Holiday bubbles that don’t break the bank, Chicago Tribune, December 17, 2003


Holiday bubbles that don’t break the bank

A short tour of sparklers proves you don’t have to spend top dollar

By Tyler Colman
Special to the Tribune

December 17, 2003

P. Diddy likes Cristal. He likes it so much that he has bought multiple bottles of the luxury Champagne at nightclubs while running up four-digit tabs.

Not all enthusiasts of sparkling wine have this entertainer’s budget. But do they have to break the bank for some bubbles?

The answer for Chicago-area consumers is clearly no. The local market provides many bargains thanks to the great number of area retailers vying for the sparkler dollar. Creative winemaking also has led to many sparkling wine values from around the world.

With the festive atmosphere this time of year it is common to break the bank but not always necessary. Yes, the prestige cuvees of Cristal, vintage Dom Perignon and Krug are wonderful, but they are in excess of $100 a bottle.

"Chicago is a very competitive market for Champagne, especially in December," says Jim Buckley, manager of Wine Discount Center on Elston Avenue.

Indeed, so competitive that some Chicago-area retailers sell some Champagnes below cost as a "loss leader" in an attempt to lure customers to buy other, more profitable products. For example, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (find this wine) sells at $30 at discount retailers, but some stores are selling it for $1 or $2 less, at cost or even below.

More bubbles for your buck

Since Champagne is so much about image, it has become essentially a branded product and therefore it pays to shop around. Not only do the large wine shops, such as Binny’s Beverage Depot and Sam’s Wines & Spirits, have sparkling wines at low prices, but discount retailers Costco and Cost Plus World Market also sell a lot.

Champagne, made of mainly chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, comes
from the same-name region 90 miles east of Paris. For some, there is no substitute. Tom Verhey, owner of Pops for Champagne, Chicago’s oldest Champagne bar, says that "difference is in the raw material." Verhey suggests that the sun, climate and soil of Champagne create a product that cannot be matched elsewhere in the world.

Fortunately for purists several choices can be found at about $25. Charles Stanfield, head of Champagnes and sparkling wines at Sam’s, says the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (find this wine; $24) will work for a broad audience since it is a "comfort zone Champagne, creamy in style." He also suggests one from a smaller producer, the Charles Ellner Carte Blanche (find this wine; $27), which is "crisp and inviting but has a good balance of fruit and acidity."

Buckley would also suggest two others to try: Oudinot Brut (find this wine; $18)—exclusively at Wine Discount Center—and Mumm’s Joyesse (find this wine; $24), which is a demi-sec, or sweeter style. Verhey also says that demi-sec is the drink of choice for dessert at his restaurant.

Perhaps a better way–than simply price shopping–to find a bargain is to venture out to the rest of the world, such as California sparkling wine, Italian spumante, Spanish cavas and German sekt.

"Do not fear them," encourages Stanfield.

From California to Australia

California has turned into a leading producer of good-quality sparkling wine. Although this style used to be brash and fruity, it has matured gracefully given its short history. Roederer Estate (find this wine; $15), from the California arm of the producers of Cristal, sparkles as a stand-out value from the cool climes of the Anderson Valley. A constant migration of Roederer winemakers between the American and French branches has meant that they have "raised the bar and shown what can be done" in California, according to Verhey.

Spumante, which in Italian simply means "sparkling wine"—not necessarily sweet—has an approachable and friendly style, according to Stanfield. Two of his picks from Italy are the Pojer & Sandri ’95-’96 (find this wine; $14), which is a brut style with a touch of minerality, and the Riondo Prosecco (find this wine; $8), with hints of melon, honey and pear that make it "great for a brunch."

Spain has long been the home to great sparkling wine values with its cava. Although slightly different in taste because the grapes varieties of Champagne are rarely used, the British love it. It has rocketed to 47 percent of their sparkling wine market in a decade. Buckley recommends the Louis de Vernier. Its honey and spicy pear aromas make it "a real crowd pleaser." Another cava to consider is Marques de Monistrol (find this wine; $7).

Stanfield urges exploration beyond the beaten path. Two sparklers deserve close attention for those with wanderlust. From Luxembourg, Bernard-Massard (find this wine; $11) is an appealing dry rose. And merlot, a popular red varietal, receives a sparkle and a dash of port in Gibson’s Barossa Vale from Australia (find this wine; $24). This unusual combination makes it "really worthwhile with a big, rich, heavy finish—truly a wine of contemplation," Stanfield says.

And from Germany, Stanfield recommends the 2001 Schloss Schonborn Spatburgunder (find this wine; $11), a 100-percent pinot noir sparkler with "plenty of nice, rich dark fruits with a golden color that would go great with ham."

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, the point is to explore all price ranges and countries.

A final key way to avoid overpaying for bubbly is to assess the end use. Will the sparkling wine go into mixed drinks such as mimosas? Or will it be a gift that ends up forgotten in a cupboard?

Stanfield advises, "Don’t give a hug when a handshake will do."