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Cheap Champagne Buying Guide
Champagne is generally associated with feelings of euphoric excess and the events that prompt them -- weddings, New Year's Eve celebrations, birthdays, promotions. Even if you're in the mood to splurge, does that mean giving up on the pursuit of a cheap champagne? Certainly not, we'd argue, because there's plenty of good cheap champagne to go around.
The challenge, however, lies in knowing what you're buying.
Cheap champagne ... Does such a thing exist? During our research we noticed that experts pose this question as well. Is cheap champagne really champagne at all?
Officially, champagne is sparkling wine produced according to a traditional method (methode Champenoise) first adopted in the Champagne region of France. And only sparkling wines that are produced in Champagne, adhere to this process, and meet rigid quality standards may be called Champagne. Other bottles of bubbly, although similar in appearance and perhaps in effect, fall under the category of sparkling wine. Laws that govern the labeling of wines in the European Union are quite strict, and while other producers may follow the methode Champenoise, this process does not technically produce Champagne. Some sparkling wines produced in California may be legally labeled champagne, but in general, sparkling wines bear names that are identified with their country of origin, such as cava from Spain or Asti Spumante and prosecco from Italy.
But does the name matter? "Does a grape by any other name taste as sweet?" As any frugal champagne lover will tell you, looking past the label is one of the best methods for keeping cash in your pocket and off the counter. Still, you'll want some assurances that the bottle of cheap champagne you're buying is worth drinking. If you're not prepared to pop for a minimum $20 a bottle for the real stuff, you'll have to make do with sparkling wine. The label on a bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine should give some clues about its quality; some labels, but not all, mention the origin of the grapes, the level of sweetness, the alcohol content, and perhaps the flavor notes. Knowing how low price champagne is made can make all the difference, and when possible, choose a bottle whose contents were produced using the traditional French method -- this should give you a close approximation of the true taste of champagne. Such detail on a label, however, is rare.
Based on our research, we'd advise looking for cheap sparkling wines (a.k.a. cheap champagne) from Spain, France, and California. The best inexpensive sparkling wines we found are Roederer Estate NV Brut (starting at $20), Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut NV (starting at $13), and Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry (starting at $10) because of their fruit and finish. One that doesn't appeal is Korbel Brut (starting at $10) due to its tart finish and sour aftertaste.
The tendency of wine to sparkle was considered a flaw by winemakers in the Middle Ages because the internal pressure caused bottles to burst; the reverberating effect of one bottle exploding could destroy an entire harvest and financially devastate a vineyard. But by the 17th century, the production of reinforced glass bottles combined with the use of an ancient Roman technique for producing corks meant sparkling wines could be kept stable. Although the French were slow to embrace the sparkling nature of wines, they ultimately perfected the process. Today, true Champagne must adhere to strict laws pertaining to place of production, production process, and quality of the finished product. In other words, bottles labeled Champagne must hail from the French region of the same name and be made according to the process now known as methode Champenoise.
Winemakers in many countries have since adopted the same process and introduced others to produce their version of Champagne, which technically is considered sparkling wine. French sparkling wines coming from outside the Champagne region are distinguished by the French terms "Mousseux" or "Cremant"; one example is Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut (starting at $14.95). Other varieties of cheap champagne include American sparkling wines such as Roederer Estate Brut NV and Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut NV; cava sparkling wine from Spain like Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry; Asti and prosecco sparklers such as Castello del Poggio Barbera d'Asti (starting at $12) from Italy; and 50o N Sekt Weiss NV (starting at $12), a Sekt sparkling wine from Germany.
Champagnes Bubbles.The abundance of sparkling wines produced in the champagne style is one reason why you'll find many good cheap sparkling wines. However, experts note that not all bubbly passes as a substitute Champagne. The method by which sparkling wines develop bubbles can significantly affect the taste and texture of the finished product.
The making of the best sparkling wines begins with grapes picked early in the season when sugar levels are lower and acid levels are higher. The base wine, or cuvee, is assembled from already fermented wines and then subject to a second fermentation. It is during this second step that bubbles of carbon dioxide are created and the wines begin to diverge in terms of taste and quality.
In the traditional method, fermentation occurs in the bottle after the addition of yeast and sugar; Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry is a cheap sparkling wine that adheres to the traditional methode Champenoise. Alternatively, producers use large tanks for the second-stage fermentation; much of the sparkling wine produced in Italy is tank-fermented, as are the super-cheap sparkling wines produced in the U.S. The length of this secondary fermentation varies and affects the quality and price of the resulting sparkling wine. Experts at Dummies.com note that tank fermentation is shorter than bottle fermentation and tends to produce lighter, fruitier tasting wines that are less costly than bottle-fermented sparklers. Another means of producing bubbles calls for injecting carbon dioxide into the base wine through a process similar to that used for soft drinks. This approach creates large bubbles that dissolve quickly and is generally considered to produce lower-quality sparkling wines. One example is an American-made carbonated white wine called Mt. Pleasant Ten Bucks (starting at $12).
Champagne Sweetness.Champagne and sparkling wines are rated by level of sweetness, from least to most. Brut natural refers to wines with less than three grams of sugar per liter; extra brut contains up to six grams of sugar per liter; brut has up to 12 grams of sugar per liter; and extra dry is a touch sweeter than that. These days brut and extra dry are the most common, and the three best cheap sparkling wines on our list are either brut or extra dry. The label on any bottle of cheap champagne should indicate the sweetness level you'll find inside. Note that rose sparkling wine is often mistaken as sweeter because of its pinkish hue, but that's an assumption that doesn't always hold true.
Best Cheap Champagne
Roederer Estate NV Brut
Roederer Estate Brut NV, from California, is celebrated by critics and consumers for intricate notes of fruit that add depth to a full-bodied base. The sparkling wine is made from oak-aged reserves and is described as an excellent approximation of the real thing.Read more »
Korbel Brut is readily available and often put forward as a cheap option in the sparkling wine category. Experts say the bubbles are rough and consumers complain of a tart, short finish and a sour, plastic-like aftertaste although some consider it an option for champagne cocktails.Read more »
Castello del Poggio Barbera d'Asti Review
50o N Sekt Weiss NV Review
Mt. Pleasant Ten Bucks Review
Korbel Brut Review
Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry Review
Roederer Estate NV Brut Review
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut NV Review
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