The French word for “celebration” is Champagne. Well … not really, but it should be, because the two words are almost synonymous. Case in point: Drink a bottle of Champagne with another person at a restaurant and someone will probably ask you, “What are you celebrating?”
Although Champagne is drunk throughout the year to celebrate anything and everything – even the end of a hard day – it is particularly popular for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Almost a quarter of all Champagne sales take place in December.
However, Champagne – the real stuff that comes from the Champagne region of France – is not cheap and not everyone can afford it, even for the holidays. For those with Champagne tastes but beer budgets, the good news is you can still find affordable ways to add a little effervescence to your holidays.
Not all that sparkles is Champagne and bubbles from other regions can offer that same sense of celebration at half the price or less. Here’s a primer on sparkling wines for every budget level.
Budget level: Dollar General
Recommendation: White wine spritzer
If you find yourself in a difficult financial situation around the holidays and you cannot afford sparkling wine, let alone Champagne, do not fret; you can still have some bubbles over the holidays using the DIY system. Yes, you are going to make your own bubbles.
Start with any white wine you can afford; if it comes in a gallon jug, all the better. Then add sparkling water of some kind. Seltzer is the purest because it is nothing but water and carbonation with no additives, but you can buy pretty much any flavorless sparkling water (Hey, maybe one is on sale!).
The basic white wine spritzer recipe is two parts wine to one part sparkling water. Voilà – you have a cocktail with bubbles! After that you can get creative and add a garnish wedge of any fruit or even some fruit puree. If you want to be really thrifty while creating a delicious fruity flavor, you can add a little of the juice from the tinned fruit cocktail you are serving as the dessert for your holiday meal.
Budget level: Kmart
Recommendation: Charmat method sparkling wines
There are two basic methods for making sparkling wine: the traditional method that involves allowing the secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles to occur inside the bottle, and the Charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in pressurized stainless steel tanks. There’s also a method where carbonation is added to a still wine, similar to the way Coca-Cola is made, but that is the cheap stuff only winos drink, so we will skip that one because you are better off drinking white wine spritzers anyway.
The Charmat method is used to produce most Proseccos from Italy and inexpensive sparkling wines from other countries like Chile, the United States and even France. Sparkling wines made with this method tend to be a little sweeter than Brut Champagne, or at least fruitier.
Charmat method sparkling wines are great for brunches – and feel free to add a little orange juice for a mimosa – or as a welcome drink for a dinner.
Budget level: ‘Targét’
Recommendation: Cremant method sparkling wine
Sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the traditional in-bottle secondary fermentation process are sometimes called Cremant, particularly in France. Many countries produce sparkling wines using this method, and some of them are not only excellent in quality, but a fraction of the price of Champagne. Traditional method sparkling wines usually exhibit the creaminess for which Champagne is known because of contact with the lees – the particulate matter left from the addition of yeast to the bottle before capping.
These sparkling wines are perfect for holiday cocktail parties where you need many bottles but do not want to spend too much.
Because they are generally aged less than Champagne, sparkling wines like Cremant tend to be fresher and less complex, making them a good option for groups that have less discerning palates. They are not recommended for service to your potential in-laws, but once you are married, they are a fine option.
Budget level: Saks Fifth Ave
Recommendation: Non-vintage Champagne
There’s nothing quite like real Champagne. Yes, there’s an element of prestige in Champagne, but its charms go beyond status perception. Because of the chalky soil and growing climate in Champagne, the sparkling wines made there have unique characteristics that no others can match.
Serving non-vintage Champagnes like Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Moët & Chandon or any dozens of others to your guests during the holiday season tells them you care, but also that you have enough money to care. Of course, it also says you do not care enough about them or don’t have enough money to serve them vintage Champagne, but heck, who can blame you for saving the best stuff for yourself?
If you are serving real Champagne, it’s good to know some Champagne etiquette. In France, opening the bottle so that it gives you a loud “pop” and the cork goes flying is considered bourgeoisie, not to mention potentially dangerous. Instead, try to open the bottle so that there’s just a slight sound of the release of air, kind of like a sigh. To do this, hold the bottom of the bottle with one hand and the cork with the other and slowly turn the bottom of the bottle. As the cork starts to come out, put enough pressure on the cork that it eases out, with just the faintest of sounds.
Once the bottle is open, slowly pour Champagne into the lower lips of glasses tilted at 45-degree angles. Only fill a glass to about three-quarters full. When drinking, hold the glass by the stem so that your hand does not warm the glass.
Finally, if you do not finish a bottle quickly enough and it goes flat, for goodness sake, don’t throw it away. Champagne is, at its core, good wine and why would anyone throw away good wine?
Budget rating: Budgets? We don’t need no stinkin’ budgets!
Recommendation: Vintage Champagne
So, you are rolling in dough and you want Champagne for the holidays. While it’s not recommended to serve 50 or more guests 1998 Dom Perignon at a holiday cocktail party unless you really have more money than you know what to do with, vintage Champagne is the pinnacle of the beverage.
Most commercially available Champagnes are blends of at least three vintages of still wines. By making non-vintage Champagnes in this way, they are fairly consistent, year after year. A bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier released this year is going to taste pretty much like one from any other year.
It’s different with vintage Champagnes because they come from wines produce from grapes grown in a specific year and are therefore subject to vintage variations. If the climatic conditions for a given year were not that good, then a vintage Champagne from that year will not be that good. This is why the great Champagne houses only produce vintage Champagnes in good years, using wines produced in off years for blending with their non-vintage Champagnes.
Vintage Champagnes are best for special occasions and the biggest days of the holiday season. They are most perfect when shared with one other person, the Santa Claus of your life.