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Monday, December 14, 2009

Champing at the bit – sparkling wines under $20 for the holiday season

It’s December, time to get ready for the holidays and the champagne occasion of the year: New Year’s Eve. Wine connoisseurs are all aware that real (capital “C”) Champagne comes only from France, as are most card carrying cocktailians. The French discourage others from using the appellation “champagne” on their sparkling wines, and many of the quality wineries (especially those who wish to sell their wines in France) comply, so many sparkling wines (bubbly for short) will not say “champagne” on the bottle, although some do. Unfortunately there are few (none?) legitimate Champagnes available in the under $20 (for 750ml.) price range. If you would like to learn more about Champagne, including the names of the big Champagne houses, check out the New York Times Champagne navigator page.

For those of us on a recessionary (or depressionary) budgets who still want to celebrate with some sparkling wine, the Utah Sate Liquor Store system has obliged us with a great selection of American sparkling wines for under $20 with some pretty good ones for under $10. (Those of you who live in bigger markets should be able to buy all of the wines mentioned here.) Regular readers are doubtless aware of my love for champagne cocktails like the French 75 and the Kir Royale. When cocktail recipes call for champagne, though, it’s usually more economical to use a good sparkling wine. Drink your high quality Champagne (and high quality domestic bubblies) straight so you can appreciate them. For champagne cocktails, there are some very good sparklers under $10 that are ideal for mixing. Readers should always have a bottle or two of better quality champagne around for celebrations and several less expensive bottles for mixing. If you have a spare fridge in the basement, keep it stocked.

This post will only recommend wines from houses that have had some of their sparkling wines score at least 85 or 90 points by some well known rating service like Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. Although quality will vary year to year with the vintage, etc., it’s safe to assume that these winemakers know what they are doing and will turn out a good product. That means that while individual wines mentioned here may not have been rated (or not rated high enough to brag about), you will be buying a reliable product and not junk wine.

Under $20

Before we get into the real bargains, lets look at the bubblies that price out closer to $20. Gloria Ferrer makes some excellent sparkling wines that are among my favorites. Although not on sale this month (that’s a shame) their Blanc de Noirs ($18) and Brut ($17) have both been highly rated by multiple rating services. Domaine Chandon is another producer of highly rated bubbly in our price range. Their Brut and their Blanc de Noirs are both on sale this month for $16, and Chandon Riche Extra Dry, while not on sale, is a bargain at $19. Rated only a couple of points lower is Mumm Napa’s Brut, on sale this month for $19. Piper Sonoma doesn’t rate quite as highly, but their Brut is on sale this month for $15 and is worth a try.

Around $10 and less

Korbel used to be the best of the budget bubblies, their Extra Dry has been rated respectably in the mid eighties and is on sale this month ($10.5), as are several other of their sparklers, a Brut and a Chardonnay among them. Now, however, they have some competition in their price range. Domaine Sainte Michelle, also scoring in the mid-eighties, is another bargain bubbly on sale for $11 this month. The real bargains in this price range, however, are some of the sparklers from Barefoot Bubbly. Three Bubblies (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay Brut, and Chardonnay Extra Dry) are all on sale for $8. Wine Enthusiast gave one of their bubblies an 87 rating and a Top 100 Best Values award several years ago. Barefoot Bubblies are a great value; the first time I tasted one I couldn’t believe the price. Barefoot’s sparklers are very drinkable on their own, and are great in any champagne cocktail you might care to try.

There are some even less expensive bubblies on sale this month: André wines are on sale for $3.5 and Cook’s for as low as $4. Needless to say, these are not among my recommendations, and so far as I know they have never been highly rated. They can serve a purpose in punches or in other concoctions where “champagne” is a minority ingredient or is overpowered by the other ingredients, but my recommendation is that you never drink them straight.

If you have an affinity for some other bubbly (domestic or imported) that is available for under $20, please share the information with others by adding a comment to this post. Happy Holidays! In the meantime, if you want to know what you’re looking for when you go to the wine store, view this slideshow for photos of most of the bubblies mentioned in the post, plus a couple of serving suggestions.

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