In Praise of Cheap Champagne

Think you need to spend $50 or more to enjoy good bubbly? These days many vineyards are producing superb wines that don't cost a fortune

If the marketing gurus who play such an important role in the champagne business had their way, the term "inexpensive champagne"—or even worse, "cheap champagne"—would be banished forever, outlawed as an impossible oxymoron. Champagne, unlike any other wine, is marketed, promoted, and sold as a luxury product, the viniferous equivalent of a Rolex watch if you like, and the companies that make these magic bubbles spend a great deal of time, energy, and money burnishing this deluxe image.

So the idea of "cheap" champagne is anathema to these guardians of the sacred champagne flame.

The only trouble is, there is an awful lot of good, or at least drinkable, fizz coming from places other than the Champagne region of France these days, and it's getting better all the time.

It was this inexpensive sparkling wine I explored recently, both the cheaper champagnes and their imitators from the rest of the world. I set an arbitrary upper limit of about $45 for the bottles of champagne I tasted and was greatly surprised, in both good and bad ways, by what I discovered.

Fine U.S. Fizz

The most remarkable of these discoveries was the large variation in the quality of the nonvintage champagne between $30 and $45. The three good ones that made it into the accompanying slide show, and the two Heidsiecks that almost did (more on them in the slide show), were superb, with real depth and complexity of flavor that made them worth the extra money. However, several of their competitors proved to be thin and uninteresting. Why pay the champagne premium for these torpid offerings when you can get a better bottle of bubbles from California for less?

The next surprise was just how very good several American sparklers are, both those made by the California outposts of French champagne houses—Domaine Carneros, Mumm Cuvée Napa, and Piper Sonoma—and their homegrown competitors. The strength of these wines is in the $25 price range—light, clean, and uncomplicated fizz. However, once they start pushing toward $40, they run into competition from the good champagnes and don't hold up so well.

But first, a note about what is champagne and what is not. Under French and EU law, and increasingly honored international agreements, to be called champagne, a wine has to conform to a pretty exacting set of rules. It must be made from three specific varietals of grape grown in a rigidly defined area of northeast France. First, the base wine is made in the normal way, blended, and bottled. Then a dollop of additional yeast and sugar is added just before the cork is inserted. This sets off a secondary fermentation in the sealed bottle, trapping the resulting CO2 as tiny bubbles dissolved in the wine.

Pinot Noir Punch

This is known as the méthode champenoise and is how the best sparkling wine is made, whether in Champagne itself, Italy, or California. However, if it isn't made in the Champagne region, it can't, or shouldn't, be called by that name. In addition, it used to be common to see the term méthode champenoise on good sparkling wine from other regions. Recently, however, the champagne enforcers started objecting to the use of the all-important C word in even this context, so these days you are more likely to see the term "Traditional Method", or the French or Italian equivalent, on the bottle.

Now that we've settled that, among these less expensive domestic sparklers I found myself favoring those with a high proportion of pinot noir in the cuvée, probably because this varietal gives the wines a weight and substance lacking in the other blends.

Finally, my objective was to find the inexpensive sparkling wines that most tasted like fine champagne, and this proved a disadvantage to the products of Italy and Spain—Prosecco and Cava, respectively—which have their own distinctive styles, and legions of fans, but which don't taste particularly champagne-like.

Click here to see the best inexpensive champagnes and sparkling wines.

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