Drinking the stars

sparkling wine sparkling wine

The Naked Vine Guide to Champagne and sparkling wine

By Mike Rosenberg

Photo: “There’s nothing quite like the ritual of cracking open a bottle of celebratory bubbly.”

Dom Perignon, the monk who popularized the concept of carbonated wine apocryphally stated, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” upon opening a bottle in the wine caves of his monastery. Now, generations thereafter have shared that particular sensation, especially around this time of the year, when the loud pop of a cork accompanies celebrations large and small.

As party season cranks up, you might get called on by your friends to “pick up some Champagne” for your next soiree. The word Champagne is, for all intents and purposes and most people, a stand-in term for all sparkling wine—much like Coke in the South translates to “any kind of soda/pop.”

Champagne, remember, is not a grape varietal or type of wine. It’s the region of Northern France where this style of wine originated, and where the most famous and most expensive versions of this sparkling wine—like Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon, and the aforementioned Dom Perignon—are produced. If you go to the wine store and ask for Champagne, you might get steered over to this rack, where you’ll be staring at a bunch of French names and pricetags starting at 40 or 50 bucks.

“Waitaminit!” you say. “I’ve seen Korbel Champagne in the store! Isn’t that Champagne?” Nope. It’s sparkling wine made in California that was labeled for years as Champagne as a marketing ploy. In 2006, a trade agreement outlawed labeling US wines as Champagne unless they’d been using that as a traditional trademark—but they were still required to relabel their wines as “California Champagne.” Sparkling wine that’s not from the Champagne region, be it from California or elsewhere, is now generally labeled “sparkling wine.”

Getting back to the French stuff, and getting down to brass tacks, in all honesty, Champagne can be a real rip-off. Yes, Champagne is wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to try a few high-end champagnes and they’re delightful. They’re flavorful and sensuous, but completely overpriced for my semi-educated palate. I say this since, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re likely not going to be doing vertical tastings of high enders like Krug or Pol Roger anytime soon. Still, why are these wines so darn expensive?

Simply put: brand loyalty.

We pay a premium for these wines because of the name on the label—it’s no different from buying clothes, cars or headphones. In some cases, the quality of actual Champagnes might be slightly higher than other sparkling wines, but at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, are you really thinking about doing a Parker-esque pull-apart of the various flavors? I thought not. If you’re opening vintage Champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve, you’re either showing off, or you’re at a ritzier party than I’m ever invited to.

That said, there’s nothing quite like the ritual of cracking open a bottle of celebratory bubbly. Good news! Consumption of sparkling wine increased sharply in the first half of this decade. (We must be in a collective mood to get down!) Because of this increased demand, there are many options that allow you to have a good experience while still maintaining a grip on your fiscal sanity.

Unlike most reds and whites, many sparkling wines do not have vintage dates as they’re often made from blends of wines from different years to produce a consistent product. Vintage wines often command higher prices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better.

Also, remember the wine’s sweetness level is on the label. The traditional French nomenclature for sparkling wine is more or less the standard. The ones you’re likely to see are—from sweetest to driest—Doux (sweet), Demi-Sec (semi-dry), Sec (Dry), Extra Dry, Brut. Yep, Brut is drier than dry. There are actually two other even drier levels—Extra Brut and Brut Nature, but you’re unlikely to come across those.

What you will come across, however, are plenty of alternatives to higher-end stuff. Here are a few that you’ll be able to find without too much trouble:

We’ll start in France. Crémant (pronounced cray-mahn) has come to refer to French sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region. Most Crémant is produced with the same methode Champenoise process that Champagne is, often with the same grapes. The big difference is these are more everyday, French sparkling wines, and usually can be had for between 10 and 20 bucks.

Over to Spain. Cava is my go-to inexpensive sparkling wine. This sparkler is produced in the area around Barcelona. The name “Cava” stems from the caves in which these wines were originally stored and aged. These wines are also produced in the same method as Champagne. I find most Cava to be crisper and somewhat more acidic than the creamy gentle bubbles in the French versions. Cava is also quite inexpensive. For a typical bottle of Cava, if you’re spending more than $15, you’re overpaying.

Prosecco & Moscato are the Italian sparkling entries. Prosecco is the more “traditional” version of sparkling wine, and you’ll typically find it nestled next to the Cava in your local wine store. I find it to be fruitier and slightly sweeter than other sparkling wines, which I think makes it a better option for an early evening palate cleanser or morning-after mimosas than for cracking at the end of the year, but your mileage may vary. Moscato, whose popularity boomed in the early 2000’s, is a sweet, peachy, low-alcohol sparkling wine that—as a wine-savvy friend once put it—“you could drink for breakfast.”

Now for the United States. While some more expensive versions of California Champagne are decent, in general, they’re best used for christening boats or hosing down your friends after winning the sports contest of your choice. That said, there’s no shortage of high quality bubbly within our own borders. In my experience, the highest quality stuff comes from Northern California, and can be every bit as expensive as its French counterparts. However, there are many of these California products you’ll find in the $15-20 range that are very serviceable for any occasion.

The bottom line is, unless you’re really wed to the idea of having traditional Champagne for whatever your occasion may be, you’ll have good luck finding alternatives that won’t break your bank. So snag some bottles and pop your corks. You deserve it.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.

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Mike Rosenberg
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.

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