Few drinks can match champagne’s elegance and celebratory qualities. However, while champagne has long been the gold standard for milestones and holidays, its price can quickly add up.
With Christmas and the New Year upon us, it’s time to rethink bubble strategy. Fortunately, cost-conscious, excellent alternatives exist. We’ve asked three local experts to share their passion and tips for choosing sparkling wines that hold their own against French champagnes.
“Champagne sets the mood and helps to make the celebration,” notes Cedric Martin, owner of Martin Wine Cellar. Martin notes that Americans tend to call all that sparkles champagne. But in France, strict labeling laws mean that only wines produced in the country’s northerly Champagne region can call themselves champagne. Even sparkling wines produced in other French regions can’t borrow the name; generally they refer to themselves as vins crémants. Internationally, those who imitate the Méthode Champenoise must also employ a different name, thus Italy’s prosecco, Spain’s cava, and Napa Valley’s sparkling wine.
Martin points to a clear cost advantage in buying champagne alternatives. Whereas the real deal can easily run $40-50 a bottle, sparkling wines can be had for a fraction of the cost. But are these champagne knock-offs really as good as the original?
“Absolutely,” says Martin. “There are wines that in blind tastings hold their own against any champagne, that many would think are champagne.”
Jim Yonkus, co-owner of Keife and Company in the Warehouse District, agrees.
“It’s not an issue of quality. It’s the same method of production. You can come very close to the taste of actual champagne for half the cost. That’s the bottom line.”
For Drew Branwein, Beverage Director of Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, the best sparkling wines are “expressions of where they’re from and the grapes of that region.”
Given the recent opening of Brennan’s on Royal Street, Brandwein has been thinking a lot about champagne alternatives recently, and is determined to make the iconic restaurant into the sparkling wine powerhouse of the South. He says that while sparkling wines will always be benchmarked against champagne, alternatives offer more variety.
For example, he notes interesting full-bodied malbec-based sparkling wines coming out of Argentina. In France, he points to vins crémants from the Burgundy and Alsace regions, which like Champagne, sit in the northern half of the country.
Domestically, he’s impressed by California sparklers like those from the official “champagne” of the White House, Iron Horse, because the label showcases Sonoma County’s outstanding pinot noir and chardonnay.
Martin offers similar praise for the Roederer label — with oak-aged wines coming from the cool Anderson Vally, north of Napa — and Yonkus mentions his favorites include a German Reisling-based sparkling wine.
Yonkus looks for particular qualities in a sparkling wine: a drier palette, bright acid and fruit-forward taste. Martin adds freshness and ease of drinking to the list. He says a good sparkling wine should coat the mouth, leaving a faint taste of creaminess. In higher end bottles, he expects “delicacy and fineness of bubble.”
For food pairings, our wine experts recommend goat cheese as well as blue and triple creme cheeses whose buttery fats contrast well with the acidity of sparkling wines. However, Martin, Yonkus and Brandwein are also quick to point out that bubbling wines can easily move beyond appetizers and standards — like oysters — to sustain entire meals.
And not just brunch. Martin notes that sparkling wines pair well with seafood; for Brandwein, it’s hearty Southern fare. “Biscuits and gravy,” he says, “without question. Fried chicken and sparkling wine together: phenomenal.”
The exception is dessert, whose sweetness clashes with most sparkling wines. “A regular sparkling wine and chocolate?” asks Yonkus, looking shocked. “That would be a disaster.”
Martin, Yonkus and Brandwein agree that sparkling wines are too delightful to be relegated to special occasions, but integrated into the regular routines of drinkers. Martin cites one of his family’s traditions: Sunday afternoons with a sparkling wine, prosciutto and a little cheese.
“It’s my libation of choice,” says Brandwein, “If I were a kept man, I’d drink sparkling wines morning, noon and night.”
Good to know: While we all relish the popping of the cork, Jim Yonkus recommends opening up bottles half an hour before serving in order to release floral notes in the bouquet.