No matter when you pop a bottle of Champagne, it feels like a party.
Champagne, not mere sparkling wine, is the stuff of Hollywood legend, of romance and of celebrations both big and small. Biggie rapped about it, Marilyn Monroe bathed in it and F. Scott Fitzgerald famously argued that there's no such thing as having too much of it.
Indeed, there's something magical about a splurge-worthy bottle of bubbly, and during the holidays, there's often no better thing to gift or get. But let's face it, real Champagne, the stuff that comes from a little province in Northeastern France, can be expensive. Picking a bottle can get pretty confusing, too.
To make the buying process an effervescent affair, we asked some experts for their sparkling suggestions. Whether you're buying for a big New Year's Eve party or for an intimate holiday dinner, here are their top five tips for splurging on a bottle of Champers.
① Champagne is expensive for a reason, so budget accordingly.
"Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, and it's really expensive to produce, which is why it's more expensive than other types of sparkling wine," Dan Davis, wine director at Commander's Palace in New Orleans and guest curator of Tasting Table's Winter Wine Cellar, says.
But some styles are less expensive than others. The most affordable Champagnes tend to be non-vintage (NV) wines, which make up the bulk of the market. These are blends of fruit from several harvests, the goal being to achieve a bottling that's consistent in style from year to year. In exceptional vintages with stellar growing conditions, a Champagne house might make a vintage wine made from grapes from only one harvest, labeled with the vintage year. These wines are typically aged longer before release and are more expensive, but are often worth the splurge.
So how much should you spend? Davis suggests setting your initial price point somewhere in the $35 to $48 range, where you'll find some great values and nice entry-level wines, such as Louis Roederer's NV Brut Premier ($47), as well as the NV Delamotte Brut Le Mesnil-sur-Oger ($40) and NV J. Lassalle Brut Cachet d'Or Premier Cru ($36).
If you want to spend a little more, moving past the $55 mark will give you access to vintage Champagnes and premium, multi-vintage bottlings.
Corks and cages
② Look beyond dry Champagne and understand what "dry" really means.
If you enjoy dry wines (for whites, that would be Sauvignon Blanc; reds, Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec), you're in luck: These days the overwhelming majority of Champagnes are made in a dry style. But David Speer of Ambonnay Champagne bar in Portland, Oregon, says that the real question is, how dry?
"Some Champagne, especially extra brut and brut nature Champagnes, are piercingly dry, and it's too much for a lot of people," Speer says, "so I caution them against saying that they like them until they've experienced enough Champagne to know what they really enjoy."
Need a cheat sheet? You'll find wines labeled extra brut, brut nature and non dosé to be the driest of the bunch, with little to no residual sugar. Next up is brut and sec, which are very dry and dry, respectively. If a touch of residual sugar is what you're after, look for demi-sec, which is medium sweet, or doux, which is the sweetest in style. Don't be afraid of rosés, either. Davis says, "Brut rosés are just as dry and crisp as their paler cousins."
The labels will sometimes help to indicate the blend as well. Though, typically, Champagne is a blend of three grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), you might come across a Blanc de Blancs, which refers to Champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de Noirs, on the other hand, is made solely from darker, pressed Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grapes.
③ Understand the difference between Grower Champagnes and Champagne houses.
Traditionally, grape growers in the region have sold their fruit to cooperatives or to large Champagne houses, rather making and marketing their own cuvées. But that's changed in the past few decades with more and more grower-producers exporting—and finding a market for—their wines. Though they still make up a very tiny portion of the market, they've recently become a darling among Champagne lovers and sommeliers.
Hype aside, this can be a great place to score an affordable bottle, provided you know where to look. Davis suggests keeping an eye out for wines made by one of the 26 grower-producers in Champagne's Special Club, formed in 1971. He recommends bottlings from Champagne Henri Goutorbe, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Champagne René Geoffroy. Look out for the grower-producer label, too. Called Récoltant-Manipulant in French, these bottles are labeled with the letters RM.
④ Skip the flute—pick up some tulip-shaped glasses instead.
You'll find some debate when it comes to glassware, but most Champagne lovers will argue in favor of a tulip-shaped glass over a flute, which was initially designed to highlight the look of the bubbles in the glass—not to accentuate the taste. "All too often, Champagne is put in these tiny, little vessels, and it's really hard to detect the flavor and aroma," Speer says. "Putting it in a bigger glass helps it to really open up."
⑤ Keep your party small and your bottles big.
Small, intimate celebrations are the perfect time for Champagne, as you'll want to take some time nosing, sipping and enjoying what you're pouring—especially if you've splurged.
But depending on the size of your party, there's also a lot to be said for investing in a large-format bottle. "No one is really sure why, but Champagne from a large bottle is significantly more complex and intense," Davis says. "Buy the biggest bottle you can. Something magical happens with a big bottle of Champagne."