Terra Sigillata

i-b2f8655c59996efe5031b1ec05e521d8-Champagne-Joseph-Perrier-200px.jpgIf you’re a scientist who still finds yourself employed, you might head out this weekend to pick up a celebratory bottle of your favorite $30 New Year’s bubbly only to find it priced at $35 or even $40. The declining value of the US dollar has certainly rendered champagne (French sparkling wine from the Champagne region) even more of a luxury than usual.

Perhaps you’re a grad student or postdoc wondering how you might afford something reasonable, maybe a couple of bottles of California sparkling wine – what should you pick without finding your purchase to be insipid swill?

Well, I’ve been surprised to see how little guidance has been given in the wine blogosphere this week to the issue of buying specific champagnes or other sparkling wines for New Year’s Eve. I’m big on drinking bubbly year-round and find that it’s one of the safest of any wine purchases (running a close second to port) due to the labor intensity of the process. I can give you some Champagne 101 but many sites already do that. Here instead is my guidance on how to select your New Year’s libations:

1. Decide how much you want to spend – $10, $20, $30, or more

2. Decide on the general style you like – sweet; crisp with fruity acidity; rounded, creamy and “biscuit-y”

3. Go to a good wine shop in your town that has a reputation for giving fair recommendations and tell them your answers to #1 and #2. This may be more difficult than it sounds depending on where you live – but any store worth its salt will have an expert who can translate your tastes and budget into two or three choices.

If you are fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, go to K&L Wines. If you don’t, go to K&L Wines champagne/sparkling wine website section – it’s too late to mail order from them but their descriptions of each wine are so detailed that you should be able to make a list to bring to your store to find at least one choice that is available locally.

If I’m splurging on true champagne, I like the creamy, rounded flavor that often comes with an older, and therefore more expensive, champagne. Despite being a scientist, I do not take tasting notes – I am a wine enthusiast but not necessarily a wine connoisseur – so, I did the next best thing to a scientific survey: I looked around Chez Pharmboy for empty champagne bottles. My reasoning is that if I saved the bottle, usually from some celebration like getting a grant awarded, we must’ve liked the champagne. The three I could find were:

Pommery Brut Royale – my perennial favorite; if I ever see it on sale I pick up a couple of bottles for anytime a manuscript gets accepted Used to be about US$35-40 for a 750 mL bottle but is now in the 40s and even low 50s (gasp!)

Tarlant Cuvee Louis – K&L currently lists it at US$49.99 (gasp, again!)

Louis Roederer Brut Premier – not to be mistaken with the California operation of the Roederer family, Roederer Estates, this is the French house that also produced the obscenely expensive ($170-210) Cristal that is so popular with hip-hop artists and talentless Hollywood bimbos (much to the dismay of Roederer, eliciting a boycott backlash by Jay-Z). Described by K&L as “rich and toasty” it is available there for the relatively reasonable price of US$36.99.

We also just received a gift of Taittinger La Francaise Brut Champagne that probably we’ll pop open this year – K&L offers it at a reasonable US$32.99.

Of course, I’m certain that these prices are sending many of you into convulsions. Indeed, if we didn’t get the Taittinger as a gift, we’d be looking for something well under $30. So what might work?

As I noted with Roederer, several French producers maintain operations in the US where they produce sparkling wine at a fraction of the French cost. For example, Roederer Estates Anderson Valley Brut is a lovely compromise, offered at K&L for US$16.99 although $23 is more representative where I live.

I’ve also long been partial to Gruet, a sparkling wine made in New Mexico (of all places) by the French family that has produced Gruet et Fils since 1952. You can usually find any of their offerings in the US$12-16 range.

Australia’s Seaview also makes a nice sparkler in the US$10-12 range. Other countries like Spain produce sparkling wines known as cava while Italy is known for prosecco and asti. Freixenet’s black bottle Cordon Negro from Spain is among the most widely distributed of these, also in the $10-ish range. There’s also sekt from Germany and other sparklers from South Africa and elsewhere – am I missing anyone?

Finally, don’t be put off by Korbel, the largest US producer of sparkling wines. After visiting Korbel a few years back, I was amazed at how they maintain such a high level of quality with the volume they produce. Their Sec is best for those who like some sweetness while their Brut is more popular. They even make a 100% chardonnay sparkling wine. While Korbel does have a premium line, most of their regular wines can be had for US$9-15.

Lots of choices, right? Well here’s an idea if you’ll have a few friends around for the celebration: Freelance food writer, Debbie Moose, just had a really nice article on hosting a champagne/sparkling wine tasting party. The idea here is to use New Year’s Eve as an occasion to mix up styles and learn what you really like. You may be quite surprised at the results.

And what food to have with champagne and sparkling wine? I’m a big fan of the classic pairing with a triple cream brie like Saint André and a crusty French baguette. If you’re fortunate to live where oysters are priced reasonably, you can’t go wrong with a selection of bivalves. But for other ideas, check out this great food & wine pairing feature at the site of Canadian wine writer, Natalie MacLean. First pointed out to me by my Friday Fermentable co-blogger, Erleichda, Natalie’s site Nat Decants is a great wine and food resource.

Now I know that we have readers around the world so I’d be interested for everyone to share their thoughts on their bubbly selections for New Year’s Eve below – also let me know if I overlooked posts from any true wine bloggers who cited their own champagne selections – thanks in advance!

Comments

  1. #1 Texas Reader
    December 28, 2007

    Gruet Brut sparkling white, less than $20 a bottle and made in the USA.

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    December 28, 2007

    In their Top 100 Wines article earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle led off with seven California sparklers. I was happy to see that they mentioned selections from Roederer, Schramsberg, and even Korbel (the rosé) but I noticed that I overlooked their two Iron Horse selections.

    Iron Horse makes some fabulous sparkling wines – I recall taking a faculty candidate to dinner at a restaurant where the then-winemaker at Iron Horse was pouring their various offerings. The candidate shared my zest for the fermented grape and also turned out to be an outstanding scientist. Against some faculty resistance, I fought for his hiring. He ended up getting tenure and was recently promoted to full professor. Hmmm…maybe I should hit him up for a bottle of Iron Horse?

  3. #3 Michel
    December 30, 2007

    The best French Champagne for what seem to be your taste(s) is the Brut reserve of
    Jean-Pierre Leguillette( at 12 degrees GL) at Charly -sur-Marne.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    December 30, 2007

    Michel, thank you so very much for your suggestion of Jean-Pierre Léguillette Brut Reserve. Unfortunately, I cannot find a supplier in the US so will have to wait until my next visit to France. I’ll contact the champagne house, though, to find out if they can ship to the US. It’s a shame because the prices are quite reasonable: 13,00€ for the Brut Reserve.

  5. #5 Gene Goldring
    December 31, 2007

    Veuve Clicquot has garnered my appreciation since the 70′s. A touch sweeter than Dom and great with white meats.

    Warning! Don’t drink sparkling wines after drinking beer. Beer being much sweeter renders the wine bitter to the taste.

  6. #6 michel
    January 1, 2008

    You might also try Michel Fagot at Rilly la Montagne. They have a wide selection of “likely” champagne. Different grapes entering into the different champagnes on offer.
    I don’t know if they supply to the States. Perhaps your ‘outstanding’ hire could order you some if so!!
    I admire and enjoy your lively blog.

  7. #7 Kristjan Wager
    January 1, 2008

    I actually drank a bottle of Pommery Brut Royale yesterday. It was quite nice, and certainly one I’ll drink again.

    Of course, I’d rather drink this one, which is actually very very good. I tasted it recently, and it was quite an experience (as was the Krug Grand Cuvee Brut Champagne). Of course, it costs closer to $300 here in Denmark, so it either takes a rather special occasion to drink it.

  8. #8 Abel Pharmboy
    January 3, 2008

    Excellent choice, Kristjan. And I didn’t necessarily mean to disparage Cristal; in fact, I would welcome the opportunity to try it.

    My best champagne experience to date was a gift of 1988 Dom Pérignon from some well-off friends (not scientists, by definition) on the occasion of my first tenure-track faculty appointment. As the old monk is purported to say, it was indeed like drinking the stars.

  9. #9 Erleichda
    January 4, 2008

    For New Year’s eve we opened the Gloria Ferrer “Blanc de Noirs” that was the favorite from amongst a few champagnes mentioned in the Pinot Noir column of a few months ago. At that time it was $17 but I think I paid a bit more last week. Since we’ll be seeing each other again in the near future, perhaps a glass of bubbly to start off the evening will be appropriate.

  10. #10 Kristjan Wager
    January 7, 2008

    Excellent choice, Kristjan. And I didn’t necessarily mean to disparage Cristal; in fact, I would welcome the opportunity to try it.

    Abel, if you drop by Denmark in about 8-10 years time, the bottle I have, should be just about right (the 2000 Cristal is a too young to drink now, according to the experts).