For many of us, Valentine’s Day is a great chance to share some bubbly with our special someone. But champagne can be pricey, so how can you know that you’re getting your money’s worth? At the end of this article, we’ll give you our picks for the best value champagnes and other sparkling wines. But first, if you really want to understand what you’re looking for when shopping for champagne, here’s what you need to know.
What’s the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?
“Sparkling wine” refers to any kind of wine that contains a significant amount of carbon dioxide, the gas that gives sparkling wine its characteristic bubbles. People often refer to sparkling wine as “champagne,” but that’s not strictly correct. Champagne is only one type of sparkling wine.
In fact, under European law, a wine cannot be labeled as “Champagne” unless it fits specific criteria. It must be (a) produced in the Champagne region of France, north-east of Paris, (b) using specific types of grapes, (c) which are picked and processed by hand, and (d) bottled using a specific technique called the “méthode champenoise” to give the wine its iconic fizz. If a sparkling wine does not fit those four criteria, it’s not Champagne.
Why is Champagne so expensive?
The fact that Champagne can only be produced in the Champagne area of France is one reason that it’s typically expensive. The region of Champagne has a limited growing area, which means it can produce only a limited supply of grapes. Economics tells you that when supply is low, prices are high.
A second factor that drives up the price of Champagne is the time-consuming way it’s made. As we said, Champagne grapes must be harvested by hand and bottled by the “méthode champenoise.” Traditionally, sparkling wines are made the same way as other wines except that there are a few extra steps. After the wine has fermented, the bottles are opened, and a small amount of tirage (a mixture of sugar and yeast) is added. Then the bottles are resealed and allowed to ferment a second time. As the yeast consumes the sugar in the tirage, it produces the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles in sparkling wine. That traditional method is time consuming, which is why some kinds of sparkling wine use newer methods which save time and lower the price of the wine. But remember, Champagne must use the traditional method, so that drives up the price.
A third reason for the relatively high price of Champagne is the simple fact that Champagne producers have done a great job of marketing their product. People know about Champagne, even if they don’t know about other types of sparkling wine. They assume that Champagne is a superior wine, and they’re willing to pay for it.
Is Champagne better than other sparkling wines?
The old adage “You get what you pay for” is not always true in the world of sparkling wines. Remember, when you’re shopping for Champagne, you’re going to pay a premium for that word on the label. The truth is, some very expensive bottles are not worth their price point. However, on the lower end of the price range, the adage generally is true: Don’t expect to find a good sparkling wine for $7.
Don’t get us wrong. Some Champagnes are worth every penny. But over the last century, wine producers from all over the world have begun producing some truly excellent sparkling wines, and compared to Champagne, some of those newer wines offer an even better buzz for your buck.
What are the alternatives to Champagne?
Today, there is a wide range of sparkling wine options. They vary according to where they are made, what grapes they use, and what process is used to process them.
Sparkling wines that are made in any area of France other than Champagne are called Crémant or Mousseux. Crémant is made using the same “methode traditionelle” process as Champagne. (Some wines made in other parts of the world also call themselves Crémants, so don’t be confused if you see a California Crémant.) A Mousseux uses either the tank method (a.k.a the “charmant method”) or involves injecting the carbon dioxide into the wine, much like soda.
Prosecco (from Italy’s Veneto region) also uses the tank method, which makes it cheaper and one of the most popular alternatives to champagne in the world. Other Italian sparkling wines fall under the broader term of spumante.
Spain’s hugely popular sparkling wine is Cava. Although it is made with the same “methode traditionelle” as Champagne and often uses the same grapes, it is considerably less expensive. Spain has much more area to grow its grapes than the Champagne region has, so the grapes that go into Cava are generally less costly. Also, Spain has automated a lot of the process and shortened the aging time, all bringing down the overall cost. Cava is an excellent sparkling wine that tastes drier and less fruity than Prosecco.
Moscato d’Asti is a sweeter, semi-sparkling white dessert wine from northwestern Italy. It is made with the “tank method.”
Espumante, Portugal’s entry in the sparkling wine world, can be made by the traditional, charmat, or injection method, so you’ll need to check the label.
Other significant sparkling wines include Sparkling Shiraz from Australia, Cap Classique from South Africa, British Fizz from the UK, German Sekt, and several kinds of American sparkling wines.
How can I recognize a great sparkling wine?
The only reliable way to find a sparkling wine you will love is to try different types and see what suits your taste. That said, here are a few guiding principles to help you spot a quality sparkling wine.
Bubbles. In general, when it’s poured into a glass, an excellent sparkling wine will release a steady stream of tiny bubbles that form a foamy head (the mousse) on the surface. Lower quality wines will have large or inconsistently-sized bubbles that will often cling to the sides of the glass. It’s not just a matter of visual aesthetics; these bubbles affect the way the wine tastes and feels in your mouth.
Bottling method. Many wine critics swear by the traditional method used to make Champagne. It tends to produce sparkling wine that has softer, richer, and more nuanced flavors which is why several other types of sparkling wine such as Crémant and Cava use the same method. However, some wine enthusiasts prefer the taste of Prosecco or other wines made by the “tank method.” These wines—including German Sekt, Italian Moscato D’Asti, and California sparklers—tend to have more simple, tart, and fruity flavors. They are definitely worth trying since they are significantly less expensive and may be exactly what you’re looking for. (One word of advice, though: Because of their narrower flavor profile, tank method wines are often more difficult to pair with foods.)
Aging. As sparkling wine undergoes its second fermentation—before the tirage is removed and the bottle is sealed for the final time—it is allowed to “age.” The longer the wine ages, the more complex flavors it will absorb from the tirage. Champagne is aged for a minimum of 15 months, while Cava is aged anywhere from 9 to 30 months. Check the label to see how long a bottle was aged.
Vintage. The term “vintage” on the label is not a guarantee that a sparkling wine will be high quality, but it’s a good sign. To produce a vintage wine, the winemaker will use their highest quality of grapes grown that particular year. This is generally thought to produce superior wine, although an argument can be made in favor of non-vintage wines (which are designated by a “NV” on the label). Non-vintage wines allow the winemaker to combine grapes from different years, giving them more control in creating the flavor profile.
Reserve. Winemakers put the term “reserve” on their label to indicate that some percentage of the wine used was held back from previous years. In general, a reserve wine is understood to be of a higher quality because it has aged longer. However, wine producers use the term inconsistently, so take the term “reserve” with a grain of salt.
How dry of a wine do I want?
A crucial question to ask yourself when shopping for champagne or other sparkling wine is how sweet you want your wine to be.
Before sparkling wine is capped for the final time, a little bit of dosage (a mixture of wine and sugar) is added. Without that dosage, the finished wine would be tart and bitter. Obviously, the amount of sugar added determines how sweet the wine will be.
The most popular level of sweetness is called Brut, but there are several other variations to choose from. In order from least to most sweet, here are your choices.
Brut Nature (also called Brut Zero): No sugar is added in the dosage, so the wine is completely dry. This level is a bit much for many drinkers, but it pairs well with salty or fried foods. Don’t try it with anything sweet or the food will make the Brute Zero taste terrible!
Extra Brut: With only 6 grams of sugar/liter, this wine is very dry. Again, it’s great for cutting oily or salty foods like French fries or crackers, and it goes well with oysters and raw seafood.
Brut: With 12 grams of sugar/liter, Brut is by far the most popular variety of sparkling wine. It is perfect for toasting and pairs well with a wide range of foods.
Extra Dry (Extra-Sec): Moderately dry with 17 grams of sugar and a tinge of sweetness. You never want your wine to be sweeter than your dessert, so Extra Dry works well with foods that aren’t overly sweet, including sushi, vegetables, salads, and soft or creamy cheeses.
Dry (Sec): With 32 grams of sugar/liter, now you’ll start to notice the sweetness. Balance out the sweetness by pairing it with savory or buttery foods.
Demi-Sec: A whopping 50 grams of sugar/liter makes demi-sec a dessert wine. Still, it pairs well with blue cheese, red fruits, cinnamon, or yellow and white fruits. Serving it slightly chilled will help cut the sweetness a bit.
Doux: A very sweet dessert wine with 60 grams of sugar/liter. It’s okay for sipping, but it really shines when paired with bold food like Indian, Thai, or Chinese dishes.
What sparkling wine do you recommend in my price range?
When you’re shopping for champagne or other sparkling wines, the best buy is going to depend on your personal tastes, your price range, and your plans for the occasion. Here are some wines that are great deals for the price.
(Because the only way wines can be purchased legally here in Utah is through the state’s DABS website, the prices listed here are taken from that site. Utah prices include an automatic 88% markup.)
Bargain (under $15)
- Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut Cava $14
Low End ($15-20)
- Zonin Prosecco Extra Dry $16
- Domaine Ste Michelle Brut $16
- Charles De Fère Reserve Brut $16.50
- Lamarca Prosecca $20
- Domaine Ansen Cremant D’Alsace $20.50
- Mumm Napa Cuvée M $23
- Decoy Brut Cuvee $26
- Santa Margherita Prosecco Brut $28.50
- Roederer Estate Brut $30
Upper End ($40-80)
- Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut $42
- Schramsburg Blanc de Noirs $45
- Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top $45
Premium (above $80)
- Schramsberg Cremant Demisec $89
- Krug Grande Cuvee $242
- Pol Roger Cuvee W Churchill $345
Where can I find these sparkling wines?
As we said, the only place in Utah where you can purchase wine is at the state-run liquor stores. However, each store can vary widely from other stores in their inventory, so be sure to check the state’s DABS website or app for availability before you go. At times, some wines are not available anywhere in the state, so you may have to place a special order.
I’ve selected my sparkling wine. Is there a best way to serve it?
It’s especially important that you chill sparkling wines before opening them, both to enhance their taste and to preserve their effervescence. And, unless you’re going for the theater of a dramatic pop and fizzy champagne spilling on the floor, there’s a better way to uncork your sparkling wine:
- Remove the foil from the wire cage that surrounds the cork.
- Hold down the cork with a cloth napkin or kitchen towel and twist the tab to loosen the wire cage.
- Tilt the bottle away from you at a 45° angle, and don’t point it at anyone. (If you do the uncorking correctly, you won’t have an explosion, but still, there’s no reason to take chances.)
- With the cloth still over the top of the bottle, hold the cork (and the loosened cage) in one hand. With your other hand, grasp the bottle and gently twist the bottle (not the cork) back and forth. You don’t need to pull out the cork; the pressure from the bottle will force it out for you. You should hear a soft pop as the cork comes out and the air is expelled.
- Pour the champagne slowly into glasses. Tall, thin Champagne flutes are great for prolonging the Champagne’s effervescence and highlighting the long, thin trail of bubbles as well as the mousse. Wide, shallow tulip glasses don’t show off the bubbles as well, but they do a fantastic job of maximizing the aroma and taste of the champagne. A third choice, the saucer-shaped coupe glass, is the type used in champagne towers. Any of these styles of glass will allow you to hold the drink by the stem so that your hand won’t accidentally warm the wine.