Champagne and other sparkling wines generally are consumed in greater amounts during two different months each year – June at weddings and graduations and December at Christmas parties and on Dec. 31 to celebrate a new year.
Festive events call for a celebratory beverage and wine with bubbles has always been seen as de rigueur for such joyous moments, probably because the cork removal’s thwock signals a happy time.
For most wine lovers, capital-C Champagne is the best choice because of its complexity and old-world classic “yeasty” nature. This is the go-to celebratory beverage along the Eastern Seaboard because historically it was the only bubbly sold there. It wasn’t until the 1970s when California began to make quality sparklings that rivaled the French stuff and not until the 1980s when quality California sparking wines began hitting the East Coast.
Even as good as the California stuff was, most East Coast wine lovers had already developed a taste for Champagne, so California bubbly, even the best, remained an afterthought.
To this day, French Champagne sells better on the East Coast even though it is more expensive than is California’s quality bubbly.
As tradition-laden as all bubbly is for New Year’s celebrations, it may well be inappropriate to consider top-rate Champagne throughout the course of a New Year’s Eve.
First, of course, is the reality of price combined with the need for a lot of wine.
When a sports team wins a major championship, it is rare to see Roederer Cristal (national average price: $225 a bottle) being shaken and sprayed. For such celebrations, far more reasonably priced beverages are the norm.
Also, when there is a large crowd of people and the idea is to serve the wine for hours leading up to midnight, not only is cost a major factor, but at such gatherings few people take the time to appreciate the subtleties embodied in top-level, reserve-quality wines.
There is a lot of unconscious consumption going on.
Where people are milling around, eating finger foods, watching snippets of a football game on television, playing with the dog, or preparing a repast, no one comments on how the 2004 is so much better than the 2001.
It is for times like these that Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, and other inexpensive bubblies are best used as Champagne substitutes. Prices are usually reasonable and the quality of these two products has risen dramatically in the last several years.
Among the more popular alternatives we have seen the last two years are wines from Burgundy, Alsace and the south of France (such as Cremant) that can be found for well under $20 per bottle. And a few brands of Prosecco can’t even be found at about $10.
There are literally dozens of such products available at supermarkets, package stores, and especially in fine wine shops.
For those who are seeking something a bit different in a bubbly, Germany make some sensational sparkling Rieslings under the name Sekt, most of which typically sell for less than $20 a bottle.
Chances are these will not be available as widely as other sparklings, but they can be fascinating and usually are very fairly priced.
Wine of the Week: NV Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling ($16): The aroma of melon and apples and a hint of pear makes this floral wine a crowd-pleaser. Just slightly sweet, it would work nicely with rich seafood dishes in which cream sauces play a role.