For many diehards, the choice has to be Champagne. While Champagne may symbolize the ultimate drink for celebrations, it is probably outside many people’s budgets (especially if you are buying for a large gathering). Thankfully, there are also many, other excellent sparkling wines to choose from, for every taste and budget.
What makes Champagne Champagne?
But first, let’s talk about Champagne. It is truly unique for many reasons. Firstly, it can only be made in the Champagne region of France. Nowhere else. For many years, producers of sparkling wines in many New World wine regions labeled their sparkling wines as Champagne. Thankfully, this is no longer permitted, thanks to appellation protection trade agreements between wine producing countries.
Champagne is made using the ‘méthode champenoise,’ whereby the wine undergoes its second fermentation (to create the bubbles) in the bottle. This takes place slowly in the hallowed cold chalky cellars of the Champagne region. Once complete, all non-vintage (NV) Champagne must be aged ‘sur lie’ (resting on the lees in the bottle) for at least 15 months (most Champagne houses leave it for 3 years), and vintage Champagne must age for at least 3 years (most leave it for 5-6 years) before release — a costly exercise in terms of time and stock holding.
Champagne, the final result, is characterized by its complex toasty aromas rather than primary fruit, as well as mouth-filling flavor and persistent tiny bubbles.
Other types of sparkling wines
Most top Californian and other New World sparkling wines are also made using the traditional method (second fermentation in bottle). Style-wise they differ from Champagne in that they tend to be more fruit-driven (warmer climate grapes) and fuller in body. As there are no regulations governing how long the wine must age before release, they typically have less autolytic complexity. However, there are exceptions, especially for producers’ top sparkling wines.
Cheaper and very high volume sparkling wines are generally made using the Charmat (Tank) method, whereby the second fermentation is carried out in bulk, in tank, after which it is then bottled with little or no lees aging. This method is sometimes considered an inferior method, because there is much less complexity-imbuing lees contact. However, horses for courses, the tank method is usually the preferred method for aromatic sparkling wines such as Asti, Prosecco, or Sekt, where the aim is to preserve aromatic intensity and purity. In general, the bubbles in Charmat-method sparkling wines are not as fine or persistent as those in wines made using the traditional method.
While I have described in very general terms the different types of sparkling wines, there are many other factors that influence the eventual style, color and sweetness. But, more about all this in a future 2010 post.
Bubblies for sipping on New Year's Eve
Meanwhile, back to the task at hand. What will you be sipping on New Year’s Eve? Will it be the familiar big brands that you have long enjoyed? Or will you try something new? While the big brands represent familiarity and assurance, it is fun to experiment as well. You might be pleasantly surprised. Here are some of my favorites for ringing in 2010 (all between $10 and $60).
• Champagne Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV, $35 – Another Champagne that I have been enjoying for the past 20 years. Always shows great minerality and finesse.
• Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV, $40 – Vibrant, full-bodied and rich, toasty autolysis, smooth with very persistent bubbles.
• Champagne Louis Roederer Brut NV, $40 – A perennial favorite with us. Medium bodied, crisp, lots of toasty autolysis, elegant with persistent tiny bubbles.
• Champagne Pommery POP EARTH NV, $50 – A recent and very fine addition to the Pommery stable of Champagne. Delicate and medium bodied. Floral, white fruit and brioche notes. Called EARTH, to reflect Pommery’s commitment to the environment. The bottle is lighter than their regular bottles. The label is made from recycled paper and uses water-soluble ink.
• Bollinger Brut Champagne Spécial Cuvée, NV, $60 – On the expensive side, but worth splashing out for a very special occasion. Full-bodied, creamy, nutty, hints of spice. Rich with very fine persistent bubbles.
• Zonin Prosecco NV, Brut, Italy, $12 – Easy drinking, soft and smooth. Inviting floral aromas. Delicate bubbles. Excellent value.
• 2006 Saint-Hillaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut, France, $13 – Delightfully refreshing. Really excellent for the price. Dry with attractive ripe fruit and epicurean notes. Lively bubbles.
• 2005 Juve y Camps Cava Brut, Reserva Familia, Spain $14 – From the home of Cava in the Penèdes region of Spain. Crisp, green apple notes, vibrant with tasty biscuity notes.
• • Graham Beck, Brut NV, South Africa, $17 – Well balanced, smooth, attractive yeasty notes. Lively bubbles.
• Roederer Estate Brut NV, California $18 – I think this must be the best value sparkling wine on the market. Lively, crisp, smooth with biscuity hints.
• 2008 Prosecco "Bellenda" Brut, $18 – A serious Prosecco. Pretty, floral with exotic fruit and persistent lively bubbles.
• Domaine Spiropolous Ode Panos Brut, NV, Mantinia, Greece $21 – From a family run winery in the Mantinia region off the Peloponnese. I visited them last July and found this wine made from the Moschofilero grape, delightful.
• Domaine de Montbourgeau Crémant du Jura, France Brut NV, $22 – This is very often my ‘go-to’ sparkling wine when Champagne is outside the budget. It is crisp, with vibrant fruit and lively persistent bubbles.
• Wegler Riesling Sekt Brut, Mosel, Germany – NV, $22 – Peachy, apricot and floral notes with slight yeasty hints. Distinctively Riesling. Dry and lively elegant mousse.
• Ironhorse Classic Vintage Brut NV, California, $30 – This wine was aged for about four years on the lees and shows it with lovely toasty, nutty complexity. It is full-bodied, smooth with very fine persistent bubbles.
• 2004 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, California, $30 – Vibrant, persistent bubbles, inviting epicurean notes. Another firm favorite in our house.
• 2006 Biltmore Estate Chateau Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina, $30 – Recently tasted this wine for the first time. Really quite lovely. 100% Chardonnay. Reputedly is the most visited winery in the US.
• Ca' del Bosco "Cuvée Prestige", Franciacorta, Italy Brut , NV $38 – From the Franciacorta area in Northern Italy. The region has built an excellent reputation for traditional method sparkling wines. This is one of my favorites. Unfortunately the it has become as expensive as Champagne
• 2001 DVX By Mumm Napa, $50 – The Prestige Cuvee of Mumm Napa. Quite golden in color, full-bodied, rich, complex. Subtle red berry notes, spice and toasty autolysis. Lots of persistent tiny bubbles. Very fine.
Lots to choose from. I wish you all and your families a very happy holiday season, and may 2010 be one of good health, happiness and prosperity. Until then, enjoy some cheerful bubbly wines.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Flickr member Un ragazzo chiamato Bi licensed for use under Creative Commons; Flickr member ori2uru licensed for use under Creative Commons; Flickr member Lachlan Hardy licensed for use under Creative Commons; Bottle shots courtesy of individual producers.)