I always seek out local specialties when on tour. For liquor, I’ve found the most reliable informants tend to be old men. When I can’t find one, I ask someone younger: What would your grandfather drink?
At The Media launch party, I was the oldest man. Best start sharing.
A couple ground rules for this bottled liquors column:
First – no beer. Doesn’t agree with me. My first cousin once removed, raised on a different continent and living on a third, has the same reaction (although we both enjoy a half-pint of Guinness now and then). It’s genetic, ok?
Second – this is a warning, or maybe it’s a humblebrag, but I’ve never understood the vocabulary that is used for descriptions of alcohol. Who’s to say what leather tastes like, or gunmetal? Plus, maybe one person’s gunmetal is another one’s leather… I’m not going to tell you your own taste.
On to today’s topic: Cheap Champagne.
(My partner Naomi says, “You have been researching this column for years.” She’s right, I even have a song lyric to prove it.)
There are so many good reasons to buy, share, and drink sparkling wine, the main one being it’s festive. We all need festivity in our lives. So go ahead – buy a bottle, at any price range, and enjoy the mood it creates. Toast this new underground paper, if nothing else!
One of my own particular reasons for opening sparkling wine is that it goes great with salty, oily foods - from Chinese takeout to scrambled eggs. This also means a celebratory meal can be put together in moments. (Even the classic Champagne/caviar pairing fits this profile, should you be the type to keep such things on hand.)
If you’d like sparkling wine to taste not bad, serve it very, very cold.
If you’d like it to taste good, there are options at every price. And back off on the temperature a bit, these are wines after all.
CLIP AND SAVE
Red: Yes, red. Sparkling red is cheap cause it gets no respect. But what if you lived where they had been making it this way since, say, the Etruscans…? Avoid products that smack of marketing to “modern taste” and look for traditional varieties. Low alcohol (11% or less) can be a helpful hedge against the risk of it ending with a headache – I find it nicest light and easy to drink. Two examples:
Lambrusco – the Italian wine that gave sparkling red a bad name, by raising its sugar content for export to the cola-addicted USA in the 1970s. (“Riunite on ice, that's nice.”) But real Lambrusco is delicious, a bit sweet but just in the cheerful way that says, yes, I’m drinking sparkling red, deal with it! Recommended among those locally available: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro from Tenuta Pederzana. ($14.99 at Wine and Cheese Cask, Somerville)
Bugey-Cerdon – a traditional wine made in the foothills of the Jura mountains in France from Gamay grapes, or a mix of Gamay and (the très chic and recherché) Poulsard. Very low in alcohol, elegant, and wins bonus points for being obscure. Recommended among those locally available: Bugey-Cerdon "La Cueille" from Patrick Bottex. ($21.99 at Martignetti Liquors, Brighton)
Rosé: Sparkling rosé is fashionable, which is a disaster for the bargain hunter; figure on it costing more than it should in any given category. That said, there’s a reason it’s popular – looks great in the glass, feels indulgent. At current prices, my recommendation is to save rosé for those times you want to overspend – a splashy gift, a special night. And when you want to overspend on sparkling wine, you buy true French Champagne. Choose a bottle that looks beautiful to you, and don’t look back. It wasn’t only about the wine anyway, was it?
White: Sparkling white comes in many colors, in fact – from the pale grays and pinks of Blanc de noirs (made with 100% Pinot noir and/or Pinot Meunier) to the warm yellows of Blanc de blancs (made with 100% Chardonnay). It also comes from many, many places in the wine-making world, Champagne being one teeny, rarified location with a supremely valuable trademark. Cheaper Spanish cava and Italian prosecco are known to brunch goers everywhere (often mixed with orange juice for a reason), but I find new-world bottlings a better bet at lower price points, for example the always reliable products of Domaine Chandon, variously bottled in California, Argentina, Australia, even Brazil (not otherwise known for wine production!). My preference is for their California Blanc de noirs, but taking advantage of sale prices can be the best strategy here, since this is essentially an industrial product – the point is that it doesn’t vary tremendously. (Available everywhere, but don’t spend more than $15 a bottle if you can help it.)
For sparkling white with regional character, I actually recommend sticking to France but simply avoiding Champagne. Most everywhere in France that produces wine also produces sparkling wine known as “Crémant.” And the same French bureaucracy that restricts use of the magic word “Champagne” insures that Crémants are produced according to time-honored, regionally distinct methods: in the Loire, in Alsace, in Burgundy... Net result: lots of variety, lots of small producers, and many at reasonable prices because no one (even in France) says, “Let’s celebrate with Crémant!” Recommended among those locally available: Loire Valley Sparkling White Wine “Bulles” from Jean-Francois Mérieau. ($18.99 at Cambridge Wine and Spirits, Cambridge)