For my wine studies, I’ve been reading up a lot on Champagne* lately. One of the inconveniences of studying for these exams is that I constantly crave whatever it is I happen to be studying. Sadly, my lifestyle and my wallet don’t lend themselves to as much Champagne consumption as I would like. Fortunately for me (and you), there are some much more accessible options that should come in very handy as we approach this Recession-challenged holiday season.
First, a little explanation of why Champagne is so expensive. It’s made using a complicated, and pricey, technique, called “traditional method,” that involves fermenting the wine a second time in the bottle. (Bubbly wines get their bubble from this second fermentation, where yeast and sugar are added to wine, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. By doing this in a closed container — like the bottle itself — you capture the carbon dioxide, which creates the fizz.) And second of all, well, it’s Champagne. You’re paying for centuries of expertise, prestige, and millions of dollars of marketing. So if you’re looking for bubbles for less, you should look to other regions and/or other ways of making sparkling wine.
So here are some good champagne substitutes, as well as the ideal time to use them:
Thanksgiving — American sparkling wine: I am a complete jingoist when it comes to Thanksgiving. I think it’s a crime to serve anything but American wines on this most American of holidays. We have plenty of good sparkling wines to offer, and this is the day to uncork them. Gruet, in New Mexico, (yes, seriously, New Mexico) makes some good value sparkling wine, using the same method as Champagne, starting at around $14. Roederer Estate, in California’s Anderson Valley, produces very good sparkling wines for under $30. (I particularly like the rosé.) It’s the American venture of the Champagne house Roederer, so between the French expertise and the benevolent climate — the Anderson Valley is cool, which means grapes with good acidity, which means good sparkling wine — it’s a no-brainer.
Christmas Eve/Hannukah — Cava: OK, so this one is personal. I’m half Puerto Rican and was raised Catholic, but surprise! we found out a few years ago that my mom actually descends from Sephardic Jews. Therefore, Spanish Cava seems like the best way to honor my complicated religious heritage and split the difference. Cava is made the same way as Champagne, but it’s made using indigenous Spanish grapes (Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo, if you must know.) Cava tends to be earthier than Champagne and can hold up well to the kind of substantial starters that are a part of my Christmas Eve, like smoked salmon, pâté, and spicy shrimp, and, though I’ve never tried it, would definitely work well next to a potato pancake. (And yes, there is kosher Cava.)
Christmas Day — Crémant: Crémant is the name for traditional method sparkling wine made elsewhere in France aside from Champagne. It’s labelled as Crémant + the name of the region (Crémant de Bordeaux, etc.) Crémant d’Alsace is among the best and most widely available, and you can usually find it for around $20 or even less. (Lucien Albrecht makes a nice one that’s widely available.) If you’re expecting a full house, this is a relatively affordable way to serve a crowd.
New Year’s Eve — Champagne/Prosecco: A little master of the obvious here, but if there’s one day a year where you should be drinking champagne, this is it. If you want to mix it up, forsake the big labels (Moet, Veuve-Clicquot and the like) and try what’s called a “grower Champagne.” While the big Champagne houses buy in grapes from various farmers and just take care of the production, the wineries behind these grower Champagnes do it all, from growing the grapes to making the wine. You’ll still be spending anywhere from $40-$60 a bottle, but you’ll likely get wine with more character. Also, grower Champagnes have become quite the trend among the wine cognoscenti, so they’re a great gift for the New Year’s Eve host who’s really into wine. Gaston Chiquet and Egly-Ouriet are two good producers to try. You can tell it’s a grower Champagne from the initials “RM” on the the label, which stands for Recoltant-Manipulant. When in doubt, find the most knowledgeable wine retail person in your neighborhood — grower Champagne is a topic that wine geeks love to geek out on.
Now, if you’re planning on drinking vast quantities of sparkling wine or hosting a party and spraying it on your guests, I definitely don’t recommend drinking Champagne all night. Go with Prosecco instead. Unlike Champagne, the second fermentation of this Italian bubbly wine, made from the Prosecco grape, takes place in a big tank, rather than in the wine bottle itself. Obviously, this is cheaper and less labor-intensive. The bubbles aren’t as fine — when it comes to fizz, smaller is better — and the wine lacks the elegance and refinement of Champagne, but at 3 AM, really, who’s paying that much attention?
*By law, Champagne comes from the region of the same name in North central France and is made by this traditional method. Nothing else can be legally called Champagne. The generic term for all other bubbly is sparkling wine.