I think I have mentioned on this blog a time or two that I am a bit of a fan of sparkling wine. As a reference, I currently have right around 230 bottles in my cellar.
Of sparkling wine (90% of which are champagnes if you were wondering).
I consider the week a failure if we do not consume at least 3 bottles of bubbles, so rarely do two consecutive days pass without some sparkling wine on the table. Now, I do not profess to be some sort of Richard Juhlin or Tom Stevenson (although if either of them would like to take me on as an understudy, minion, or glass cleaner, I would gladly accept), but, I like to think I know my way around the sparkling wine aisle at the local wine shop.
This is not an article about how sparkling wine is made. Way too many people in this digital age feel the need to bloviate on the subject so I will not do that here (in case you want to know click HERE).
No, the idea behind this article is to help you decide which sparkling wine to buy.
Before we get started, this article is not meant to be the be-all end-all piece on the best sparkling wines on the planet (for example, I have a few bottles left of my favorite champagne, but I bought them at the winery and they are not exported to any country that I know of, they sell out of the wine within a couple months of release, and the people at the winery only speak French, but if you are a really good friend, I might show you a bottle on your next trip to Houston).
No, this article is meant to be a guide to direct you to quality sparklers that you will likely find on the shelves of your local Kroger, Safeway, or Piggly Wiggly). Since there are high quality bubbles made all over the world at just about every price point, there are two basic considerations when buying bubbly, but neither is very complicated.
The first is price: how much do you want to spend? For the sake of this article I have created three price tiers. The second is geography: do you care where it is made? Here, I divided the world up into three regions.
Overview: While there are a few sparkling wines under $10, my general advice is to avoid them like the plague. Making quality bubbles isn’t cheap, so if you go in at under $10, chances are the producer is cutting corners somewhere, and it really isn’t worth the headache (if you know what I mean). There are, however, a host of very good fizz that you can get for under a Harriet Tubman (although it remains to be seen if she ever makes her way onto the $20 bill).
U.S. Wines: Without a doubt, the two main players here are Mumm Napa and Chandon. Both high quality, both highly recommended (although I prefer Mumm), both from Napa Valley, both originally founded by their French namesakes (although both have subsequently been sold). Another option is Gruet (which is still owned by the French house and is located in New Mexico), which is usually a bit less than the other two. Roederer Estate (yet another French outpost in the US) costs a bit more than the others, but really nice as well.
French Wines: There are a bunch of wines in this category, all of which will likely be called “Crémant” (which basically means it was made using the same process as, but can’t be called “champagne”). The two Crémants I tend to prefer come from Alsace and the Loire. Your wine shop will certainly have wines from one or the other (or both—in which case opt for Alsace as I used to live there—Lucien Albrecht does a nice job).
Non-French Wines: Prosecco and Cava top the list here and there are a ton of them (particularly Prosecco). In this price range, I would opt for the prosecco from Zardetto and Cava from Codorniu or Freixenet (yes, there are better options out there, but these are well made and you will certainly be able to find them). For me, though, I would search out Nino Franco’s Rustico. If you can find it, that shop should now become your instant favorite place to buy wine—they clearly know what they are doing.
Overview: For me, this is the price range where my focus usually lies. By spending just a bit more, there really is a step-up in quality. Sure, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, “you get what you pay for” applies to sparkling wines.
U.S. Wines: These days, there are plenty of U.S. sparklers that hover around the $30-40 range. Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg, and Argyle all make fantastic wines and are my leaders in this category.
French Wines: Right around $30 you start talking about champagne (which you should). There are countless champagnes available and many of them are good. I could wax on and on about my favorites, but most are really hard to find. Those that aren’t? Piper-Heidsieck, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Bruno Paillard, Mailly, and Gosset. Yes, I like Veuve Clicquot, a lot. It has been the subject of considerable derision by the hipster sommelier crowd, but that is due more to its success than anything in the bottle.
Non-French Wines: This category is dominated by Italian bubbles and they come from three regions. More expensive Prosecco (and there are plenty) is simply hard to find (get the aforementioned Nino Franco’s Grave di Stecca if you can find it—although it is technically not a Prosecco), but wines from the Trento DOC are not. Ferrari does a fabulous job, as does Rotari—they are just getting into the U.S. market, and at $20 it is a complete steal. Last, Franciacorta is gaining in popularity, and Ca’ del Bosco is a label you might come across.
Overview: When you are buying sparkling wine above $40, you either really love and appreciate the nuances in sparkling wine, you are trying to impress someone, or you have an inordinate amount of cash to burn. Those really are the only reasons.
U.S. Wines: I really have a hard time spending this much on U.S. sparklers. Why? For me, wines at this level have to compete on both quality and price with their counterparts in Champagne. Most do not. A few that do? J Schram by Schramsberg and Le Rêve by Domaine Carneros.
French Wines: If talking about the multitude of champagnes in the last category was difficult, this might be impossible. Why? At this price level (perhaps closer to $50), the idea of vintage (i.e., wines from a particular year) comes into play. Basically, if you see a year on a bottle of champagne, it is going to be more expensive. Is it “worth it”? For most people, I would say no. I do not say that trying to be snooty (OK, maybe a little snooty), but most vintage champagne, contrary to the public opinion of the champenois, is not ready to drink. It will likely come off as overly acidic and tart. I would argue that most vintage champagnes need a good decade in the bottle before they are ready. There are considerably fewer vintage champagnes than non-vintage but some to look for (other than those already mentioned above): Henriot, Pol Roger, Laurent-Perrier, and Perrier-Jouët.
Non-French Wines: Honestly? I can’t think of many that I have tried. If you are going to spend this kind of cash, get champagne.
Wait a minute, what about Rosé and Dom Pérignon?
Ah. Rosé. I tend to love rosé bubbles as they are usually more Pinot Noir than Chardonnay (the style that I prefer). Usually, they are 25-50% more than their non-rosé counterpart. Why does it cost more? Simply put, they charge more because they can—the actual process is usually only slightly more complicated.
And the prestige cuvée question. Just about every major house in Champagne makes a prestige or tête de cuvée—a master blend. These wines, like Dom Pérignon (the tête de cuvée of Moët et Chandon), are insanely expensive (they start at $100+ and can climb to over ten times that), but also really good—if you know what you are doing. I really can’t stress that enough. You really should not be dropping this kind of coin unless you are an aficionado, or really trying to impress someone. I said that most vintage champagnes need a decade in the bottle. Well, many prestige cuvées could use twice that. Really.