Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop Once a Year Champagne Buying!

 Picture yourself on New Year’s eve at three in the afternoon, I know it’s early for such thinking, but bear with me. You will be heading to a party in about four hours and are obliged to pick up a bottle of Champagne and you know your host/hostess loves the Champagne with the yellow label, or perhaps the one with ornate flowers on the bottle. You may be doing this alongside a dozen other people looking for a Champagne with a yellow label, or perhaps they are looking for the one with the ornate flowers on the bottle.

Now go forward and ask one of the clerks where the Champagne is, suffer through while they wearily inquire as to if you want true Champagne from France or sparkling wine. They will be wearily asking this because they have spent the previous six hours providing "Sutter House / Barefeet California Moscato" to people asking for Champagne. Now if you specify true French Champagne, your eager salesperson’s eyes will light up, and then you may watch this brief moment of elation fade from said clerk’s face as you say, “I think it has a yellow label.” They will point you to the wine you seek, try and suggest a few other things you’ve never heard of on the way, and then slink back to the warehouse dejectedly when you depart with the same Champagne the last six customers that hour have left with. You’ll be out $50 and there’s a very good chance you’ll see at least one or two other bottles of the same wine at your party. But when midnight rolls around you get your 5oz of a fifty dollar bottle wine, you can continue to wonder what the fuss is about Champagne.

Don’t let this happen to you, for the love of god, don’t let it happen.

So why bring up this scenario in the dead heat of summer right around the beginning of August? Because this will give you plenty of time to try a handful of sparkling wines before December 31st, save some money in the long run, and enjoy a whole host of new wines.

The most interesting sparkling wine I’ve had recently is the one pictured above, Les Granges Paquenesses. It was a Brut Chardonnay cremant du Jura retailing for $20 and, in my opinion, vastly more delicious and interesting than the last Moet I had. This is not to say the Moet I had was bad, however, economically speaking, I would have been much happier with two bottles of Les Granges rather than one bottle of Moet. Like other main stream wine producers, big Champagne houses consistently make generally good quality wine from year to year and that is fine, although it also creates a problem. Consistency and the luxury image of each brand become more important than creating an interesting product at a reasonable price... hey, Aunt Jemima always tastes the same too.

Now since it is only the beginning of August, here’s your chance to find a really good sparkling wine that may not be immediately recognized at your New Year’s party. However, if you are more concerned with how you look walking in the door with a recognizable label, you needn't read further.

Step 1: Don’t think of sparkling wines as only a celebratory beverage, treat them like you would any other wine. Instead of waiting for a special occasion or meal, open your bottle of bubbly with a few friends on a weekend afternoon over grilled cheese. Try it with anything battered and fried, seriously, fried chicken and Cava for example; bubbles are a great way to lighten up fat in food. Open a bottle of drier style Lambrusco with grill pizza after mowing the lawn, it’s damn refreshing. (Although she enjoys Lambrusco, Beth says she is happy not to have to mow the lawn now that we live in an apartment.)

Step 2: Try a few different price points, places, and styles. When sparkling wine comes from parts of France that aren’t Champagne you will often see them labeled as Cremant du Jura, Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de... you get the idea. There are lightly sparkling wines from Italy labeled frizzante that don’t have the full carbonation of regular bubblies; one example is Garofoli’s Guelfo Verde which is topped with a beer bottle top and blends local verdicchio with better-known chardonnay. Or stick with Champagne, but ask whoever you trust locally for wine selection about “Grower Champagnes.”

Step 3: Keep an open mind. Try sparkling wines from places you’ve never heard of, perhaps grapes you’ve never heard of as well. Try them in colors you’ve never tasted before, they come in white, red, and rose with each of these colors having both dry and sweet versions. And don’t write off all the dry ones or all the sweet ones because you think you don’t like dry or sweet wine.

In this world of craft beer, farm to table restaurants, and local farmer’s markets maybe it couldn't hurt to approach bubbly with a similar approach. After all, Francois Chidaine’s Sparkling wine from Montlouis is produced in quantities of fewer than 8000 cases a year and many of Theirry Theise’s Grower Champagnes don’t make more than 5,000 - 6,000 per year. With the big Champagne houses making quantities of wine in the range of 500,000 - 2,000,000 cases of wine a year, they won’t go hungry if you try some smaller producers or lesser known sparkling wines.

Now go forth and explore!

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