Popping open a bottle of celebratory bubbly for the holidays or the start of the New Year doesn't have to be an extravagance.
While a top-notch bottle of Champagne can cost upwards of $100 (and often, closer to $200), experts say it's relatively easy for shoppers to get a great value for far less. "There are those who come in are looking for the big names and there are those looking for the best damn bottle you can buy for the money," said Tom Geniesse, owner of Bottlerocket, a wine and spirits shop with locations in New York City and Westport, Conn. "Those are two different recommendations."
The first question to consider: Do you really want Champagne? Or will another kind of sparkling wine do? That's a common confusion, said Tyson Stelzer, author of "The Champagne Guide 2014-2015." All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne, which is produced exclusively in that same-named region of France. "For the most part, Champagne commands a higher price," he said.
But shoppers can find great values in sparkling wines produced using the Champagne method elsewhere in France, such as Crémant de Bourgogne (from Burgundy) and Crémant d'Alsace (from Alsace), said Sam Doyle, sommelier at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, N.J. Bottles can often be had for under $20 a bottle. "Even in California, there are places making really great sparkling wines," he said. For example, there's Roederer Estate, a subsidiary of French Champagne house Louis Roederer. Distributor BevMo! has Roederer Estate's nonvintage brut for $27.99 a bottle.
"Cavas from Spain can be insanely inexpensive, given their quality," said Geniesse. "They really do a great job for the price point." His pick: Cristalino, which costs just $9.
If you'd prefer Champagne, look beyond the known brands. "There are a number of tiny growers that make their own Champagne," said Geniesse. "You're not paying for the marketing budget of a big house." Check reviews and ask wine shop reps for recommendations.
Scrutinize vintages. Most Champagnes are nonvintage blends, reserving more expensive vintage bottles for years when the grapes are exceptional, he said. Even then, some years are better buys than others. "You have got to be really selective," Stelzer said. "Great vintages like 2002, 2004 and 2008—particularly 2008, it's the vintage of the decade—are the ones where people are more likely to get a beautifully perfect Champagne." He said 2003 and 2005, in comparison, aren't as impressive.
Buying a magnum of Champagne can also offer more bang for your buck. Not in price—a 1.5-liter bottle is as expensive as two 750-ml bottles, if not more so, said Stelzer. It's the quality. Part of the process for making Champagne is a secondary fermentation in the bottle. "A Champagne in a magnum is one that usually holds its freshness better," he said. The bubbles are often smaller, too, because the bigger bottle still has a standard-size cork, reducing the wine's exposure to oxygen.
Whatever you spent, get your money's worth by serving sparkling wine properly. "Don't pour it straight out of the fridge," said Stelzer. Serving it too cold dulls the flavor, so take the bottle out of the fridge at least a half hour ahead to let it warm to cellar temperature (52 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit). When opening, release the cork slowly so there's a hiss rather than a pop, he said. That keeps the bottle from frothing over, which is a waste of wine that can also affect the flavor.
Pick the right glass—which incidentally, isn't a flute. "Wines really should be tasted in something that has a bowl to it," said Doyle. A white wine glass is the better bet for showcasing the aromas and flavors of the sparkling wine, he said, although the bubbles will dissipate a bit faster.