What to bring for New Year’s Eve? It’s a tough call. In my experience, it is difficult, if not impossible to find a champagne or methode champenoise wine much under $30 that is qualified to ring in the new. There are a few standbys that lurk in the vicinity, but what if your budget is lower? Luckily, there is a wide variety of sparkling wines that can make an impression and suit the wallet.
As an introduction, it is important to realize why champagne is so expensive. Only champagne from the Champagne region of France can be called champagne. Everything else is sparkling wine, even if it is made the same way as champagne. These ‘methode champenoise’ wines can be everything that Champagne is, and can also be cheaper. That being said, many luxury American sparklers can be just as, if not more expensive than French.
Another reason champagne was historically more expensive than other wines is because of its double stage fermentation. Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle which supplies its bubbles. A riddler turns champagne bottles back and forth and then upside down about once every three days in order to encourage the sediment to collect at the top of the bottle, and not along the sides or the bottom. Once fermentation is completed, the sediment plug is removed and the bottle is capped for sale. Without riddling, the resulting champagne would appear cloudy from all the sediment left in the bottle. No wonder the Riddler went bonkers. Today, the riddling is done by machine.
One of my favorite champagne substitutes is Cava. Cava is a Spanish methode champanoise sparkling wine. It varies widely in quality and price, so be sure to try it before offering it at a party. The price of cava goes up with its level of dryness, with extra brut generally the most expensive. Although ‘expensive’ is relative here. It is difficult to find a cava with a price tag of over $20. Buy a selection and choose your favorite. There are many levels of sweetness and color. It is lovely to drink for a party and can offer a surprisingly complex flavor. A slightly sweeter taste profile is a good thing for this wine.
Now we move north to Italy. The classic Italian aperitif is prosecco. Prosecco can be much cheaper than champagne as its secondary fermentation takes place in a tank, not in the bottle. As a result, it stops bubbling in the glass much quicker than champagne style sparkling. It has a bright, light, fruity front taste (even the driest examples) and does not offer much in terms of secondary aroma. However, they are delicious and tend to be low in alcohol, so they are perfect for early evening toasts and New Year’s Day brunches.
Vouvray comes from the Loire Valley region in France. The price tag for sparkling vouvray will be higher than both cava and prosecco, but it will likely not be as expensive as champagne. These wines are very full flavored and are suitable for aging. Acidity is a characteristic of this wine and be more apparent the drier the example. These are best paired with food. Think of a vouvray for the hors d’oeurve portion of the evening, as they can stand up to even hearty fare.
The key to finding delicious, affordable champagne style wines made in the USA is by seeking out producers in alternative California regions (meaning not Napa) such as Alexander or Sonoma Valley. Even still, you will find that a good bottle is going to cost over $20. Brut NV (non-vintage) will offer the best value, if not the full flavor complexity of a vintage.
There are many other alternative sparkling wines to try, such as Brachetto (a red sparkling that is very interesting) or some of the new red methode champenoise wines out of Australia. They are making sparklers there out of the classic Aussie shiraz, which offer a wonderful blackberry fruit flavor. Lambrusco is a tank fermented Italian sparkling red wine that I tend to avoid. If anyone has found one to recommend, please leave a comment.
There are so many different things to offer for New Year’s – without the need to spend a ton of money on one bottle. Taste first, keep it chilled, and enjoy. Happy New Year!