SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
More bottles of champagne and sparkling wine are sold in the United States between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than at any other time of the year. Bubbly, with an elegance that eludes eggnog, has become a holiday favorite.
For many consumers, December may be the only month in which they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices.
Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is French champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean? Here’s a primer, with answers to these and seven other frequently asked questions. With luck, it should make shopping for bubbly a little easier this year.
Is French champagne really the best sparkling wine?
In a word, yes. Champagne, real champagne, comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.
What makes French champagne so distinct?
Many things, but surely the most important factor is that the grapes there rarely ripen sufficiently for still wine. The region simply is too cold. In other places, people make sparkling wine alongside still wine. In Champagne, bubbly is just about it.
That French champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly these days following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.
Why is French champagne so expensive?
First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for this champagne all over the world, the region itself can’t expand so stocks can’t grow.
Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is very expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method and the wine simply won’t be cheap.
Speaking of cheap, you can find some bottles of bubbly for under $10 that are labeled as “champagne.” Almost always domestic, they use the name because, unlike in the European Union, American law does not prevent them from doing so.
These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. While quaffable, they bear virtually no resemblance to true champagne.
Are the big names worth the big money?
Champagnes have a three-tier pricing structure. Non-vintage wines, which account for close to 90 percent of all production, are the least expensive, usually costing around $30 to $40 a bottle. At the second level, vintage French champagnes, wines made exclusively from grapes from a single harvest, tend to cost about half as much more.
Only the final tier holds the prestige or luxury champagnes, the names (for example, Moet’s “Dom Perignon” or Roederer’s “Cristal”) that cost upward of $100 a bottle.
Are they worth it? Well, it depends on how you define “worth” and on the size of your bank account. Four or five bottles of a non-vintage champagne might well be a smarter buy than one luxury bottle.
It’s important to note, though, that these wines do not sport their high price tags just because of hype or fashion. They almost always are superb in the glass, with especially delicate bubbles, complex aromas, and remarkable depth and length of flavor. Nothing’s better on a truly special occasion.
Besides the two mentioned above, consider the following, all of which have superb track records: Perrier-Jouet’s “Fleur de Champagne,” Philipponnat’s “Clos des Goisses,” Pol Roger’s “Cuvee Churchill,” Pommery’s “Louise,” and Veuve Clicquot’s “Grande Dame.”
So are there any good, affordable French champagnes? Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent French champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abele, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.
What does “brut” mean?
It means “dry,” and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means “very dry.” Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean “very dry.” It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec.” There’s absolutely no logic to it.
Incidentally, France’s rose champagnes, which many people assume must be sweet, rarely are. And one of the most popular champagnes in the United States, Moet & Chandon’s “White Star,” is extra dry, even though the label doesn’t say so. Again, don’t look for logic.
Should I serve real champagne at a holiday party? Or are there less costly alternatives?
Sure, serve French champagne if it fits the budget, and if your guests will appreciate it. There are, however, plenty of tasty, more affordable alternatives that everyone will enjoy.
Spanish cava is a popular choice. Made by the traditional method, but usually with different grapes, good cavas rarely cost more than $15, and often considerably less. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are especially reliable producers.
Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser than true champagne, can be another option. For around $10, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.
California champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Because of their bold style, they can be excellent at parties. Names to look for include Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, and Roederer Estate. Expect to pay about $20.
An excellent bargain bubbly comes from New Zealand. Lindauer non-vintage brut costs about $12, and outperforms many wines from elsewhere costing twice as much.
What foods go best with brut bubblies?
Whether from Champagne or elsewhere, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare.
It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, particularly shellfish, sushi, tuna tartar and the like.
What about dessert?
Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Dessert, then, is the time to serve extra dry or demi-sec bubbly. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra dry cava for about $10.
Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.
Is there an easy way to open a bottle of bubbly?
Sure. The trick, after undoing the wire cage, is to turn the bottle rather than the cork.
Hold onto the cork with one hand, thumb on top, and just twist the bottle clockwise with the other. The cork will slowly come out, its release signaled by a gentle hiss rather than a loud explosion.
What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays? Can bubbly age?
Yes, and fine bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in bottle.
More than with most other wines, though, you need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light.
Most good non-vintage brut French champagnes and California sparklers will acquire a toasty, nutty undertone with a few years spent in bottle. They become more complex, nuanced, and intriguing.
Given all the sales this holiday season, now is the time to stock up.