Eats and Drinks
The French would have you believe champagne is the “real” stuff and will charge you a premium for its prestige.
Published: December 19, 2012
My late father-in-law and I were members of a frugal fellowship. “I don’t mind paying for something,” he’d say, “but I hate getting victimized.” He loathed seasonal purchasing imperatives—posies on Valentine’s Day, say—and the dark specter of price-gouging that loomed over them. His auld acquaintance comes to mind when I’m springing for champagne at New Year’s. I resolve to buy good bubbly without taking a bath.
That pretty much scratches “champagne” off my shopping list, at least in the circumscribed way European trade laws use the term. By their standard, only sparkling wine from northern France’s 130-square-mile Champagne region can claim that name. They’ve been making bubbly there since the 1600s, although not initially by design: Cold weather often halted fermentation in fall, while the wine still had unfermented sugars; when the bottled wine warmed up the following spring, fermentation resumed, capturing pressurized bubbles inside. Frequently, corks blew or bottles exploded, destroying as much as half a year’s production. Not until the 1830s did winemakers master secondary fermentation and make bubbles an unmixed blessing.
The French would have you believe champagne is the “real” stuff and will charge you a premium for its prestige, with an entry level in the $35 range. But there’s an extraordinary diversity of cheaper options. Virtually every wine region in the world bottles sparkling wine, and it comes in white, pink, and red. Bars across Italy pop inexpensive prosecco to kick off happy hour. Australia produces sparkling red shiraz that the Aussies quaff with food grilled on “the barbie.” I’ve recently enjoyed elegant, affordable bubbly from such unexpected origins as New Mexico and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Even France offers thrifty alternatives like Crémant de Bourgogne and Blanquette de Limoux—the latter’s history predates champagne’s.
For traditionally made sparkling bargains, the cavas of Spain reign. One of my favorites comes in a clear bottle that shows off its festive hue: Segura Viudas Brut Rosé ($9 at Wells Discount Liquors, 12 percent ABV, seguraviudasusa.com) pours the color of ruby grapefruit, its fizz streaming steadily. Wild-strawberry and bread-crust aromas precede a medium-bodied palate of raspberry and cranberry, with yeasty endnotes. Its price-quality ratio hits the spot, and I buy it by the case (scoring a 20 percent discount at Wells) for Christmas gifts. My late CP colleague Pam Purdy—no stickler for trade law—often recited the classic toast, “Champagne to our real friends, real pain to our sham friends.”
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