler made in the tank. This is always off-dry to sweet and offers incredible value as well. Moscato d’Asti is a slightly sparkling (frizzante), sweet wine that pairs well with desserts. And let’s not forget Lambrusco. These dry to off-dry red sparklers are perfect for antipasti, charcuterie and cheeses. There are also traditionally made sparklers from Italy that rival Champagne. These are Franciacorta and Trento DOC
Last but not least is Germany. The Germans consume a lot of sparkling wine. Much of it is imported. But it is not always sparkling when it gets there. The Germans import excess wine and add the sparkle when it gets there using the Tank Method. These are called Sekt and are great values. They can be anywhere from dry to sweet. Expect to pay $10-15 for a good Sekt. Henkell is a good producer that should be easy to get.
So, there you have it. A primer on sparkling wines for the New Year. I’ll post another article that goes a bit more in-depth into the production methods in the future. In the meantime if you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you. What will you be toasting with this weekend?