It’s not surprising that Champagne is the traditional tipple for New Year’s parties: The wine of kings has a luxurious reputation that elevates even the most plebeian celebration, and its cheerful little bubbles seem to promise a bright, sparkly future. But as 2011’s annus pretty-damn-horribilis transitions into 2012, it is hard to justify shelling out a small fortune for a bottle of genuine French Champagne.
Still, if the idea of ringing in the New Year with cheap substitutions like J. Roget or Korbel leaves you feeling flat, don’t worry: There are plenty of other sparkling options out there.
Prosecco and Cava: The Classic Standbys
Lorena Ascencios, the wine buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits says that, when it comes to great sparkling wines at a great price, the best choices are “Prosecco and Cava, hands down.” Prosecco, produced in Northwest Italy, comes from glera or prosecco grapes. “It’s a good sipping sparkler,” Ascencios notes, with outstanding bottles available in the $10 to $15 range.
Part of the reason that Prosecco is so much cheaper than Champagne lies in its preparation method. Champagne is produced through a process called methode champenoise, in which it’s fermented twice — once in a barrel, and a second time in its bottle. Prosecco also has a two-stage fermentation method, but the second fermentation happens in a large steel tank. Afterward, the sparkly wine is bottled under pressure.
The Prosecco production process — called the Charmat method — costs less than methode champenoise and results in wines with larger bubbles. Ascencios likes Scu Do, which her store sells for $8.96 a bottle, and Mia, which costs $6.96. While these tend to be sweet, some Proseccos are drier: Castelir, for example, costs $16.95 a bottle and offers a more sophisticated flavor.
For those who prefer a more traditional champagne flavor, Cava is also a great option. Ascencios describes the Northeastern Spanish wine as “dry, with mineral flavors more attuned to salty foods, snacks, and seafood.” Unlike Prosecco, Cava is often made through methode champenoise, which produces a drier bubbly. Not surprisingly, Cavas can be a bit more expensive, but Ascencios notes that there are some great deals available for under $15. She especially suggests Casteller, which Astor sells for $11.96 a bottle; Naveran, which costs $14.96; and Savia Viva, which costs $8.96.
Find the Real Thing … for Less
While there are lots of great sparkling wines available for under $15, for some people, only true French bubbly will do. As with any other purchase, brand-name Champagnes often cost more than lesser-known gems. But the price difference doesn’t necessarily reflect a higher quality wine. Large Champagne companies often spend a lot of money on promotion, passing the cost on to the consumer. By comparison, Ascencios notes, smaller brands often “are just doing what is second nature to them — giving phenomenal value for the price.”
Some especially good deals include Michel Loriot Blanc de Noir, which Ascencios’ store sells for $36.96 a bottle; Pierre Brigandat non-vintage brut, which retails for $32.96 a bottle, and Brigandat Rose, which costs a bit more, at $39.96 a bottle.
Go Farther Off the Usual ‘Wine Country’ Map
Another method for getting a good bottle for less is to search among more obscure wine-making regions, which often produce outstanding vintages for less than their better-known cousins. For example, Hungary’s Torley Winery has been producing sparkling wines since the 1800s, but its relative obscurity means its offerings can be real bargains. Tess Lampert, a representative of the Blue Danube wine company, notes that Torley’s Gala wine “offers fruity flavors and loose bubbles,” much like a Prosecco. Its Hungaria Grand Cuvee, on the other hand, is bottle-aged — like a Champagne — and has a “yeasty” flavor and “tight, small bubbles,” much like the French wine.
Vintners from around the world offer sparkling wines that are surprisingly good and surprisingly low-priced. So when it comes to finding a great wine for New Year’s Eve — or for any day, for that matter — Ascencios offers great advice: “Don’t be afraid of something you don’t recognize. There are a lot of interesting wines off the beaten path!”
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.