By David White
Champagne sales pop every December as party hosts stock up for New Year’s.
This isn’t surprising, of course. There’s nothing like popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly when the clock strikes midnight.
As the big night approaches, it’s worth learning the differences between sparkling wines to figure out which ones you’re going to purchase to ring in 2013.
The modern Champagne industry took form in the mid-19th century, and since then, the process of making the French sparkler has essentially remained unchanged. First, the wine is fermented until dry. It’s then bottled, and a second fermentation is launched by adding yeast and sugar. At this point, the wine bottle is temporarily capped, and the dead yeast is gradually forced to the bottle’s neck.
After a period of aging, the temporary cap and surrounding sediment are removed. Typically, a small amount of wine and sugar is then added to top off the bottle and add a bit of sweetness. These days, however, it’s become fashionable to leave the wine completely dry. Finally, the wine is resealed with a more permanent closure.
This process, called the “traditional method,” is used to produce many sparkling wines across the world.
Champagne, of course, can only come from Champagne. Under European Union trade laws, wine can only be sold as “Champagne” if it comes from that region of France and is made in the traditional method. The primary grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.
Real Champagne is a treat, but it can be quite expensive — even “budget” options cost about $40. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable sparklers from regions outside Champagne.
Within France, sparkling wines labeled as “Cremant” are produced using the traditional method and winemakers must follow a number of strict rules. Sparkling wines from Burgundy, Alsace, and the Jura have long offered exceptional value. Some can pass for real Champagne, and they’re typically just a fraction of the cost – many can be found for less than $20.
In the United States, wines labeled as “Methode Champenoise” are produced in the traditional method using the same grape varieties as Champagne. For about $25, it’s hard to beat the entry-level bottlings from Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, and Argyle. For less than $15, Gruet’s Blanc de Noirs, which comes from New Mexico, is a great value.
Good Cava – a sparkling wine from Spain that’s produced like Champagne but using native Spanish grapes – can be found for less than $10. Dibon Brut Reserva is truly remarkable for the price.
A different method of producing sparkling wine is called the Charmant process, and it’s primarily used in Italy to make wines like Prosecco. In this process, secondary fermentation takes place in steel tanks rather than inside each bottle. These wines aren’t as complex, but they’re not supposed to be. Proseccos should be light, fruity, and fresh. Plus, they tend to cost less than sparklers produced using the traditional method. For these reasons, I love using Prosecco in cocktails.
Of course, if you’re willing to splurge, nothing beats the real thing. While names like Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot are impressively recognizable, Champagne from grower-producers — wines made by the farmers who grow the grapes — typically offer a better value.
Basic offerings from four of my favorite growers — Agrapart, Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, and Chartogne-Taillet — can typically be found for just under $40 per bottle. And they’re absolutely stunning.
Ignoring this advice and just heading to your local wine shop and asking for guidance works just as well. After all, most New Year’s revelers are happy so long as something sparkles at midnight!
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.