Dom Perginon, the French monk who discovered Champagne, a man who changed the wine game for everyone forever said this, and he was absolutely right, he did not think however that people would be drinking because of labels, and as a status symbol. Unfortunately this is what Champagne has become. Lets change this attitude by exploring the different and beautiful sparkling wines out there that are not 300 bucks a bottle.
My absolute favorite season for imbibing is approaching fast, bubble season. Although I drink bubbly as often as I can, June July and August are the key seasons for it. Champagne produced in the traditional method is the most important discerning factor in deciding what to buy. Traditionally Champagne is made from three grapes Pinot Noir (red grape), Pinot Meunier (red grape), and Chardonnay (white grape). It is fermented first in stainless steel vats, and then fermented again in the bottle. The reason for the secondary fermentation in the bottle is to provide the bubbles. When yeast eats sugar two things are created alcohol, and carbon dioxide (in still wine the CO2 is usually bled off during the first fermentation). The bottles of fizzy are then turned slightly everyday until they are vertical (riddling) this is done to bring the yeast (lees) to the top of the bottle so it can be frozen, and shot out of the top (degorging). What happens to the space that is left? Some producers don’t add anything to this void hence the size of the foil on the bottle, some use either a still red wine (rose), or a sweet mixture of grape juice syrup (Le dosage) to make it a little more user friendly.
Ok enough with the technical mumbo jumbo, lets get down to the fun part. Buying Champagne. Think to yourself, how ostentatious do I have to be? You don’t! Champagne and sparkling wine is meant to be fun and enjoyed with friends and the best of company, oysters don’t hurt either. Some people think that only the most expensive and austere brands of champagne are the best and that it is only catered to the super rich, when in fact it is specifically catered to people like you and me, we just have to find the right ones. I have most of the secrets here for you
Generally speaking champagne is made in house at the winery, but from selected vineyards and growers in or around Champagne, France. Some houses use up to 70 different bottles for each bottling. These famous houses make great champagne but are not focused on terrior (sense of place), they are focused on a good consistent product that tastes the same year after year. This is fine and if you want to spend over 300 bucks a bottle for one go ahead. But out of the 19,000 growers there is a small and focused group of about 5000 grower/winemakers that are emerging out of the woodwork of France and making some killer bottles of bubble. These guys are called Recoltant-Manipulants, and the bottles they make reflect this status by having the initials RM on the label. The cool thing about grower champagne is the winemakers approach to small production artisanal wines. They are focused on bringing the truth out of the land and letting the sparkler show its true colors without manipulation; to me this is the truest form of winemaking and craftsmanship. You can pick up some of these grower champagnes most of the time for well under a hundred bucks, Pierre Peters blanc de blanc is great for about 50. Be careful though, a lot of theses bottles are released a little too early and may need some time in your cellar.
In northern Italy lies Lombardy, a region not generally known for making wine in the Country. Inside Lombardy lies Franciacorta DOCG, which produces some of the best sparkling wines in the world. Franciacorta is comprised of 85% Chardonnay, 10 % Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), and 5% Pinot Bianco (a white genetic mutation of Pinot Noir) is made in the traditional method or Metodo Classico (charmat method), and (the important part) has to be aged for 25 months after harvest and 18 months on the lees in the bottle. This is all very similar to Champagne, and the wine shows it. Very balanced and elegant in general with hints of biscuit and nice firm acidity compared to Champagne they are more round and approachable very easy to drink but sometimes lack the complexity of its Cousin in France. May I suggest La Boscaiola brut for about $40.00, has some nice dried fruit characteristics complimented by a fruit driven apricot nose.
The USA certainly does not miss the boat on production of some stellar sparkling wine either. You need to be careful here though because we do produce a lot of over-manufactured gas-injected sparklers. You can still find awesome wine at great value here at home but you have to know what you’re looking for. Luckily you have me. Obviously California is the forerunner on all things grape, and they are definitely the standard in sparkling. Try Schramsburg blanc de blanc, for about 40 bucks you can pick up a cave aged, small lot, malo-lactic, barrel fermented beauty. Vibrant and fruity this wine will do well and age for the next 5-15. After all they drink it at the White House. If your in to getting really adventuresome, go to the old west, just south of Truth and Consequences, yes Truth and Consequences, New Mexico. The vineyard was planted in 1984 by a man named Gilbert Gruet, owner of French Champagne hosue Gruet et Fils, as he was traveling through the South-West United States. As taken from their website “At 4300 ft. the vineyards are some of the highest in the United States, so regardless of how hot the days might be, the temperature at night can drop as much as thirty degrees, cooling the fruit and slowing down the maturation process on an otherwise short growing season. Sandy and loamy soil, and a lack of humidity that might contribute to rot, give us a consistency of fruit year in and year out, and allow us to produce our award winning wines without the use of pesticides.” The last time I drank this Blanc de Noir, I had trouble discerning it from some of the best Champagnes I’ve ever had from France with fresh biscuits and strawberries, plenty of finesse and raspberry cream.
Throughout time Kings, Authors, British Spies, Dictators, Presidents, Actors, and Rappers have drank Champagne and all had something to say about it. Now it is your turn to take out the people you love to your favorite restaurant or pick up a bottle at your wine shop and make an evening out of just the bottle. No special occasion necessary, just get one you’ve never had before and don’t recognize by label and enjoy it, because drinking Champagne and enjoying it is a lifestyle, and you need to live it, trust me it’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made and I would love to hear about it.