Bubbles (what else?) to ring in the New Year
By Eric Asimov
For years, sparkling wine producers around the world have argued, with success, that bubbly should not be limited to celebrations and festive occasions. It’s a wine like any other, they’ve asserted, and should be opened just as you might for reds and whites, with meals or while relaxing with friends.
They’re correct, of course. Champagne and similar sparklers are versatile with food. Champagne in particular is great with fried chicken and other fried dishes, with sushi and even popcorn and pizza.
Nonetheless, bubbly remains the beverage of choice for celebrations. The pop and pour, the rush of bubbles and foam into the glasses and the lively tingle as you take a swallow — it all signals joy and togetherness like no other wine.
Having written year-end pieces on sparkling wines annually for years, I thought I might switch it up for 2022 and focus on something else that felt celebratory, like great sweet wines.
That thought lasted for a hot moment. Everybody wants sparkling wines this time of year. I want sparkling wines, too. (Even though a wonderful Sauternes, Tokaji Aszu or riesling beerenauslese can be sublime.)
Only one obstacle stands in the way of Champagne being everybody’s choice to ring in 2023: the price. Growing worldwide demand for Champagne, which is made only in the Champagne region of France, has sent the prices of certain coveted producers soaring, while good entry-level bottles are hard to find for less than $50.
Fortunately, lots of great sparkling wines are made outside the region, often available for significantly lower prices. Lower cost, however, is far from the only reason to look for options beyond Champagne.
Almost any place in the world that makes wine makes sparkling wine as well. Sometimes, these bottles are facsimiles of Champagne, made by the same methods, often with the same trio of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Many sparkling wines from California and Oregon, England and northern Italy fit into these categories, though good examples will bear the mark of the place it was produced rather than come off as imitations.
More typically, sparkling wines from around the world are made with local grapes, sometimes using Champagne production methods, in which finished wine undergoes a second fermentation in bottles that provides the bubbles. These can be highly distinctive. Good sekt from Germany is made this way with riesling, as is cava from Spain, often with some combination of the local grapes xarello, parellada and macabeu.
But pétillant naturel undergoes just a single fermentation, which is completed in bottles. This is often referred to as the ancestral method. Many inexpensive sparkling wines like Prosecco and Lambrusco undergo a more industrial process, in which the second, carbonation-inducing fermentation takes place in large tanks.
This is not necessarily bad, but still, when you can find a Prosecco or Lambrusco in which the second fermentation took place in the bottle, it can be a great thing.
I recently went shopping in New York for sparkling wines, both Champagne and otherwise. The stores abound in good choices. I’ve singled out an armful in each category to recommend, which barely accounts for a tiny fraction of the good bottles I can name.
For Champagnes, I stuck mostly with entry-level bottles to keep costs down. I also looked for an entirely different selection than I offered last year, so don’t hesitate to look at past columns for additional recommendations.
I also stuck with grower-producers in Champagne rather than the big producers, but plenty of bigger houses make great Champagnes, too. Look at them for more options. I’ve got a perennial guide to Champagnes as well.
Here are my 13 recommendations, from least to most expensive in each category. Whatever you choose to drink, please have a happy and safe New Year.
Loxarel Sàniger Classic Penedès Brut Nature Reserva 2019, 12.5 percent, $15
It’s hard to imagine a better deal in sparkling wine than the Loxarel Sàniger Brut Nature Reserva, a Spanish sparkling wine made with the classic grapes — xarello, parellada and macabeo — all biodynamically grown. Loxarel (an anagram of xarello) has been farming biodynamically for almost 20 years, and the quality shows up in the clear, pure herbal and floral aromas and flavors. Loxarel is one of those producers who no longer use the term “cava” because of its connotation of poor quality. Instead, it uses “Classic Penedès,” which comes with strict rules requiring organic certification, 15 months of aging on the lees and vintage dating. (Classic Wines, Stamford, Conn.)
Punta Crena Colline Savonesi Lumassina I.G.T. 2020, 11 percent, $22
Lumassina is a white grape grown rarely in Liguria these days because it ripens late and is not as assertively aromatic as vermentino. But Punta Crena maintains the tradition of growing lumassina, using it to make this excellent sparkler. It’s fresh, delicately floral and subtle, dry and, at 11 percent alcohol, it goes down easily. The Ruffino family, which has tended vineyards in Liguria for centuries, farms, the family says, the way every farmer did when “organic” simply meant farming. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.)
Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées F.R.V. 100 Rosé NV, 8.5 percent, $22
Here’s a different spin on a year-end sparkler, a lightly sweet rosé pétillant naturel that is balanced, playful and refreshing. Jean-Paul Brun, an excellent Beaujolais producer, makes this wine entirely with gamay. It’s low in alcohol and tastes like red berries and apples. Serve with fruit or dessert, or, really, any time. By the way, the name F.R.V. 100? Give each letter and the number 100 their French pronunciations — eff, ehr, vay, cent — and it comes out like “effervescent.” (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
Anima Mundi Camí Dels Xops Penedès 2021, 12 percent, $25
Agustí Torello Roca is the winemaker at AT Roca, an excellent cava producer in the Penedès region of Catalonia. One of his side projects, Anima Mundi, makes small lots that explore the terroirs of the Penedès through pétillant naturel, all, as with AT Roca, made using organically grown grapes. Camí Dels Xops is a blend of macabeu and xarello. It’s deep and resonant, with aromas and flavors of flowers and citrus. (José Pastor Selections/Llaurador Wines, Fairfax, Calif.)
Domaine Huet Vouvray Pétillant Brut 2017, 13 percent, $32
Huet, the great Vouvray producer, has long made this wonderful sparkling wine. You could call it a pétillant naturel, though Huet does not use the term. It’s beautifully balanced and fine, with aromas of hay, straw and flowers and the honeysuckle sweetness of chenin blanc, though it goes down dry. As with all of Huet’s wines, it’s made entirely of grapes grown biodynamically. (The Rare Wine Company, Brisbane, Calif.)
Ridgeview Sussex Cavendish Brut NV, 12 percent, $37
This wine is made with the leading trio of Champagne grapes — pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier — in the same way as Champagne, with a second, fizz-inducing fermentation in the bottle. It might even fool you into thinking it’s Champagne. But it’s not. It’s English sparkling wine, made in Sussex, and compared side by side with Champagne, differences emerge. It’s a little more brisk and tense with acidity, as English sparklers often are, garden fresh, well balanced and delicious. “Please, sir, I want some more.” (Banville Wine Merchants, New York)
Ployez-Jacquemart Champagne Extra Quality Brut NV, 12 percent, $50
This small family producer makes fine Champagnes that seem simultaneously rich and delicately textured. The Extra Quality Brut is the entry-level bottle, a blend of 50 percent chardonnay along with 25 percent each of pinot noir and pinot meunier. It’s creamy and saline, with aromas and flavors of citrus and flowers. (Bowler Wine, New York)
Chavost Champagne Blanc d’Assemblage Brut Nature NV, 12.5 percent, $53
Most cooperatives in Champagne make large amounts of routine wines, primarily for supermarkets. Chavost is an anomaly. It’s a small cooperative that produces natural wines, made without commercial yeasts or any additions, even sulfur dioxide, the widely used stabilizer and antioxidant. It’s a risky approach, but the results are excellent. This cuvée is primarily chardonnay, with 20 percent pinot meunier and 3 percent pinot noir. It’s bone-dry and chalky, well-balanced and deliciously refreshing. (Terrestrial Wine Company, Manhasset, N.Y.)
Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Sainte-Anne Brut NV, 12.5 percent, $60
Since Alexandre Chartogne took over this old family estate in 2006, Chartogne-Taillet, in Merfy, northwest of Reims, has gotten better and more precise. It now makes exceptional cuvées from the entry-level Sainte-Anne up through its top bottles, which include a series of single-vintage wines. Sainte-Anne is roughly equal parts pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier aged in oak. This bottle, mostly from the 2019 vintage, is bright, fresh and vivacious. (Skurnik Wines, New York)
Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut NV, 12 percent, $60
Unlike the rest of the Aube in the southern reaches of Champagne, where pinot noir is the primary grape, Montgueux, tucked away west of Troyes, is chardonnay territory, and is known mostly through the wines of Jacques Lassaigne, the leading producer there. Les Vignes de Montgueux, the introductory cuvée, is typical of what Montgueux can offer, a rich, plush blanc de blancs that is nonetheless elegant and sleek. (Jenny & François Selections/U.S.A. Wine Imports, New York)
Vilmart & Cie. Champagne Grande Réserve Brut NV, 12.5 percent, $62
Vilmart & Cie. in the Montagne de Reims has long been one of my favorite grower-producers in Champagne. This estate ages its wines in oak vats and the Champagnes are generally complex with the potential to age well. The Grand Réserve, the entry-level cuvée made with 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, is superb: taut and energetic, rich, creamy and elegant. (Skurnik Wines)
Dhondt-Grellet Champagne “Dans un Premier Temps …” Extra Brut NV, 12 percent, $68
Under Adrien Dhondt, who recently took over this family estate, Dhondt-Grellet has made a name for itself as an up-and-coming producer. This introductory cuvée, 50 percent chardonnay, 30 percent pinot noir and 20 percent pinot meunier, is bright, lively and subtly complex. Dhondt-Grellet farms using organic and biodynamic methods and ages reserve wines in a solera system, in which wine from the new vintage is added each year, replacing whatever is withdrawn for blending, building up complexity over time. (Grand Cru Selections, New York)
Lelarge-Pugeot Champagne Les Charmes de Vrigny Extra Brut NV 12 percent $77
For eight generations, the Lelarge family has been farming in the Vrigny region in the Montagne de Reims in Champagne. For so old a family, they are in the Champagne vanguard today, farming biodynamically and aging their reserve wines in a solera. This cuvée, half pinot meunier with 30 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay, is aged for 11 years in the bottle before release. It’s taut yet creamy with chalky flavors of citrus and herbs. (Super Glou, Accord, N.Y.)