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What I've Been Drinking Lately: Well-Priced Alternatives to Champagne
By John Anderson
May 25, 2022
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My spouse loves bubbly, and, particularly Champagne—le vrai Champagne—and would conceivably drink us out of house and home given the price of the real thing in today’s market—a fate we cannot afford!  So, the march has been on to find acceptable bubbly, good bubbly that isn’t Champagne and that doesn’t cost a small fortune per bottle.  

The goal was to find the best acceptable French bubbly priced around $15.  I failed in that task.  And so turned to a different goal:  To find the best acceptable French-like bubbly priced around $15.  For that, I have a winning combination, which I will come back to at the end of this column.  But first, let me present some slightly higher-priced ($18-$25) but nevertheless genuine French alternatives to Champagne.  They do exist!  And the ones I’ve chosen are broadly available.

Two sparkling wines that I can vouch for—my spouse and her sister like both of these in their quite different ways—are the Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé and the Crémant de Bourgogne “Blanc de Blancs” Brut  from Maison Jaffelin.  Both are non-vintage and cost on average about $20 per bottle.  

I’ve drunk the Albrecht Rosé for years now and much prefer it to their regular Crémant d’Alsace, which is a traditional blend heavy on Pinot Blanc, which is generally speaking my least favorite Alsace grape.  By law, an Alsace Crémant Rosé has to be 100% Pinot Noir and is all the better for it.  The Albrecht version is highly consistent, with a nice red fruit character that I find very appealing.  The color varies from reddish to peach, and bottles do improve with a few months in cellar.  Terrific with salmon, either grilled or poached.  

The Jaffelin is in marked contrast, identifiably Chardonnay in character and absolutely made to pair with scallops—if you can still afford them at $40-$50 a pound!  And, yes, I’d much rather drink the Jaffelin than the regular Albrecht bottling.  But the Albrecht Rosé now…that’s a close call.

For a few bucks more—say $22 to $25 a bottle—I can recommend any of a half dozen or so sparkling Burgundies.  I’m a big fan of all the wines of Clotilde Davenne, a Chablisienne winemaker of great competence.  Her Crémant de Bourgogne “Extra Brut” is tangy, with a palate and nose of white fruits.  Also coming from the Auxerrois region near Chablis is the Crémant de Bourgogne Brut from the Domaine de La Grande Côte.  This is a blend of Pinot and Chardonnay.  Bought and enjoyed frequently by Your Humble Correspondent—not least because it rings up for more like $22 than $25!  I can also recommend Parigot & Richard, based in Savigny-lès-Beaune, whose Crémant de Bourgogne “La Sentinelle” Extra Brut shouts Chardonnay.  Finally, there’s my old friend the Crémant de Bourgogne “Oeil de Perdrix” from Domaine Chollet.  This is a classic salmon-colored Pinot Noir, charming to look at—and to taste.  I approve!

Though priced still higher—$25-$30 a bottle—you should by all means try the beguiling Crémant d’Alsace “Brut Nature” Rosé from Dirler-Cadé.  I remember discovering this wine a few years ago over lunch at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern.  It was sold by the glass for about the same price as a full bottle at retail—but well worth it.   Made with native yeasts, aged 15 months in stainless steel, this vintage wine exhibits a very light peach color, tiny bubbles and real complexity.  Yum!

But now we’ve done our Turn in France.

And so, at last, we turn to the winner of our $15 a bottle American French-style bubbly competition:  New Mexico-based Gruet.

I first discovered these terrific value sparklers some fifteen years ago while doing research and interviews for a book project in Santa Fe.   I enjoyed a very happy 3-4 days there in mid-winter, holed-up at the historic (1922) Hotel La Fonda on the Plaza.  My first afternoon was spent wandering around this lovely old town, where I just happened to find a first-rate wine shop, full of intriguing bottles of Burgundy, but also blessed with a wide range of Gruet sparklers, including vintage bottlings.   I grabbed a couple bottles of Burgundy and 3-4 of the Gruet sparklers and took them back to the hotel to taste and to drink over the next few days.  Suffice it to say, I came away impressed, and the prices, especially for the vintage wines, were unbeatable.

Afterwards I did a bit of a history check on the winery and its owners, who, as you might know, are Champenoise.  The winery was founded in 1984 by the late Gilbert Gruet, whose family-owned Champagne house is located in Bethon.  The current winemaker, the first to come from outside the founding family, is Cyril Tanazacq, who himself grew-up in Reims.  
I only returned—in spirit—this spring when I began my search for that really good value $15 bottle of bubbly.  Gruet’s vintage and tête de cuvée bottling are, in my experience, hard to find retail, though they are available—and not cheap (think $36-$48)—online from the winery itself (gruetwinery.com).  They are good though!

The basics as currently produced by the Gruet family and M. Tanazacq are all delightful and all extremely well priced:  a standard Brut (“green apple and citrus,” is how the house quite accurately describes their flagship wine) , a Blanc de Blancs (lemony and zesty to my taste), and, my favorite of the lot, a lovely little Rosé, which is red fruit driven and sprightly.  The Rosé would make for a marvelous apéritif or paired with salmon; the Blanc de Blancs would pair beautifully with lighter fish dishes, such as cod, or with fish in a cream sauce; and the Brut, which strikes me as a bit steelier, would do well with either fish or grilled chicken.  They’re all on the light side and lack the obvious yeasty character of le vrai Champagne.   But they are also surprisingly elegant and minerally.  And brilliant for such a keen price!


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