Bollinger Special Cuvee.JPG
Like James Bond, I like Bollinger Champagne. Unlike James Bond, I can't afford it.
Nothing says festive, year-end celebration like popping the corks on a

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Bubbly For Every Budget

Bollinger Special Cuvee.JPG
Like James Bond, I like Bollinger Champagne. Unlike James Bond, I can't afford it.
Nothing says festive, year-end celebration like popping the corks on a few bottles of bubbly. Champagne and other sparkling wines range in price and quality, but this is the time of year when discounts are deep enough at wine shops and other retailers to even make the good stuff an affordable splurge. Sparkling wines aren't just for New Years, even though the majority of sales occur this time of year. They are perfect for many occasions, and have the bonus of pairing well with a variety of foods. When I can manage it, I take advantage of end-of-year sales to restock my wine rack.

First, a few basics: European law dictates that anything labeled Champagne must be from the Champagne region of France. A few producers elsewhere in the world are grandfathered in, but in general, the good stuff will say Champagne on the label. Many Champagnes are non-vintage blends of perhaps hundreds of different wines, usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are many other regions in France that make fantastic sparkling wines, but most of them are labeled Crémant. One of my very favorites is Crémant de Bourgogne from Louis Bouillot. It's about $14 a bottle and comes in pink and white. The label looks fancy enough that given as a gift, it will make the recipient think you paid much more than you really did. But, it's affordable enough to crack open on a weeknight.

Domestic sparklers use some of the same language on labels that French producers do. Méthode Champenoise means it was made using the same method as Champagne is. Still wines are bottled with a little yeast and sugar, and then capped with a beer bottle-style cap. After any where from 15 months to a couple of years, the bottles are rested while the yeast goes to work on a second fermentation. Finally, the bottles are slowly tipped onto their necks at about a 45-degree angle into what are known as riddling racks. This allows the yeast to float into the neck. The necks are then frozen so, in a whirl, the caps can be removed, the debris released, a few drops of sugar and perhaps a dash of magic (known as le dosage) is added, and the distinct fat cork in inserted. This method of production is more refined and I swear it doesn't give me a headache. Unlike that other stuff...the stuff that rhymes with 'crooks.'

Blanc de Blanc is another term you will find on domestic and imported bubbly. It simply means the wine is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes. Chateau Ste Michelle makes a great Blanc de Blanc (and Méthode Champenoise to boot) for about $9 a bottle. It is cheap enough to use in cocktails or mimosas, but holds up well on it's own. Many Champagnes are also labeled to indicate how sweet they are. This is required by French law and indicates the amount of sugar (le dosage) added after the second fermentation. Brut is the standard and it's right in the middle. Extra Brut or Brut Natural are going to be a bit drier and less sweet.

Sparkling wines are made in many wine-producing countries. One of my favorite non-French sparklers is Prosecco. It too is regulated by European law. It heralds from the Veneto region of Italy (that's the area near Venice, in the Northeast of the country), but receives second fermentation in steel tanks rather than in the bottle. Zardetto and Mionetto both make great Proseccos for around $15. Cava is sparkling wine from Spain. It's made like Champagne, is dirt cheap and damn tasty. The Cristalino brand comes in pink or white, has a fancy label and a name that may remind you of much more expensive stuff. But at $7 a bottle, it's a steal.

The reality of Champagne is that you aren't going to find many for under $50. Most of the big Champagne houses have a workhorse label of non-vintage, blended Champagne that can be counted on to taste almost exactly the same year after year. The yellow label Veuve Cliquot is ubiquitous. You can find it at Costco for around $40 and it is great stuff. My favorite of the non-vintage (or NV) Champagnes is Bollinger. Other labels to look for are Roederer (they also make Cristal), Henriot, Nicholas Feuillatte, Moet & Chandon, and Laurent-Perrier. For around $40-50 you can pick up a bottle from one of these respected Champagne and you won't be disappointed.

Most of the big dogs in the Champagne business aren't growing the grapes they produce into bubbly, but instead buy it from the growers in the region. Well, those growers are producing some pretty great Champagne themselves. They are popular with oenophiles that appreciate the artisanal spirit and quality behind these wines. Many can be found for $40-50 a bottle as well, but a lot cost a bit more than other Champagnes. Look for a small "RM" on the label, which distinguishes the bottle as Récoltant-Manipulant, or grower-produced. I've honestly only had a few of these Champagnes, so don't have a strong opinion about them. A number of local wine shops will be sampling them today and tomorrow however. Read more below.

When it's time to drink your prized (or even not-so-prized) bottle of bubbly, chill for at least two hours. Don't fret if you don't have Champagne flutes, regular wine glasses work fine. In fact, some people think these do a better job releasing the wine's aromas without dissipating the bubbles too quickly. I love a Champagne coupe--the glass with a wide bowl rumored to be molded from the breast of Marie Antoinette. I've heard these glasses aren't great for preserving the bubbles, but I don't care. I love how they look, and that as the night goes on I run the risk of sloshing wine over the shallow edge. Viva la difference!

Opening a bottle of bubbly takes a little finesse. To avoid shooting someone's eye out or a busting a light fixture, follow these instructions: Remove the foil wrapping and discard. Before removing the wire cage that secures the cork, have your glasses and a dish towel ready. The clock is ticking once the cage is removed. Remove the cage, place a dish towel over the cork. Bubbly that is too warm or from a bottle that has been recently agitated (say, in a car ride) may overflow. Next, twist the bottle, not the cork. The cork will need a little help to get started, but soon the gases built up in the bottle will dislodge it. Your job is to keep the cork from releasing too fast. The cork should make only a light "hiss" when it releases from the bottle. A "pop" is considered gauche. But, if that's your style--who am I to judge?

Another way to open a bottle of bubbly is to saber it. If you don't happen to have a saber on hand, a utility knife works too. DO NOT use a nice knife, it will definitely take a beating. Also - use the blunt side of the knife, not the blade side. I like the video below from the Small Screen Network of local bartender and Canon owner Jamie Boudreau sabering open a bottle. Follow his instructions and you're on your way to impressing your guests.

I'm no expert, but thankfully a number of shops offer classes and host tastings (many FREE!) where you can sip and spit, and ask the shop owners lots of questions. This is a great way to learn about Champagne, since dropping $50 every time you want to try a new brand gets 'spensive. For more tastings, see this week's column from The Wino.

December 30 Tastings

Arista Wines in Edmonds is sampling a variety of sparkling wines from 4-7:30 pm. The $5 fee is waived if you purchase one of the featured wines.

Fat Cork in lower Queen Anne specializes in grower produced Champagne. They'll be sampling on Friday from 5-7 p.m. and again on Saturday December 31 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

December 31 Tastings

Vino Bello Wine Shop in Burien will be sampling sparklers such as Champagne, Cava and Prosecco from 12-8 p.m.

All Things Wine in Renton is hosting their semi-annual bubbles tasting from 12-7:30 p.m. Free samples grower champagne and Mountain Dome from Washington, among other offerings. A sample of the Alfred Gratien Champagne however, will cost you $5.

Fat Cork in lower Queen Anne specializes in grower produced Champagne. They'll be sampling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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