The idea of champagne is for only the most celebratory of occasions makes me just plain sad. Toasting the new bride and groom, popping the cork on a big promotion, ringing in the new year with a little sparkle — all great reasons for champagne.
But in my view, Champagne (really, sparkling wine) is meant for more of life’s moments. It’s the best friend to the cheese plate you share over drinks with your best friend. It gently signals the start of a luxurious meal opened with fresh oysters. And let’s face it, it’s the only way to properly do day drinking, mixed with orange juice or straight up.
“wedding” by jakub at foodiesfeed
The real tragedy of the mental marriage of sparkling wine with special occasion moments is the misguided impression that it is expensive. Like all wine, sparkling wine varies significantly in price. Some of the price tags are justifiable: certain types are made almost entirely by hand, requiring daily manual labor in dark caves to produce those delicate little bubbles. While lovely, they aren’t the only game in town.
But first, Champagne. To evaluate your sparkling wine options and choose the best one for the occasion and budget, it’s important to understand what, in fact, makes champagne, Champagne.
Champagne is sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes using the methode champenoise. To be called Champagne, it must be produced in its namesake region in northeastern France. All sparkling wine, therefore, is not Champagne [with a capital “C”]. Some sparkling wines available from outside the region are still made via the labor-intensive traditional methods, but with different grapes and lower marketing costs.
There are, of course, exceptions. You will see bottles labeled as “champagne” that do not meet the above requirements. Take a classic Napa Valley producer, Schramsberg. Their vineyard dates back to the late 1800s and has been using traditional methods to make high quality sparkling wine since 1965. This earns Schramsberg a grandfathered right to call their sparkling wine Champagne despite its less Frenchy origins. History [and legal] buffs can learn more in this fascinating article, including the unexpected significance of the Treaty of Versailles.
photo by Anthony Delanoix via unsplash
A little confused? Here’s what you really need to know to add a little more sparkle to your world.
- Prosecco is one of the most common alternatives to Champagne. More crisp apple and pear fruit-forward, it lacks the yeasty richness of Champagne. The name refers to the historical production region in Italy and the likely origin of the primary grape, Glera, earning Prosecco the nickname “Italian champagne”. Tank carbonation produces the bubbles, reducing costs. This makes it a more appropriate base for mimosas or other champagne cocktails. Other regions are entering the market, but the Italians have initiated efforts to restrict the name a la the French. The Italian offerings remain the original and best. I like the light and citrusy Cupcake Vineyards (via their Italian operation) at only $12 a bottle or the traditional Zardetto Prosecco Brut NV at $13. Try them both with a rich triple crème like Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam.
- Cava is the Spanish answer to Champagne. Cava straddles the line between Prosecco and Champagne with a bit more complexity and yeast flavors, but also fresh lemon and crisp apple notes. Of all the sparkling wines mentioned here, it pairs best with desserts or other sweet treats. If you see a bottle of Lacueva Brut Reserva NV, grab it. It is typically less than $20 and tastes like so much more. This easygoing wine pleases all palates and pairs well with a range of cheeses. Trust me, I tried them all — an aged gouda, a 10-month comte, and St. Andre, a more complex triple crème that is delicious but more challenging to pair.
- American winemakers [usually] call it sparkling wine. We’ll make just about anything sparkly, so you can find a lot of variety in flavor, complexity, and fizz. That translates into more food pairing opportunities and a range of price points to fit any budget. California is a top producing region, but lesser known regions produce strong sparkling options in varied styles. Consider the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, starting with Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard’s Brut ($45), made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, or any of the sparkling wines made by Argyle Vineyards in Dundee, Oregon (as low as $20).
- French sparkling wine is known as cremant. The methods, grape varietals, and flavors are similar to Champagne, but at a lower price point. I like Bailly Lapierre NV Pinot Noir Brut from the Burgundy region (under $20). It pairs beautifully with more complex, even acidic triple crèmes like Delice de Bourgogne, Vermont Creamery’s Cremont or the aged goat version, Coupole.
- Adventurous treasure-seeker? Consider Lambrusco. It has a bad reputation thanks to a lot of commercial mass production in the 1970s (think Riunite). Artisanal wines, mostly from Italy, are helping to stage a comeback. Not surprisingly, it pairs well with Italian food. Try it with Proscuitto de Parma or Parmigano-Reggiano drizzled with traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena. Fattoria Moretto NV (under $20) is a great addition to your next family pizza night.
If you’d like to learn more, check out this helpful guide from BBC Good Food.
photo by jenn kosar
Consider the vintage
- Like all wines, a bottle of sparkling wine may note the year it was bottled. Certain years are “better” than others, driven both by subjective ratings of the wine as well as good old-fashioned supply and demand. Winemakers strive for unique flavors and additional complexity in their vintage release, increasing production costs and earning them premiums starting at $50.
- For vintage Champagne, 1996 is one of the best. Those bottles are increasingly hard to find. The more recent “good” years were 2002 and 2006, with 2004 and 2008 not far behind.
- A non-vintage release will be representative of the winemaker’s signature style, with more consistency year over year to make sure consumers get what they expect. The factors driving costs on a vintage release won’t matter as much, driving the price down. Bottles designated with an “NV” or with no specific year are non-vintage.
- Vintage Champagne can be carefully stored for 20 years or more. Non-vintage Champagne and other sparkling wines are meant to be consumed within 3-4 years, so don’t bother holding on to them for too long. This doesn’t appear to be a huge issue in my house.
- The ideal temperature for serving sparkling wine is 48°-50°F. If you are starting with a room temperature bottle, mix ice and water in your vessel of choice and bathe the bottle for 30 minutes. The fridge will take a few hours to achieve the desired outcome.
- You may need to warm it up. If your bottle is in the main refrigerator, it is at 35°-38°F, too cold to appreciate complex flavors. Open it and let it warm slightly before serving.
- Celebrate the flute. Technically, it is the wrong choice, as it constricts wine’s flavors in the tall narrow bowl. The coupé glass or a regular wine glass are a better choice to savor the nuances of sparkling wine. I’m going to go rogue here and say I don’t care. It’s pretty and festive. Serve your bubbly in whatever makes you happy.
- I’ve heard some people speak of leftovers. I’ve also heard a spoon in the neck of the bottle keeps the bubbles bubbly. Again, not a problem in my house. Someday I’ll repeat the kitchn’s science experiment to find out the truth, but it seem as though just leaving it open in the fridge is fine.
For more serving notes — including tricks to get your champagne ready to serve in 10 minutes — check out this article.
“Clear Stemmed Glass Almost Full” by Heather Smith via pexels
A few [more] options
- Grower Champagne. These are sparkling wines crafted by farmers who grow the grapes on their own land. They are produced in small batches in France with few exports, so they can be little hard to find. Drier than most sparkling wines, they pair well with smoked salmon or sushi. Try the Andre Clouet Brut Grande Reserve ($35).
- Sparkling Rosé. Rosé is made by allowing the skin of any red grape (like a Pinot Noir) to come in contact with the wine during production. In rare cases, but occasionally in sparkling wines, a small amount of red wine is added post-production. It’s not as sweet as it looks, and is often dry and crisp. For a special occasion try the Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé ($80), or for a terrific value, the Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé NV ($25).
- Sparkling Shiraz. This Australian dark red sparkler was practically made for traditional American holiday meals. It’s often suggested as an alternative to Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving dinner, and pairs well with just about anything. We really enjoyed The Chook (under $20) with a holiday-craziness weeknight “dinner” of leftover fancy French cheese and chicken tenders. Keeping it real.
- Sparkling wine from less traditional regions. This is an emerging area, so there aren’t as many options out there. On recommendation from the Wine Library, we tried an English variety — The Bolney Estate 2010 Blanc de Blancs Brut from Sussex, England ($50). Made from 100% Chardonnay, it was similar to Prosecco or Cava. Try it with my favorite cheese, St. Nuage, a cow’s milk triple-creme from Burgundy.
photo by jenn kosar
My all-time favorites
- Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc. These American winemakers honor the classic French methods, including methodically hand-turning all bottles to produce the bubbles in fermentation. This Blanc de Blanc hit the scene in 1972 when at the Toast to Peace, and has been served in the White House ever since. No surprise given its dependable high quality and consistent lemony, buttered toast flavors. The price varies with year, but with vintages as low as $30, it is relatively budget friendly for the quality.
- Laurent Perrier Brut NV. Fresh and citrusy, this Champagne is a crowd-pleasing choice, perfect to bring to a party where the menu is uncertain or where food is not front and center at the event. At around $35 a bottle, it’s a nice hostess gift. The higher-rated Brut Rose NV ($65) is also a great choice.
- Perrier Jouet Brut NV. Often described as “creamy”, “rich”, or “toasty”, this Champagne is a bit more bold and complex. At $45 a bottle, I choose this one for more celebratory occasions or to mark a special event.
- Veuve Clicquot Brut NV. The grandmother of all champagne was my long-time favorite, but recent releases lack the depth and complexity that I expect at this price point ($45). It remains a solid standby, and is a reliable choice in bars and restaurants. But, it’s no longer my first grab in the wine shop. C’est la vie.
“champagne cork” by tocc via pixabay
Interested in learning more? New Jersey native Mark Oldman prepared a thoughtful and fun resource with “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine: Pleasure, Value, and Adventure beyond Wine’s Usual Suspects”. I love it for answers to the questions you were always afraid to ask [“how do I pronounce Meunier?”], and those you just need to know [“what cheese goes best with a pink champagne?”].
Follow my pairings board on Pinterest for more wine resources, including ideas for more wine and cheese combinations. What do you like to pop open for celebrations, Tuesday night, and everything in between? Let us know!