Best Cheap Champagne
Champagne is generally associated with feelings of euphoric excess and the special occasions that prompt them -- New Year's Eve celebrations, weddings, birthdays, promotions. Even if you're in the mood to splurge, a large crowd or a tight budget can prompt the pursuit of cheap Champagne. From France to Spain, Italy, and California, there's enough excellent bubbly to go around in the under-$10 range. The challenge lies in knowing what you're buying.
Cheap Sparkling Wines Buying Guide
Cheap Champagne -- does such a thing exist? Officially, Champagne is sparkling wine produced according to a traditional method, known as methode Champenoise, first adopted in the Champagne region of France. Laws that govern the labeling of wines in the European Union are quite strict, and while many producers follow the methode Champenoise, this process alone does not technically produce Champagne.
Only sparkling wines that are produced in Champagne, adhere to this process, and meet rigid quality standards may be called Champagne (with a capital "C").
Some sparkling wines produced in California may be legally labeled champagne (lower-case "c"), but in general, sparkling wines bear names that are identified with their country of origin, such as cava from Spain and Asti or prosecco from Italy. French sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region are distinguished by the terms "Mousseux" or "Cremant." But does Champagne by any other name taste as sweet? Looking past the label is one of the best methods for keeping cash in your pocket and off the counter. Still, frugal consumers want some assurances that the bottle they’re buying is worth drinking.
To find the best budget bubbly this year, we turned to our resident wine expert, Tess Rose Lampert, a New York City-based wine and spirit judge and educator. Her top picks are Segura Viudas Brut Cava (starting at $9) and Delacroix Blanc de Blancs Brut (starting at $8), followed by Scu Ḍ Prosecco Brut (starting at $9) and Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava (starting at $8). All four deliver satisfying flavor, mouth feel, and finish.
In addition, frugal consumers might consider other cheap sparkling wines: Miquel Pons Montargull Brut Nature Cava (starting at $8), Mia Prosecco (starting at $7), and Cornaro Prosecco Treviso Extra Dry Spumante (starting at $10). For bubbly made with red grapes, try Castell d'Or Cossetània Brut Rosé Cava (starting at $9) or Cantina di Sorbara Lambrusco Amabile (starting at $9). Produttori di Govone Moscato d'Asti 2012 (starting at $10) is sweet enough for dessert. One cheap variety that doesn't appeal is Korbel Brut (starting at $10), owing in part to its tart, sour aftertaste.
What We Looked For
Bottle or Tank Fermentation.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 fruit then proceeds through two fermentations, the first resulting in a base wine that is combined with base wines made from other grape varietals to form a cuvee, which undergoes a second fermentation. This is when 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. Alternatively, producers use large tanks for the second-stage fermentation. Much of the sparkling wine produced in Italy is tank-fermented, as are most cheap sparkling wines produced in the U.S. The length of this secondary fermentation varies and affects the quality and price of the resulting sparkler. In general, tank fermentation is faster than bottle fermentation and tends to produce lighter, fruitier, less costly wines. 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 yield lower-quality results.
Brut or Extra Dry.Champagne and sparkling wines are rated by level of sweetness. "Brut natural" refers to wines with less than 3 grams of sugar per liter; extra brut contains up to 6 grams of sugar per liter; brut has up to 12 grams; and extra dry is a touch sweeter than that. The sweetest sparkling wines are sec, demi-sec, and doux. These days the most popular is brut, which provides a balance between dry and sweet; extra dry is also common. Most of the best budget sparkling wines we researched settle in the brut realm.
Sparkling Wine Reviews
In our research we consulted wine experts and referred to retail sites such as Wine.com and Wine Access, which compile customer reviews and expert ratings from outlets such as Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits. Other sources of sparkling wine reviews include the enthusiast social networking site Snooth, community tasting notes on Cellar Tracker, and blogs such as Serious Eats. Oftentimes information appears in roundups of the best sparkling wines by expert sources and mainstream media such as The New York Times, rather than reviews of the individual wines.
The comments we read online indicate that experts and consumers tend to favor products that closely imitate the qualities of real Champagne. Sparkling wine reviews are generally laudatory in regard to our top picks. Remember, though, there's no substitute for personal taste. Use reviews and tasting notes as a guide, but trust your own palate. You can certainly find an inexpensive bubbly that satisfies on a tight budget.