Now that you've got those holiday appetizer ideas ready to go, it's time for a toast. Let's give it up for those festive fizzes known as Champagne and sparkling wine.
Besides being the traditional beverage for ringing in the new year, sparkling wines are beloved for their food friendliness, fine craftsmanship and bubbly nature. They're also a symbol of conspicuous consumption, the prop of too many music videos, leading to a belief that a bottle of bubbly has to be a big-ticket purchase.
True, hundreds of dollars can certainly be spent on a fine bottle of Champagne from Krug or Cristal. The good news is that you can buy a great bottle of sparkling wine that'll satisfy your special occasion without breaking the bank. After a week of shopping and tasting through sparkling wines, along with chatting with experts, here's a gift to you: a list of fine sparkling wines that are all under $20.
But there's one thing you should know: None of these can be called Champagne because they are not produced in the Champagne region of France using the méthode champenoise, the process of making effervescent sparkling wines. Due to the cost of importation and the relatively small quantities produced, a quality Champagne under $20 is just about an oxymoron.
"Good Champagne is not cheap," said Max Levitte, the co-founder of Cheapism. com, a website that scours the Internet for the lowest prices on products. "But it's been found that if you tell people something is expensive, they will likely say it's better. On the other hand, in blind tasting, people often preferred wines that were not as pricey."
Levitte's team at Cheapism sampled through a variety of sparkling wines and found some favorites. One was Roederer Estate Brut, a nonvintage California sparkling wine that can be found for $16 to $20. Tasters noted its "excellent approximation of the real thing."
Cheapism also recommends Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut, a producer that previously won best of show at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. (See Mike Dunne's column on the winery, above.) Look for a price that's closer to $15, with bright citrus flavors and a hint of sweetness.
When it comes to domestic sparklers, The Bee also recommends Domaine Carneros Brut, a crisp sparkler made of pinot noir and chardonnay that can be found at wine shops for about $18. Sparkling wine shoppers should also look for the lineup from Gruet, a New Mexico-based winery that produces many wonderful bottles for less than $20.
In the wider wine world, look to Spain for its national sparkling wine known as cava. Created with the méthode champenoise and using grapes such as macabeo and parellada, these sparkling wines offer a reasonable amount of flavor for a rock-bottom price. While these aren't usually complex sparklers, they'll do just fine for a simple toast or aperitif.
The mass-produced Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry scored with Cheapism tasters for its balance of fruity and tart flavors, and a nice sticker price of about $8. In that price range, The Bee suggests a bottle of Jaume Serra Cristalino Cava. Wine & Spirits has named Jaume Serra as a "value brand of the year," and you'll find a straightforward and pleasing taste of tangy citrus with a lively effervescence.
Also on the lighter side, consider prosecco. This national sparkling wine of Italy generally comes with a lower alcohol percentage than traditional sparkling wines, somewhere under 12 percent, and it's noted for fruitiness and pear flavors. You'll find many proseccos under $20, but one The Bee recommends is Riondo Prosecco. This crowd- pleasing prosecco, with its apple and citrus flavors, costs about $16 and was once rated 90 points by Robert Parker.
You can still look to France for sparkling wines that might better fit your budget. Burgundy's answer to Champagne is crémant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine that must contain at least 30 percent chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot blanc or pinot gris.
The Louis Bouillot Blanc de Blancs is a thoroughly refreshing crémant de Bourgogne, with a lovely lemon and grapefruit flavor that's crisp on the palate. Michele Hébert, a wine writer for Midtown Monthly, recommends this one as well in her latest column. With that amount of tastiness and a price tag around $16, you and your guests will surely be charmed.