Next to wearing funny hats, the midnight kiss, and rampant hangover and regret inducing behavior, drinking Champagne is one of our most beloved New Years Eve traditions. Invented in the 17th Century and popularized by nobles and ne'erdowells over the intervening years, Champagne is now the quintessential party beverage. And why not? Champagne, with its distinctive "pop" and dancing bubbles, is one of the only alcoholic beverages with its own special effects!
Those special effects come at a price, you know; Champagne is expensive, and increased hype and growing interest from the Asian markets have not made it any cheaper. Not that the cost isn't at least partially justified, as the Champagne production process — aka "Methode Champenoise" or "Methode Traditionnelle" — is extremely labor intensive.
After growing grapes to a very specific low-sugar, high-acid level of ripeness, winemakers ferment them into a base still wine, just like any other. After aging, the wine is transfered to an extra strong, pressure resistant bottle. Following a brief resting period, each bottle is dosed with liqueur de tirage, a precise measure of yeast and nutrients, which, over the next few weeks, will mix and yield a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Whereas in normal fermentation, the resulting CO2 is released into the atmosphere, this time the gas is retained in solution, corked under pressures up to 90 PSI. Though the process is now highly mechanized, the overhead is still much higher than with normal wines.
There are other methods for getting bubbles in the bottle: some wines undergo a similar process in bulk tanks, and others are carbonated by the same methods employed by Coke and Pepsi. In the French region of Champagne, the place where all real Champagne is born, these practices are outlawed, as they yield a less rich, less bubbly product. Thankfully, these restrictions don't go both ways, so the Methode Champenoise is free for anyone to use. While production is costly, about half of Champagne's prohibitive cost comes from prestige pricing and the improbable cost of vineyard land in the Champagne region. Outside the region, in almost all the world's wine producing nations, sparkling wines are made using Methode Champenoise which can be had for a fraction of the price.
In France, wines made outside the Champagne region, but up to similar standards, attain the honorific "Cremant." There are hundreds out there from all over the country. Some of the best come from the region of Bourgogne, where such wines are made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, two of the noble varietals used in Champagne. One of my favorite producers is Bailly Lapierre, brought in locally by William Harrison Imports. This great producer of Cremant de Bourgogne is based out of Chablis, a mere 70 miles south of Champagne. The house makes a wide range of dry sparkling wines, including a great Chardonnay for about $18. This wine has rich, yeasty flavors along with surprisingly vibrant apple and pear fruit. The same producer's basic cuvee, the Saint Meyland Brut, is perhaps the best sparkling value in town, widely available for about $12. This wine is made with an ample portion of Gamay, the fruity grape of Beaujolais, and as such has a great red berry quality on the nose, despite its pale yellow color and dry finish. Some restaurants around town have been known to serve this wine for $50; there is a reason that they get away with this, so pick this one up if you want a cheap, versatile sparkler good for both toasting and hangover-assuaging mimosas.
Most people know Prosecco, the dry, slightly flowery, well priced Italian sparkler. While these are exclusively made with the aformentioned tank, or "charmat" method, there are some Italian spumantes made in the Champenoise style. Perhaps the best known, and my personal favorite, is the Ferrari Brut from Trentino in northeast Italy. Like most Champagne, this wine is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and has a great "bottle bouquet;" or, that distinctive yeasty-toasty quality that makes Champagne so appealing. This bottle's naturally high acidity makes it a great match with oysters and other raw bar fare, and gives great Champagne-like flavor for about $20.
Because the Aussies are best known for balls-to-the-wall, hugely extracted reds, I was surprised to find a brilliant little Methode Champanoise sparkler from the giant conglomerate Taltarni. This large firm produces a number of wines, most pretty run of the mill, excepting the Taltarni Brut Tache. This $20 sparkler is made from all three Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), to which a tiny amount of Pinot Noir wine is added, to give it a hint of a pink accent. This wine is full bodied for a sparkler, yet balanced, with a dry, slightly citrusy finish. This one is great with a wide number of fish dishes, but also easy to enjoy on its own.
The unique growing conditions that sparkling wine grapes prefer (hot days, cold nights) mean that you may find them coming from the strangest of places. While touring the American southwest in the early 1980's, former Champagne producer Gilbert Gruet and his family fell in love with the grand vistas and inexpensive land prices. The clan promptly relocated, and started producing high quality, Champagne quality sparklers in 1987. Now, Gruet is a major player, producing over 80,000 cases per year. Thanks to a dedication to quality, low land value and ideal conditions, Gruet wines are cheap (most about $15), widely available, and of notably high quality. Their latest Blanc de Noirs is definitely a crowd pleaser, offering up just the right combination of toast and berries. For those that prefer a bit more strawberry, try their new Rose, which has a beautiful deep pink color and finishes pleasingly dry.
Whatever your holiday bubbly, be careful: Champagne corks kill more people every year than lightning, don'cha know? Okay... I know that isn't really proven, but when you are working with 5 atmospheres of pressure (that's three times the pressure in your car tires!), it doesn't hurt to take precautions, so keep that sucker out of the freezer, and if you have to aim for someone's face, aim for Ryan Seacrest. He is no Dick Clark, dammit, and he never will be!