Cheers to Champagne That Doesn’t Break the Bank

Drink Lists Champagne
Cheers to Champagne That Doesn’t Break the Bank

Champagne has been synonymous with luxury for centuries and secured its spot as the drink of the rich and famous. Coco Chanel once said: “I only drink Champagne on two occasions: when I am in love and when I am not.”

In recent years, the fizzy celebratory ultra-premium drink of the rich has been adopted by regular people on average weekdays. For many during the pandemic, popping a bottle of Champagne became a way to make the Groundhog Day the entire universe was enduring together feel less grim. And once the world opened up again, the thirst for Champagne suddenly became bottomless. 

Last year, Champagne shipped almost $1 billion worth of bubbles to the U.S, according to the Champagne Bureau. But how long can the average American—amid inflationary woes and the pesky pressures of paying things like mortgages, car bills and student loans—keep up with the Drakes of the world?

If plonking down well over $5,000+ for a Dom Perignon P3 or $4,600+ for a Louis Roederer Cristal feels financially untenable, fret not. We have found the best bubbles for people with Champagne palates and Two Buck Chuck budgets. 

Champagne vs. Other Sparkling Wines

But first, a very brief primer on the differences between Champagne and other sparkling wines. 

The first and most obvious difference is that Champagne must be made in Champagne. Generically labeled sparkling wine can be produced anywhere; other specialty sparkling wines that must emerge from a very specific place include Prosecco in Italy’s Veneto and Cava from Spain.  

Champagne is also generally made with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meslier, Arbane and Pinot Gris are also permitted, though they comprise well under 1% of plantings in Champagne. In 2021, Champagne allowed the planting of Voltis, a hybrid grape—but don’t expect it to dominate blends anytime soon, if ever. 

The special wine is also made in a very particular way. Produced via Methode Champenoise or Methode Traditionnelle (traditional method), yeasts and (generally) sugar are added to still wine that has already been blended for a secondary fermentation. That second fermentation creates bubbles. Then, the wine is aged for 15 months on the lees (a.k.a. dead yeast cells), for added complexity. The wine is riddled (this removes dead cells), and the Champagne is aged again.

Champagne and other traditional method sparkling wines, when finished, can be fresh and vibrant but have layers of complexity and flavor that other sparkling wines typically do not. Thirsty? Same. Read on. 

Best Organically Farmed Premier Cru: Rafflin

Premier is to Cru what Haute is to Couture. It is a special designation given to what officials in Champagne believe is the best, or the Premier, of communes classified in the region. Of the 320 Champagne communes, 44 are designated Premier. There is one higher designation: Grand. Only 17 villages have earned that designation.

When Chrisopher Leon, who owns Leon & Son Wine and Spirits in Brooklyn, is pulling a Champagne for himself, he says he always reaches for Hervé Rafflin’s Champagne Nature’L Extra Brut NV

“It consistently overperforms for the money, which is about $40 retail,” Leon says. “Especially when you consider that it is made from a Premier Cru site that belongs to his family.”

Indeed, the Rafflin family has lived and worked on its organically farmed estate in Montagne de Reims since 1840. 

In the glass: The blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier delivers notes of citrus, white flowers, brioche. Bright and lively, the salivating acidity makes it wonderful for pairing with fresh, young cheese or oysters. 

Most Bold-Faced and Best Brut: Piper-Heidsieck Brut

Piper-Heidsieck is known and celebrated by bold-faced names the world over. It is served at the Academy Awards, it was said to be Marilyn Monroe’s favorite bubbly and it flows like water at the Cannes Film Festival. 

While Piper-Heidsieck serves up a myriad of more splurge-worth Champagnes (see or splurge selection, below), its signature cuvée can be had for around $42

It is what wine appraiser and Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services founder Melissa Smith reaches for when she wants “a well-made classic” that doesn’t require a significant financial outlay. 

In the glass: This signature Champagne is a blend of more than 100 crus, which means you get a portrait of authentic Champagne from north to south and east to west. It would be hard to find a fresher and more vibrant Champagne; there’s green apple and pear, structure, spice, minerality. 

Best with Brunch: Mandois Brut Origine

Mandois’ roots date back to 1735. Today, the family-run House is situated in Pierry in the Premier Growth Cote des Blancs. Owner Claude Mandois and Cellar Master Maximilien de Billy work together to manage each plot of their vineyard separately. 

“The respect for the product, time and traditions,” Mandois explains, creates a fruity and only slightly sweetened Champagne. 

It’s the perfect pairing for a decadent French brunch feast: souffles, an omelet with caviar and sour cream, croque monsieur and parmesan quiche. Or the American version: scrambled eggs and pancakes. (And just $38.)

In the glass: Beautifully fruit-forward, as Mandois said, but layered and rich, with notes of white flowers, fresh plums, brioche, ginger. Fantastically food-friendly. 

Best Grower Champagne: Gremillet NV Sélection Brut

This family-run Gremillet is what’s known as a “Grower Champagne.” That means that the wine is grown and bottled by the same family—an increasing rarity in Champagne, where larger producers often source from dozens of growers every year. 

Owner and cellar master Jean-Christophe Gremillet explains that his father “built everything from scratch. He started producing 1,000 bottles in 1984. Today, we sell 500,000 bottles in 70 countries.”

But their philosophy hasn’t changed. 

“We work hard every day to produce the best Champagne we can,” he says. “The whole family lives in the village my dad was born in, in the countryside, far from the prestige of the grandes marques.”

The Gremillet Selection Brut will run you about $35

In the glass: “In the Cote des Bar, we are lucky to have a lot of Pinot Noir that gives very intense aromas like peach, quince, apricot as well as spicy notes,” Gremillet says. “We do our best to keep these primary aromas.”

Best for BBQ: Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive Brut Blue Label

Caviar isn’t bad, but let’s be real: Does it really compare to BBQ? Annie Fasino, shop manager at Little Gem Liquors and general manager of The Gem, a hipster downhome smokehouse gem in the Adirondacks, has the perfect foil.

“My go-to in the summer with BBQ or smoked food is Nicolas Feuillate’s Blue Label,” Fasino says. “It is so well-balanced and is the ideal Champagne to pair with our smoked chicken wings, preferably drenched in our housemade Alabama white sauce. The delicate sweetness and fruity notes of the wine bring out the succulence of the chicken while the smoke and creamy Alabama white play beautifully with the gentle acidity in the body of the wine.”

Buy it for $38. 

In the glass: “It starts with notes of honey and apricot on the nose that give way to a layered body and long finish,” says Fasino.

Best Rosé: Champagne Chateau de Bligny

Champagne Chateau de Bligny is perched in the heart of the trendy Cotes des Bar, with roots in the 15th century. It has the distinction as being the only grower-producer in Champagne that also enjoys the designation of “Chateau” or castle—the Marquis de Dampierre erected the Chateau de Bligny in 1773 originally to hunt. Over time, the castles surrounding vineyards, and the gorgeous fruit that emerged from them, began to define life at the castle.

Today, owner Jean-Rémy Rapeneau says he is passionate about honoring the estate’s roots while also creating “an accessible Champagne that introduces curious wine lovers to our style and unwavering quality.”

The Chateau de Bligny Grande Reserve Brut Rosé is available for around $49

In the glass: Red raspberries and cherries, currants, white flowers, baked bread. Lovely fine bubbles, juicy acidity. 

Splurge-Worthy: Essentiel Blanc de Noirs

Champagne is a beloved classic for a reason: Part of its charm is its unchanging nature. But occasionally, an upgrade is warranted. Since its founding in 1785, Piper-Heidsieck has been an innovator, and this new cuvée is no exception. 

Chief winemaker Emilien Boutillat set out to create a Blanc de Noirs, or a white Champagne from black grapes. This expression focuses on the House’s historic cépage, or variety, Pinot Noir, with 20% from Pinot Meunier instead of Chardonnay, which isn’t terribly common in Champagne. The first iteration is just being released this summer. 

This Blanc de Noirs is incredibly gastronomic and complex, with freshness and brightness. Boutillat believes this blend, and the fact that it is sourced from sustainably grown grapes from 10 crus spanning the Montagne de Reims, the Marne Valley and the Cote des Bar, creates a premium Champagne for the future. 

“This blend of grapes represents the future,” Boutillat says. “Petit Meunier provides freshness, vivacity and vibrance, allowing us to preserve the Piper-Heidsieck trademark style, even in very challenging vintages. We’re very excited to introduce this Champagne to wine lovers everywhere.”

The Blanc de Noirs is pricier than our other bottles on the list, but at around $85, it’s the kind of affordable splurge your wallet can withstand. Look for it when it hits the market around Labor Day.

In the glass: Notes of raspberries, apricots, laurel. Incredibly fresh, vibrant and full-bodied, a symphony of fine and persistent bubbles.

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