Choosing a Cheap Champagne or Sparkling Wine
Champagne is generally associated with feelings of euphoric excess and the special occasions that prompt them -- New Year's Eve celebrations, weddings, birthdays, promotions. Even if you're in the mood to splurge, a large crowd or a tight budget can prompt the pursuit of cheap Champagne. But does such a thing exist?
Officially, Champagne is sparkling wine produced according to a traditional method, known as méthode champenoise, first adopted in the Champagne region of France. Laws that govern the labeling of wines in the European Union are quite strict, and while many producers follow the méthode champenoise, this process alone does not technically produce Champagne.
Only sparkling wines that are produced in Champagne, adhere to this process, use the permitted grapes, and meet rigid quality standards may be called Champagne (with a capital "C"). Other bottles of bubbly, although similar in appearance and perhaps in effect, fall into the category of sparkling wine. If you're not prepared to shell out a minimum $25 for a bottle of the real stuff, you'll have to make do with Champagne-style sparkling wine. From France to Spain, Italy, and California, there's enough excellent bubbly to go around for $10 or less.
Some sparkling wines produced in California may be legally labeled champagne (lower-case "c"), but in general, sparkling wines bear names that are identified with their country of origin, such as cava from Spain and Asti or prosecco from Italy. French sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region are distinguished by the terms "Mousseux" or "Crémant." But does Champagne by any other name taste as sweet? Looking past the label is one of the best methods for keeping cash in your pocket and off the counter. Still, frugal consumers want some assurances that the bottle they're buying is worth drinking.
To find the best budget bubbly this year, we turned to our resident wine expert, Tess Rose Lampert, a New York City-based wine and spirit judge and educator. Her top picks are Segura Viudas Brut Cava ($9) and Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava ($10) from Spain, followed by Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava ($9) and Mionetto Il Prosecco ($10). All four deliver satisfying flavor, mouth feel, and finish.
In addition to those top picks, frugal consumers might consider Cornaro Prosecco Treviso Extra Dry Spumante ($10), a charming and sophisticated crowd-pleaser with hints of lime. The Barefoot brand's prosecco ($9) stands as a solid go-to with a stone fruit and citrusy flavor that lends itself nicely to toasting, as well as mimosas. For bubbly made with red grapes, try the fruity yet dry Castell d'Or Cossetània Brut Cava Rosat ($10). Or sample an Italian red sparkler like Cantina di Sorbara Lambrusco Amabile ($10), Riunite Lambrusco ($7), or Mionetto Il Lambrusco ($10), which can be nice for a festive sangria or sipping chilled on their own. Barefoot Bubbly Moscato Spumante ($9) is a good option for something sweet. One cheap variety that doesn't appeal is Korbel Brut ($10), owing in part to its tart, sour aftertaste. Other inexpensive bottles deliver a more pleasant experience for the same price.
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Sparkling Wine Reviews: What We Considered
In our research we consulted wine experts and referred to retail sites such as Wine.com and Wine Access, which compile customer reviews and expert ratings from outlets such as Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits. Other sources of sparkling wine reviews include the enthusiast social-networking site Snooth, community tasting notes on Cellar Tracker, and blogs such as Serious Eats. Oftentimes information appears in roundups of the best sparkling wines by expert sources and mainstream media such as The New York Times, rather than reviews of the individual bottles.
Sparkling wine reviews are generally laudatory in regard to our recommendations. Remember, though, there's no substitute for personal taste. Use reviews and tasting notes as a guide, but trust your own palate. You can certainly find an inexpensive bubbly that satisfies on a tight budget.
Production Method.The comments we read online indicate that experts and consumers tend to favor products that closely imitate the qualities of real Champagne. Whether sparkling wine is fermented in the bottle or in a tank makes a significant difference in the taste, quality, and often the price of the product. In the traditional method, a second fermentation of the base wine occurs in the bottle with the addition of extra yeast and sugar. This closed air fermentation forces carbon dioxide back into the wine in the form of bubbles, giving sparkling wine its frothy and crisp texture, as well as a yeasty flavor from contact with the added yeast. Spanish cava is produced using this method and required by law to be aged at least nine months. Our two top picks are aged much longer: at least 15 months for the Segura Viudas Brut Cava, and Freixenet sends its Cordon Negro Brut to the cave for up to 18 months. Many wine drinkers looking for a dry taste that closely resembles champagne choose cava as their preferred substitute.
Alternatively, producers use large tanks for the second fermentation, which creates larger and looser bubbles, less of a yeasty flavor, and more primary fruit flavors from the base wine. The tank method is also known as the Charmat method after its Italian inventor, and a great portion of the sparkling wine produced in that country is tank-fermented -- including most proseccos, like our top pick the Mionetto, and the majority of lambruscos. Most cheap sparkling wines produced in the U.S. also rely on tank fermentation. The length of this secondary fermentation varies and affects the quality, flavor, texture, and price of the resulting sparkler. In general, the process is faster than bottle fermentation and tends to produce lighter, fruitier, cheaper wines.
Another means of producing bubbles calls for injecting carbon dioxide into the base wine through a process similar to that used for soft drinks. This approach creates large bubbles that dissolve quickly and is generally considered to yield lower-quality results.
Sugar Content.Champagne and other sparkling wines are rated by level of sweetness. "Brut natural" refers to wines with less than 3 grams of sugar per liter; extra brut contains up to 6 grams of sugar per liter; brut has up to 12 grams; and extra dry is a touch sweeter than that. The sweetest sparkling wines are sec, demi-sec, and doux. These days the most popular is brut, which provides a balance between dry and sweet; extra dry is also common. Most of the best budget sparkling wines we researched settle in the brut realm. For those looking for something a tad sweeter but not overbearing, the Mionetto Il Lambrusco is considered fairly dry and can certainly be served alongside a heavy meat meal; some even suggest pairing the Cantina di Corbara Lambrusco Amabile with pizza to turn takeout into a toast-worthy event. The Cornaro Prosecco Treviso Extra Dry Spumante pairs well with starters and cheese. Finally, for those with a sweet tooth, Barefoot Bubbly's Moscato Spumante is a low-alcohol sipper that's essentially adult soda and works well as an aperitif or dessert.
Availability.We tried to stick with sparkling wines that are, for the most part, widely available or not too hard to find -- although consumers might have a bit more trouble locating the Cornaro Prosecco and the Castell d'Or Cossetània Brut Rosat. There are confirmed sightings of the Jaume Serra Cristalino cava at Trader Joe's in the past, and our top picks are liquor-store stalwarts.
That said, wine drinkers looking to branch out can procure some high-quality, inexpensive imports seen on select restaurant menus but rarer in U.S. stores from sources such as Astor Wines in New York City. The store, which offers online ordering and ships to many states, works directly with wineries to cut some of the costs that would make bringing in cheap wines from abroad a losing proposition for many businesses.
Two sparkling wines that likely would have made our list if they were more widely distributed are Mia Prosecco ($7) and Scu Dò Prosecco ($9). The Mia Prosecco, which offers refreshing fruitiness and a subtle bubbly texture, is one of Astor's top-selling sparklers (after Veuve Clicquot).