You have a shameful secret. You want to impress someone with a great gift, accessorize a Major Romantic Evening, or supply something appropriate for that thing called “brunch.” You know somewhere in the back of your mind that each of these situations somehow calls for “Champagne.” Oh, the horror.
Valentine’s Day is coming, and your idea of a bubbly beverage is a Hefeweizen. Or a Diet Coke. Fear not. Here’s the “something-for-everyone” guide to the confounding and occasionally intimidating world of Champagne.
First: Yes, cheap sparkling wine can make you wish you could be beheaded in the manner of St. Valentine himself, whose execution in 3rd century Rome became associated with courtship for no auspicious reason I can think of. But cheap Champagne doesn’t always mean bad Champagne. Know that if you are buying actual, government-vetted French Champagne you are already paying a premium—there are tons of sparkling wines that rival the French Big Guys at a non-martyring price.
In case you missed that day at oenophile school, the word “Champagne” refers only to sparkling wine made by a specific method, containing various percentages of up to three specific grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and in a specific location (the Champagne region of France). Purists and French people will sneer openly at you if you use the word “Champagne” as a generic term. “Sparkling wine” safely covers Cava, Prosecco, and whatever the hell California and Oregon can throw at you, which is a lot.
The specifics of what goes into the making of a sparkling wine is the subject of a whole other article (and probably will be: stay tuned.) But let’s face it, The Hallmark Company’s favorite holiday—and the most groan-inducing night of the year for restaurant servers and boyfriends—is fast approaching, and be honest, you’re exhausted just thinking about it. Frankly, you just want to know what to bring to the party, order at that fancy restaurant you’re going to, or brandish the next morning if you get lucky.
I get that. So here we go:
Now, these are personal opinions; no sommeliers, actresses or rappers were consulted in the compilation of this list. But I think it covers a range of good options that pay some lip service to price point and consistently deliver the “Party in a Glass” vibe that you’re going for. I’ve tried to steer away from the obvious (No offense to the Widow Cliquot—you’re always in style, Madame!) and provide a mix of domestics and imports, pinks and whites, well-known labels and slightly obscure ones. Here, in ascending price point order, are twelve wines you don’t have to think twice about buying.
The Mixer (wines around $15.00)
If your bubbly is destined for mimosas, bellinis or Kir royales, please don’t get the pricey stuff—but also, don’t make a mixed drink with anything you wouldn’t drink straight. There are Cavas from Spain, Proseccos from Italy, and plenty of bubblies from the West Coast and even France that fit the bill. These are all available on the cheap and will charm your palate without injuring your gray matter.
1. Domaine Ste Michelle NV Brut, Columbia Valley, Wash. Chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot gris. Lively acidity, medium dryness. Quaffable, also a great base for champagne cocktails. Super food friendly—try it with sushi. Apple and citrus dominant on the palate. Around $15
2. Segura Viudas NV Brut Riserva, Penedés, Spain A blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Tropical fruit palate with pineapple and lime dominating, but very dry. Complex, with a long finish, and a lightly floral nose. A very drinkable wine at a price you can swallow, around $10.
3. La Marca DOC Prosecco Extra Dry, Veneto, Italy 100% Glera grapes. Proseccos can get more expensive than you’d think, but this one’s a bargain not to miss. Balanced, with both a lemony astringency and a malolactic creaminess, a touch of grapefruit, a hint of pastry. Like any self-respecting Veneto white, a strong but not overpowering minerality, and a steal at around $12.
Pocketbook Friendly but Still Awesome (wines in the $25-35 range)
1. J Cuvee Brut 20 NV, Sonoma, Calif. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. Sleek, dry, fruit-forward. Citrus and something a bit fennel-like on the nose; creamy body with yeast, honey, pear, apple and spice notes. You could drink this every day—and I know some people who do. Around $24.00.
2. Scharffenberger Brut Excellence, North Coast, Calif. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This majority Pinot Noir wine, even rendered as a white, has the Pinot’s characteristic hints of cherry, berry and plum. Add Chardonnay and malolactic fermentation, and you get a creamy undertone of vanilla, caramel, hazelnut and freshly baked bread. You can confidently age this bad boy, but I can already tell you—you won’t. It’s just too drinkable. Around $20.00.
3. Iron Horse Wedding Cuveé, Sebastopol, Calif. This blanc de noirs is primarily pinot noir and has a rose-pink hue and a mind-blowing strawberry and cream character. An exceedingly food-versatile wine, this is a great treat to bring to a dinner party even if you don’t know what’s being served. It goes with everything. And stands alone just fine, thank you. Around $35.00-$40.00.
The Mid-Range (wines around $50)
It’s not cheap, but it’s not Dom Perignon, either. These wines will dignify any social occasion without being snooty. They’re not necessarily for lunchtime on a Tuesday (though I wouldn’t judge), but they don’t have to be kept in a vault, either.
1. Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, Epernay, France Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (an unusually high percentage of the Meunier, around 40%). This is the real deal, a true Champagne with an ancient lineage, and a more affordable bottle than the House’s signature “Belle Epoque.” Light, elegant and lively, this wine carries a good deal of lemon and lime zest on the nose and tart berries on the palate. It’s clean, versatile, and lovely. Around $45.00.
2. Gruet Grande Reserve, Albuquerque, New Mexico No, that isn’t a typo; there is fabulous wine coming out of Albuquerque. 80/20 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Heavier-bodied and more layered than the PJ, Gruet’s Grande Reserve is an elegant, complex, serious wine. Think toasted bread, caramel, white chocolate in addition to the more typical apple and citrus notes found in these blends. Dry but rich, with a long finish. Gorgeous, and around $42.00
3. Schramsberg Brut Rosé, Sonoma County, Calif. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is a full-bodied, deep but clear pink wine with an intense nose of strawberry and raspberry; the palate is a burst of exotic fruits—I get pineapple and mango as well as strawberry and peach. This is not a timid wine. It’s rich, bold, lively, and can hold up to BBQ or a holiday turkey as well as sushi and salmon. It is very good friends with chocolate. Around $43.00
The Table for Two
These wines are going to go to your credit card’s head as well as yours, but for special occasions, they’re worth it. None of them are expensive because they are trendy or famous, and none of them will cost more than the engagement ring you’re planning to whip out after it’s poured. All of them are absolutely delicious and worthy of a special, low-volume occasion where you don’t have to share it with more than one, okay maybe two, appreciative friends. They’re perfect for special occasions or for making an ordinary occasion special.
1. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Ay, France Chardonay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. This barely pink wine is one of my two favorite sparkling wines of all time. Crisp and ethereal, with hints of black cherry, chalk, rose petals and damson plum. Creamy yet light on the finish, focused and direct with a pleasant astringency and in my humble opinion perfect balance. Around $80.00.
2. Domaine Carneros “Le Reve,” Los Carneros, Calif. 100% Chardonnay. My other favorite sparkling wine of all time. Domaine Carneros is owned by Taittenger and retains a strongly French style and character. This wine is soft, mellow, fairly nonastringent, with a nose of fresh scones. It’s name means “the dream,” and it is pretty much just that. An incredibly luxurious wine. White flowers, peach, honeysuckle, quince, fig, almond and something indefinably creamy. Around $100.00. And you won’t care.
3. Perrier Jouet “Belle Epoque,” Epernay, France Almost equal parts Chard and Pinot Noir with a tiny bit of Pinot Meunier. PJ’s flagship in the gorgeous hand-painted floral-motif bottle is even prettier on the inside. Elegant, classy, high-finesse, with a floral nose (linden and acacia predominate), silky mouthfeel, apple-y palate with a little lime and a bit of spice on the finish. White peach, honey and almond will come more to the forefront with age. This is one of the classics, and you’ll know why the minute you try it. Around $150.00.