AS WE ENTER the Celebration Season, which starts with the Thanksgiving feast in late November, runs to the conspicuous consumption of Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas in December, jumps quickly to the excesses of New Year’s Eve, and finally ends with pledging our love and begging for forgiveness on Valentine’s Day in mid-February, chances are we’re going to toast the holidays with wine. As we raise our glasses in festive ritual, the one constant we can count on is bubbles.
Most American wine drinkers reserve sparklers for special occasions; we consume more than 40 percent of our yearly ration of bubbly during the holiday season. In addition to sparkling wines making the holidays cheery and bright, an added bonus is that we can now choose good wines from all over the world and at all different price points.
Time was when “bubbly” meant Champagne. Or did it? Many of us refer to any sparkling wine as “Champagne,” but that’s not really accurate. Champagne is a region of northern France, not a style of wine. While it’s true that the most famous sparkling wine in the world just happens to come from this region it’s also true that in the United States any wine with bubbles—including some real swill that sells for maybe three bucks—may be labeled with the generic “Champagne.”
The French have long insisted that the appellation “Champagne” be applied only to the sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region. All the member nations of the European honor France’s use of the name and call their sparkling wines by other names. I rarely say this, but in the spirit of the holidays, here goes: The French are right. Let’s all make an early New Year’s resolution to agree that while all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
The world’s finest bubbly will cost from $125 to $500 and more per bottle. Some of the best cuvees des prestiges—fine vintage Champagnes made in only the best years—include Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame (about $150); Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Fleurs de Champagne (also $150, in a distinctive hand-painted and sandblasted bottle adorned with white flowers); Pommery Louise (about $200); Mumm Rene Lalou ($150); Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon ($200 to $250) and Dom Perignon Rose ($300); Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and Comtes de Champagne Rose ($175 to $250 and $250 to $350 for the Rose). The famous Cristal by Roederer is a blanc de blancs (100 percent Chardonnay) for about $250.
For those who remember World War II, a gift of Pol Roger’s Cuvee Winston Churchill at about $200 makes a great gift. Don’t forget Salon Cuvee S at about $350 per bottle and the ne plus ultra—the multi-vintage Krug Grand Cuvee Rose, about $700 per bottle.
In comparison to these extravagant wines, non-vintage Champagne is a proletarian bargain. More than 95 percent of Champagne production is non-vintage Brut (a very dry style), and it is with this wine that a Champagne producer rises or falls. Most are priced between about $25 and $45. Champagne bargains include Nicolas Feuillate, Philliponat, Charbaut, Alfred Gratien, Lanson, Pannier, Jacquesson, Ayala, and Deutz. Also good value: Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial and White Star Extra Dry, Laurent Perrier, DeVenoge, Charles Heidsieck, Heidsieck Monopole, Demoiselle, Taittinger, Bollinger, and Drappier.
Even after shelling out for all those holiday gifts, you might have to live poor but can still drink rich.
For French Champagne alternatives, look for great sparklers from Alsace (Willm is the easiest to find, about $16) and the Loire Valley (Gratien Brut, among others, about $12).
If you want to try some wonderful methode champenoise bubbly from the U.S., there are choices galore, most between $12 and $35, more or less.
Let’s start with our home turf, New York State. Great sparklers are produced in the Finger Lakes wine region, especially the vintage Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs from Chateau Frank (each about $30). These wines are very special; they’re aged on their lees—expired yeast cells—in the bottle for five to six years before release. That’s about twice as long as the legal aging minimum for vintage Champagne in France. If you’re looking for something with a bit of sweetness, try the Chateau Frank Celebre or Celebre Rose (each about $20). Other good producers in the Finger Lakes include Hermann Wiemer and Glenora (each about $25). From Long Island, look for excellent vintage bubbly from Wolffer Estate (about $25).
My personal favorite from California is Roederer Estate Brut from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. Also great from the Golden State are Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Domaine Carneros, “J,” Iron Horse, Jepson, Gloria Ferrer, and Mumm Cuvee Napa. All of these sparklers from California sell in the $15 to $30 price range. From Washington State comes Domaine Ste. Michelle—a true methode champenoise sparkler for under $15. One of America’s finest comes from Oregon–-Argyle Brut (about $23)—and don’t forget to try Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico (each about $16).
Back in the Old World, Italy makes brilliant Franciacorta by the methode champenoise in Lombardy—it’s really expensive, but worth it. If you want something lighter and fun, try a few bottles of semi-dry Prosecco from Veneto and, of course, sparkling Asti, a sweet refresher from the Piedmont region, home of the truly unusual red sweet sparkler, Brachetto d’Acqui (tutti in the $8 to $20 range).
Cava—great sparkling wines from Spain, all of them true methode champenoise—can be found at almost unbelievably low prices, starting at $6 or $7, and rarely exceeding $20. For something really special, look for Cristalino, Segura Viudas, Paul Cheneau, Sumarocca, Cordoniu, Freixenet, Valformosa. Perhaps the greatest of all Cavas, vintage Llopart, is available for about $16.
When it comes to enjoying sparkling wines for the holidays, it’s good to know that even after shelling out for all those holiday gifts, you might have to live poor but can still drink rich.