Producers of Champagne and other sparkling wines love the month of December! And why not? Some of them sell as much as half of their annual production in this one month. Family get-togethers during the Holidays, office parties, annual bonuses and New Year's Eve all combine to push annual sales solidly into the black. The Champagne region in particular has been experiencing a boom in sales during the last several years.
The great thing about bubbly wine is that there's something for everyone at every price and quality level. If you don't like dry bubblies or sparkling wines that are too acidic, no problem. Plenty of off-dry to sweet sparkling wines are available, many of which have lower acidity. The André line, made by Gallo, comes in all colors, flavors and levels of sweetness, and will cost you about $5.00 a bottle.
Its main competitor at this price level is Cook's, made by the Canandaiga Wine Company of New York State. Gallo also produces slightly more upscale bubblies, such as Tott's and Ballatore Gran Spumante, for $2 or $3 more. I think that Ballatore, with its clean, floral Muscat flavors, is a particularly good buy at this price level.
Most inexpensive (under $8) bubblies are produced by the Charmat (closed tank) method, in which the carbon dioxide, the natural by-product of fermenting wine, is trapped in a closed tank and is absorbed by the wine. This method enables producers to process large quantities of sparkling wine, a far less costly method than used in Champagne -- or in most wine regions producing over $8 bubblies -- where the carbon dioxide is actually trapped in the very same bottle that you are buying.
The grape varieties used in sparkling wines employing the Charmat method are often far less expensive than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two varieties you find in most of the better-quality bubblies, including Champagne.
In the $8 to $25 retail range, a prodigious amount of sparkling wine is produced throughout the world, most of which is made by the classic Champagne method. Two sparkling exceptions in Italy, Prosecco and Asti/Moscato d'Asti, do use the closed tank method. Thanks to its popularity in Italian restaurants, sales for Prosecco -- the dry sparkling wine that goes particularly well with Italian antipasti -- are booming. Most Proseccos retail in the $12 to $20 price range. Prosecco, made from the grape variety of the same name, hails from the Veneto region of Northeast Italy; some leading brands include Adami, Astoria, Canevel, Casalnova, Mionetto, Nino Franco, Valdo, Zardetto, Zefiro and Zonin.
Asti (formerly called Asti Spumante) and Moscato d'Asti, its slightly less effervescent cousin, are both made from the Moscato (Muscat) grape variety in the area around the town of Asti in Piedmont, Italy. Asti, with its wonderful aromas and flavors of fresh peaches, is the perfect bubbly to serve with cookies, pastries and all sweet desserts. It's definitely the bubbly of choice with wedding cake, for instance; Champagne -- even demi-sec -- is just too dry to have with cake.
You always want to buy fresh Asti, because its exuberant aromas fade with age. Buy a popular brand, such as: Martini & Rossi, Fontanafredda, or Cinzano that moves fast off the shelf; Asti, always non-vintage, is in the $12 to $18 price range. Moscato d'Asti, on the other hand, is always vintage-dated, and so you know how old it is. Buy the gentler Moscato d'Asti (the style that the Italians call frizzante instead of spumante) as fresh as possible, no more than two years old, for the same reason you want fresh Asti. Leading Moscato d'Asti wines include Vietti's Cascinetta, Ceretto's Santo Stefano, Dante Rivetti, and Paolo Sarocco; retail prices are in the $14 to $17 range.
The Penedés wine zone in the Catalan region of Northeast Spain is the world's second-largest producer of sparkling wines; only the Champagne region produces more. Here the sparkling wine, produced mainly from local grape varierties, is called cava. They do taste different from Champagne and California bubblies, with a more pronounced earthy flavor. They are the sparkling wine world's best values, with most brands selling for around $8. No wonder the world's best selling sparkling wine (Freixenet Cordon Negro) is a cava! Other popular cavas include Codorniu, Segura Viudas, Mont Marçal, Paul Cheneau, Cristalino and Marqués de Monistrol. A more upscale cava, the vintage-dated Juve y Camps, starts at about $15 a bottle.
California produces a huge array of good-quality Champagne-method sparkling bruts, mainly in the $15 to $25 price range, but a few premium California bubblies sell for over $50. California bruts tend to be fruitier and more effervescent than Champagne. Korbel leads the way in U.S. sparkling wine sales with six different types of bubblies; particularly noteworthy in the Korbel line are its Brut Chardonnay and its Natural, the latter made with no added residual sugar. Another sales leader in California, Domaine Chandon, began the invasion of French Champagne houses to California when it opened its doors in 1973. I particularly enjoy Domaine Chandon's premium bruts, its Étoile (about $30) and Étoile Rosé (about $33). Three particularly fine California sparkling wine producers are Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg. Other good California bubbly producers include Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, J Wine Company, Gloria Ferrer, Laetitia, Piper Sonoma, Scharffenberger, S. Anderson and Handley Cellars.
Some excellent sparkling wines are made in many other states in the U.S. Argyle Winery in Oregon ranks with the best in California. Other standout sparklers include Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank and Glenora Wine Cellars in New York, Domaine Ste. Michelle in Washington and Kluge Estate in Virginia.
The Southern Hemisphere also produces some very good bubblies. One of my favorite all-time value sparkling wines is Australia's Seaview Brut, formerly made by Penfolds (now Foster's), as good a bubbly that you can find for $10. Two other $10 sparklers from Australia that I recommend are those made by Greg Norman Estates and by Wolf Blass. New Zealand has a good $10 Brut made by Lindauer. Also, I was really impressed with the quality of New Zealand's Highfield Estate 1998 Elstree Brut -- 50 percent Pinot Noir, 50 percent Chardonnay -- and well worth $25. South Africa's cool Franschhoek Valley is home to several good sparkling wines; one of its really good values is Boschendal Estate's Le Grand Pavillion Brut at about $15.
When it comes to sparkling wines, Italy is definitely a major player. In addition to its unique bubblies (Prosecco and Asti), Italy produces dry sparkling wines at all price levels: Mezzacorona's reliable Rotari Brut starts at about $12; good mid-priced sparkling wines ($20-$22) include Ferrari's NV Brut and Berlucchi's NV Cuvée Imperiale Brut. At the premium level, four producers dominate: Ferrari's 1996 Giulio Ferrari Brut, about $65, is superb; Bellavista starts at about $30 for its NV Franciacorta Brut on up to $90 for its premium 1995 Moretti Brut; Ca' del Bosco's fine line of sparkling wines start at $35 for its NV Franciacorta Brut; and the great Bruno Giacosa, of Barbaresco/Barolo fame, makes a teriffic, 100 percent Pinot Noir bubbly, the 2001 Giacosa Extra Brut, for about $40.
In addition to Champagne, France makes sparkling wine in almost every one of its wine regions. Four popular brands that are generally available are Bouvet Ladubay and Brut d'Argent (both their NV Brut and NV Rosé) for $11-$12; Saint Hilaire, from Limoux, the oldest-known sparkling wine, has a 2003 Blanc de Blancs for $10; and Veuve du Vernay's NV Brut is about $8. Outside of Champagne, France's best sparkling wines come from the Loire Valley, where Chenin Blanc is the major variety. The two Loire sparkling wine producers whose bubblies are most widely available are Langlois-Château and Gratien & Meyer; both produce NV Bruts and NV Rosé Bruts in the $16 to $20 range.
Of course, many of us insist on Champagne from France for holiday celebrations. Let's begin with my recommendations of a few value-Champagnes (yes, they do exist!). Henri Abele, a little-known, small Champagne house owned by Freixenet, makes a reliable NV Brut for about $25; you can also find Nicolas Feuillatte's NV Brut for the same price, or less. Other well-priced NV Bruts that I enjoy are Pol Roger and Piper-Heidsieck. An excellent, good-value, elegant Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made by the grower-producer Guy Charlemagne, but it might not be available in all markets. Billecart-Salmon and Taittinger produce superb Vintage Blanc de Blancs, but they're both over $100. Other Champagnes made in the elegant, dry, apéritif style are those of Henriot, Jacquesson, Bruno Paillard and Ruinart.
Two Champagne houses that have really been on a hot streak are Charles Heidsieck and Deutz. For a real treat, I recommend the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (two years' running Best-in-Show at the Critics' Challenge International Wine Competition) for about $95; also, the Deutz 1996 Cuvée William Deutz Brut or 1996 Cuvée William Deutz Brut Rosé, both $100-plus.
If you prefer full-bodied Champagnes (perfect choices to accompany dinner) I recommend the Champagnes of the following houses: Krug, Louis Roederer, Bollinger, Gosset and Alfred Gratien. You cannot go wrong with any Champagnes from these fine houses. The Champagnes of Krug and Bollinger are particularly dry and winey.
Two can't-miss Champagnes for gifts? Dom Pérignon or Roederer Cristal. The 1996 Dom Pérignon ($140-$160) is awesome, but might be difficult to find now. No worries, the more readily available 1998 Dom Pérignon ($120) is also very fine and more ready to drink than the 1996. The 1996 Cristal is other-worldly, but will be almost impossible to find in stores; the more precocious 1999 Cristal is generally available ($200-$240). If you really want to impress, the incredible 1999 Cristal Rosé retails for $350-$400. A third perennial favorite gift around the holidays is Perrier-Jouët's Fleur de Champagne, in the beautifully enameled 'flower bottle.' The 1998 and 1999 P-J Fleurs are both available (both good vintages), and they also come in gift sets with two glasses, in the $110-$120 price range. Happy shopping!