Why You Should Pay More for Champagne (And What to Buy When You Can’t)

Valentine’s day. Easter. Halloween. New Year’s Eve. What do all these holidays have in common? They each drive some of the highest yearly consumption of a single product. As we approach the end of the year, Champagne dominates the wine media headlines. Everyone wants to know what to drink at New Year’s and heaven forbid us journalists leave our readers wanting for advice.

krug_gc.jpgJust as with the so-called “rosé season” annually proclaimed to exist somewhere between the end of May and the beginning of September, the intense interest in Champagne this time of year leaves me somewhat bemused. Like rosé, Champagne ought to be drunk year-round in copious quantities, simply because it is some of the most food-friendly, versatile wine on the planet.

Everyone is willing to make a toast on New Year’s or at a wedding with a glass of bubbly, but a lot of people don’t drink it much more often than that. One of the reasons that I believe more Champagne does not get consumed year-round is that many people don’t like the way it tastes.

Nor should they. A lot of Champagne is bitter and nasty. In part, this (at least for me) explains the current boom in Cava and Prosecco consumption here in the United States, as these two sparkling wines from Spain and northern Italy historically tend towards the sweeter end of the spectrum, and are a lot easier on the American palate.

Like many consumers, it took a long time for me to enjoy Champagne. Not because it is particularly an acquired taste, but because more than with many other styles of wine, you really get what you pay for. For years in my early adulthood, I would confidently tell people that I didn’t care for Champagne. To my amazement one day, I found out what I really meant was that I didn’t care for cheap Champagne. You see, I had just never had any of the good stuff.

Generalizations are dangerous in any domain or discourse, but I’ve found few things in the wine world more reliably true than what I’m about to tell you. You need to pay at least $40 to get a good bottle of Champagne. Have I had good bottles that cost less? Absolutely. When I find them, like the stuff made by Ayala that you can find as cheap as $32 a bottle, I tend buy them by the dozen.

But if you’re able to pay $50, $60, or even $70 a bottle for Champagne, you can put yourself onto an entirely different plane of taste, texture, and experience.

Why is good Champagne so expensive, and why would it be worth paying for? I’ll do my best to answer this question, and if paying so much for a bottle of bubbly is a non-starter for you, just stick with me and I’ll tell you where to go looking for decent bubbly that won’t break the bank.

Any good wine, made with an artisan approach, won’t be cheap purely because to make good wine costs money. Leaving aside the cost of the land itself, which in some regions (such as Napa) all but guarantees wines will never fall below a certain price point, the labor and equipment required to make wine is expensive. Vineyards take a lot of skilled labor to maintain and keep healthy. From tractors to the buildings that house the barrels to the barrels themselves, the equipment used to make wine costs a lot of money. And then there’s cash flow. If you’re going to age your wine, as is helpful to make fine wine of all kinds, then you not only need to buy barrels and pay for vineyard labor for the year you’re going to put into the bottle, but before you sell that wine, you may need to do the same for the next vintage, and the next. And of course, you need to pay rent on wherever you’re going to keep those three years of barrels while you’re waiting for the wine to be ready to go into the bottle.

And that’s just for a nice bottle of Cabernet. Sparkling wine ends up being a bit more complicated.

Of course, you can just make some early-picked wine, stir in some sugar to cut the acidity and then carbonate it, which, if you’ll forgive that description’s brevity, is how most cheap sparkling wine is made. But this doesn’t make for much more than a glass of bubbles that tastes vaguely like wine. If you want to make Champagne, or sparkling wine in the traditional method that region pioneered, you need to ferment the wine twice: first in barrels or tanks to turn your early-picked grapes into a highly acidic wine known as vin clair, and then a second time in individual bottles with a dollop of yeast that will create the bubbles under the seal of a crown cap (like you’d use to close a bottle of Coke®).

And then, according to your desire for flavor and quality, you may age that wine “on the lees” (in contact with that yeast residue) for many years. During that time, you’ll also need to riddle each bottle, a process that involves (either by hand or machine) turning the bottle in special racks to accumulate that yeast residue into the neck so that when it comes time, you can disgorge the yeast, top up the bottle and put in the final cork. Some of the best Champagnes are aged in their bottles for more than a decade before they are released for sale. This extended aging (known as tirage) can turn a good wine into a transcendent one. Of course, there’s more to Champagne than extended tirage. Some of the best wines being made today aren’t, in fact, aged for very long in the bottle, but instead are the products of impeccable farming, masterful blending and increasingly, very specific sites.

But back to my point. The labor, storage space and time required to make a good Champagne simply costs more. And then in the case of Champagne (and other imported wines), the bottles need to be shipped across the Atlantic in temperature controlled shipping containers and then imported into the US after paying the requisite taxes.

And lets face it, when you’re paying for Champagne, no matter which producer you’re buying, you’re also paying a brand premium. The word “Champagne” itself adds to the price of the wine, just as much as the word “Napa” does. That premium is reflected in the price of the land, housing, and the overall cost of doing business in the region.

belluard_perles.jpgNo wonder, then, that it’s nearly impossible to find a Champagne that costs less than $20 and, in my opinion, few really good ones that cost less than $40. While of course there are exceptions, the wines from Champagne that manage to break that $40 barrier are often made from lower quality grapes, farmed in an almost brutal way with excessive use of pesticides and herbicides, aged for the minimum amount of time possible and then dosed with a bit of sweetness in an attempt to balance the wine out. The result is a wine with nice bubbles often followed by a sweet and bitter bite that can be a bit cloying to start, and end up finishing harsh and angular after a few seconds. While it doesn’t fully fit that description, the Champagne that many people splurge on, Veuve Cliquot with its distinctive orange label, represents a poor value at $50 or more per bottle, and offers a good counterpoint to my generalization. Just because you’re paying more than $40 per bottle, you aren’t guaranteed to get something good.

If you manage to spring for something north of $40, instead of the mass produced brand names like Veuve Cliquot, you should instead drink wines like the NV Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” at $49 a bottle, or the NV Philipponat Brut Royal Reserve at $45.

If you can spend more, though, you can experience the magic of what Champagne truly has to offer, from the incredible minerality of a NV Frederic Savart “l’Accomplie Premier Cru” Brut ($60) or 2004 Pascal Douquet Mesnil sur Oger Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs ($80); to the freshly baked brioche richness that can only come from extended tirage in the likes of a Krug Grand Cuvee ($145) or a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($114).

But if you (quite understandably) can’t bring yourself to spend that much on a bottle of bubbles, I’ve got you covered. Of course, Champagne isn’t the only place that makes great (and expensive) sparkling wines. Good sparkling wine gets made in many of the world’s wine regions. Some of the best California sparkling wines and Italian sparkling wines now command the same kinds of prices as do Champagne. But even in these regions, as well as some other spots around the globe, decent bottles of bubbles can be found for less than $30. The reasons these places and producers can make less expensive sparkling wine range from the simple economic realities of lower land prices and cheaper grapes, to less rigorous aging regimens and simply less recognition on the world stage.

Whatever the reason, thankfully the wide world of wine, skillfully navigated, can make up for the lack of decent cheap Champagne.

Let’s start with the far-ff corner of France known as the Savoie, where one of my favorite wine producers in the world, Dominique Belluard also happens to make a little bit of sparkling wine from the Gringet grape variety found in the region. His NV Belluard “Les Perles de Mont Blanc” will set you back a mere $25, and its a wonderful crushed stone and apple/pear mouthful that is unlike anything you’ve ever had before.

Chenin Blanc is one of the hot grapes right now amongst sommeliers and wine geeks, but the focus generally remains on the dry and off-dry versions produced in France’s Loire Valley. Less well known are the sparkling wines made from the same grape, but all the better for anyone looking for a wine that drinks well above its weight. Benchmark producer Domaine Huet makes a positively stellar version that goes for a song. Find the NV Domaine Huet Petillant Brut for around $23.

Still in France, Alsace is known for its Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, but insiders know that it grows decent Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc as well, some of which gets made into a sparkling wine known as Cremant d’Alsace. In my experience the best examples of this wine are actually the rosés, such as the reasonably easy to find NV Pierre Sparr Cremant d’Alsace Rosé ($19).

Much of what Spain’s Cava region produces is unremarkable, but quality producers have begun to make names for themselves, perhaps none more so than Raventos i Blanc, who produce some of the best Cavas I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Their 2015 Raventos i Blanc “L’Hereu” Brut is an absolute steal at $19 a bottle.

Finally, while the best Italian sparkling wines are unfortunately just as expensive as the best Champagnes these days, a few producers are making really high quality sparking wines that trade at reasonable tariffs. Among my favorites is Ferrari, whose vintage Ferrari Perle Brut can be enjoyed for somewhere around $30 or $35.

And last, but certainly not least, there’s the wine I recommend whenever anyone asks the nearly impossible question, “How can I drink decent sparkling wine for under $20 a bottle?” More than a few weddings have avoided bankruptcy by using the Roederer Estate Brut from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley for their wedding toasts. It’s hard to imagine how Roederer manages to produce such a consistently drinkable bottle for under $15, but they do, and very few California sparkling wines even twice the cost approach its quality.

I hope you enjoy your toasts at the end of the year, but more importantly, I hope you’ll manage to discover some sparkling wines that will keep you drinking the bubbles long after the first of the year. If you haven’t explored the charms of Champagne with your fried chicken, or sparkling wine with your popcorn, well then you’ve got some further resolutions to make.