It seems so odd that most consumers drink champagne only at this time of the year when getting lit is less about the tree and more about celebrating the end of a year. No matter how much marketers try, champagne cannot shed its association with weddings, promotions, ship christenings, promotions, awards, success, and, yes, New Year's Eve. So, give in and indulge.
Whether you want to celebrate the holidays with a real champagne – our choice – or a knock-off, such as prosecco, is a matter between you and your pocketbook. Champagne is made only in Champagne; everything else is sparkling wine -- and the differences between the two are often more than just the name.
Despite its image of being expensive, market competition has driven down champagne prices. It is not uncommon to find the real thing under $50.
Perhaps the most inexpensive sparkling wine is prosecco, the Italian bubbly that has soared in sales. But the only thing it has in common with champagne are the bubbles. Prosecco, most of which is sweet, is made from the glera grapes unique to Italy while champagne comes from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. American sparkling wine producers have adopted the French varieties.
We have the Brits to thank for champagne. It started with a botched 17th century attempt to make still wine. French Benedictine monks bottled their wine when the weather cooled in the fall but before fermentation was finished. The bottles exploded when the fermentation resumed in the spring. This stumped the apologetic monks who tried to invent a better stopper. About ready to give up making wine, the monks were saved by the British – who loved what was called "the devil's wine" and who invented a stronger bottle.
That's just about enough information to get you through a cocktail conversation. Now, let's enjoy some real champagne over the holidays:
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($45). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this non-vintage, full-bodied champagne. Modestly priced as champagne goes, this classic example offers a nice yeasty nose with apple and pear flavors and a long pleasing finish. The blend is 60 percent pinot noir, 25 percent pinot meunier, and 15 percent chardonnay.
Palmer and Co. Rosé Reserve Champagne ($70). The red wine used to color this delightful rosé comes from a 30-year-old solera. Medium bodied from a blend of 49 percent pinot noir, 42 percent chardonnay, and 9 percent pinot meunier, it has pleasant berry fruit with a hint of spice and lively bubbles.
Champagne Taittinger Brut Millesime 2012 ($97). The 2012 vintage was challenged by Mother Nature with frost, hail and coulure, but what good emerged in evident in this luxurious blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. Fresh citrus notes abound in the nose and mouth with an intriguing hint of licorice. An astounding luxury wine if you want to spoil yourself.
Champagne Taittinger Brut La Francaise ($62). Using all three grape varieties grown in Champagne, this fine-tuned gem has apple flavors, white peach aromas and elegance. Elegant.
Henriot Brut Souverain ($45). We have such fond memories of this champagne house, now more than 200 years old, and were pleased to see its entry level champagne still offering a lot for the money. Elegant with brioche and almond aromas and sensuous flavors with citrus notes. Henriot's Blanc de Blancs ($60) with its intense nose and long finish is also an extraordinary experience to celebrate anything good in life.
Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut ($40). The house wine for this venerable producer, the Imperial Brut stands the test of time. It is a complex blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. If you want to give a welcoming message to your guests as they arrive, this is your ticket.
Moet & Chandon Imperial Rosé ($50). With a dash of color, this elegant rosé champagne, blended with all three grape varieties, offers generous berry aromas, peach and apricot flavors with persistent, fine bubbles and a lingering finish.
Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Premiere Cuvee ($50). This champagne house is rather unique – it wasn't founded until 1981 and produces even less wine than Krug. But the champagne is nonetheless impressive and comparatively well priced. "Extra brut" is drier than "brut" and often confused with extra dry – which is actually a bit sweet. Confused? Just enjoy the wine. Full-bodied and balanced, it has generous citrus and mineral notes with flavors ranging from pineapple to raspberries.
Champagne Collett Brut Art Deco ($42). Made by the oldest cooperative in Champagne, this brut is a blend of about 20 crus and demonstrates the elegance one seeks from champagne. Fresh with apple and tropical fruit notes.
Gran Moraine Brut Rosé ($50). From the Willamette Valley, this vibrant blend of chardonnay and pinot noir has an elegant pale pink color, bright acidity, apple/cherry flavors and a persistent finish.
Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux NV Brut St. Hilaire ($15-18). We’ve become big fans of the value priced sparkling wines from Languedoc produced by Domaines Paul Mas over the past several years. The Cote Mas Brut made from a blend of mostly chardonnay and chenin blanc with a bit of pinot noir and mauzac is a terrific sparkler presenting beautiful pear and lemon fruit elements with balancing acidity and lovely brioche notes. Great balance and very quaffable.
Le Grand Courtage Blanc de Blanc Brut ($20). Meaning "the great courtship," Le Grand Courtage is a brand created by Tawnya Falkner to symbolize a blending of American and French culture. It is made in Burgundy, so the grape varieties are different than those of Champagne. The blanc de blanc comes from chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and ugni blanc. Given the price, it's a lot better than many other sparkling wines in this category. Lots of apple and citrus flavors. It also comes in mini bottles (187 ml).
Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($22). Value priced, this Napa sparkling wine – a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot gris -- is simple and refreshing with a yeasty, stone-fruit nose and citrus and apple flavors.
J Vineyards Russian River Valley Cuvee 20 ($38). A classic blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this luxurious Sonoma County sparkling wine has almond and apple aromas followed by lemon curd and apple, cranberry flavors. This is a very classy and elegant sparkling wine.