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Sparkling Suggestions for the Holidays
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 27, 2007
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Is it just me, or do we all need Champagne more than ever this year?

At any rate, what would the convivial holidays and family get-togethers be without some bubbly?  If you'll be ordering or buying Champagne or sparkling wine for the holidays, I'll attempt to make your task easier.  I've grouped my bubbly wine suggestions into three categories:

  • Inexpensive but decent sparkling wines for big parties
  • Good-value, non-vintage Brut Champagnes and other moderately-priced sparkling wines for smaller groups and family gatherings
  • Top Champagnes and sparkling wines for special occasions

Big Party Bubblies:

Whenever I'm entertaining a large, mixed group of people, many of whom are not paying much attention to what they're drinking, I invariably buy Cava, the sparkling wine from Catalonia in Northeast Spain.  Cava, which retails in the $8 to $12 range (and often some brands are on sale for even less) is really the best buy in the sparkling wine world.  It's made by the Champagne method, meaning the second fermentation takes place in the very bottle you buy.  Cava is made from local grape varieties, and does taste a bit different from Champagne and California sparkling wines; it has a pronounced earthy, mushroomy flavor.  The big-selling brands are Freixenet (the world's largest-selling sparkling wine brand), Codorniu, and Segura Viudas.  Three other Cavas I recommend are Paul Cheneau, Mont Marçal, and Marqués de Monistrol.

Prosecco would be my other choice for big parties.  Made in the Veneto region in Northeast Italy from the Prosecco grape variety, this bubbly has really become popular in the U.S. lately, thanks in good part to its ubiquitous presence on the wine lists of so many Italian restaurants, where it's usually available by the glass.  Prosecco comes in the frizzante (slightly sparkling) and spumante (fully sparkling) styles and is labeled as such; it is dry, fairly light-bodied, fruitier and softer than Champagne, with floral, slightly peachy, almondy aromas and flavors.  Prosecco is a particularly good choice if you are serving Italian antipasti, its typical partner at the Italian table.  Most Proseccos retail in the $12 to $20 range.  The Prosecco brands I recommend include Adami, Mionetto, Nino Franco, Zardetto, and Zefiro.  Adami (Dalla Terra Imports) is a particular favorite.

Moderately-priced Sparklers for Smaller Gatherings:

When your close friends or family are the guests and you're choosing the bubbly, you might want to consider non-vintage brut Champagne or California sparkling brut.  California sparkling wines are fruitier and frothier than Champagne with fresher flavors, but fewer secondary aromas and flavors.

NV Brut, the least-expensive Champagne ($25 to $50 range), is by far the largest category of Champagne, making up about 85 percent of all Champagne.  In general, non-vintage Bruts are lighter-bodied, fresher, and less complexly flavored than Vintage Champagnes and Prestige Cuvées.  Most of them are fine as aperitifs--on their own or when served with hors d'oeuvres or first courses. 

The complication with NV Bruts is that they come in different styles and levels of dryness.  All so-called Bruts are not uniformly dry; some are sweeter than others (depending upon the dosage of sugar added during the final step of winemaking).  Here are the NV Bruts that I recommend; I group them according to general style, and point out the driest ones:

Light, Elegant NV Bruts: Henriot, Jacquesson, G.H.Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte, Bruno Paillard, Piper-Heidsieck, Ruinart (Henriot, Jacquesson, and Bruno Paillard are particularly dry)

Medium-bodied Style: Deutz, Charles Heidsieck, Philipponnat, Pol Roger

Full-bodied style: Bollinger, Alfred Gratien, Louis Roederer (Bollinger is particularly dry)

The smaller 'Grower' Champagnes are also among the driest of Champagnes.  I don't recommend any Grower-Champagne Bruts only because of their limited availability.  Typically, Grower Champagnes are available only in regional markets, not nationwide.

Some NV Blanc de Blancs Champagnes that I love include Billecart-Salmon, Guy Charlemagne, Gaston Chiquet (the last two are well-distributed Grower Champagnes), Delamotte, Henriot Souverain, Mumm de Cramant, Bruno Paillard, and Ruinart.

NV Brut Rosé Champagnes are a more difficult category, in that there are fewer standouts.  NV Brut Rosé Champagnes that I enjoy include Billecart-Salmon, Gosset, Bruno Paillard, Perrier-Jouët's 'Blason de France' and Ruinart.

If you want to spend a bit less and stay with a domestic sparkler, there are quite a few reasonably-priced California Bruts that are top-notch.  Leading the list for me is Roederer Estate from Anderson Valley in California (either the white or rosé), in the $18 to $22 price range.  If there's a better sparkling wine in the world in this price range, I don't know it.  Other California Bruts that I recommend include Mumm Cuvée Napa, Iron Horse, J, and Domaine Carneros.
From the rest of the U.S., look for Argyle (from Oregon), Gruet (from New Mexico) and Kluge Estate (from Virginia).

Top Champagnes and Sparkling Wines for Special Occasions:

Only the best will do for some occasions, such as celebrating an important event, toasting an intimate occasion with a loved one, seeking to impress a significant person in your life, etc.  Vintage Champagnes--or even better Prestige Cuvées--are your greatest way of saying to your guests, 'I admire and respect you.'  They offer wonderful, toasty, baked bread aromas and complex flavors that linger on the palate.

You need not spend a fortune; a few great Champagnes remain reasonably-priced. Some include Gosset NV Grande Réserve ($55 to $63), as good an under $65 non-vintage that there is on the market today; Nicolas Feuillatte 1999 Cuvée Speciale ($55-$60; their best Vintage Champagne yet); Piper-Heidsieck NV Cuvée Rare (under $100), and the incredible Charles Heidsieck 1995 Blanc des Millénaires ($95), a complex and perfectly aged Blanc de Blancs (the latter being a two-time winner of Best of Show at the Critics' Challenge Judging In San Diego, and still drinking remarkably well today).

In addition to the above four 'bargains,' the Vintage Champagnes and Prestige Cuvées I'm particularly admiring today include:

--Billecart-Salmon 1998 Blanc de Blancs;
--Bollinger 1999 Grande Année and 1999 Grande Année Rosé;
--Cattier Clos du Moulin;
--Deutz, 1998 Cuvée William Deutz and 1996 Cuvée William Deutz Rosé;
--Dom Pérignon 1999;
--Gosset 1998 Célébris and 1998 Célébris Rosé;
--Alfred Gratien NV Cuvée Paradis;
--Jacquesson 1996 Signature and 1996 Signature Rosé;
--Krug Grande Cuvée and 1996 Vintage Brut (one of the greatest Champagnes that I have ever tasted);
--Laurent-Perrier NV Grande Siècle 'La Cuvée';
--Perrier-Jouët 1999 Fleur de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (their 'Blanc de Blancs' is truly PJ's greatest Fleur de Champagne);
--Philipponnat 1996 Clos des Goisses (fantastic!);
--Pol Roger 1996 Sir Winston Churchill (classic; will live 100 years);
--Louis Roederer 2000 Cristal (always great; even better with age);
--Ruinart 1996 Dom Ruinart (one of the great Blanc de Blancs);
--Taittinger 1998 Comtes de Champagne (standard bearer of Blanc de Blancs style);
--Veuve Clicquot 1996 La Grande Dame (best since their memorable 1988)

Three California houses can compete with Champagne in excellence. Look for Roederer Estate's 1999 L'Hermitage (about $45), the top Brut from USA's most-respected sparkling wine producer; Iron Horse's 1996 Late Disgorged Blanc de Blancs (about $57), the finest Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine outside of Champagne; plus Schramberg's 2000 J. Schram (about $90) and totally delicious 1998 J. Schram Rosé ($120).
And remember, all sparkling wines go well with food.  Enjoy the Holidays!