Christmas is great and it also kind of sucks. Mostly it sucks if you're not Christian, but even those of us (whose families at least) belong to the “I Heart Jesus” club can get pretty down around this time of year. For one thing, all that shopping stress can really send you hurtling headfirst towards either another religion or an anti-capitalist cult. Baby Jesus's birthday can also be a real bummer if you're not one of those folks roasting up a big haunch of meat and mashing several pounds of Yukon Golds while nibbling on Grandma's date bar cookies. But hey, I saw Will Ferrell in Elf, and I know all you need is a little of that good old Christmas spirit! Or shall I say, Christmas spirits. That's right, there's no case of holiday blues that can't be cured with a bucket of KFC Original Recipe, a handle of Jim Beam, a couple good friends and some really bad TV. Yee-haw!
Ten Sparkling Wines Under $30
Our panel suffers through an afternoon of champagne-sipping to find the best cheap bubblies
You walk into your favorite bottle shop and all you know is that you need to buy some sparkling wine to take to a party. You don't want to look like a jerk bringing Tott's but you're also not prepared to drop 200 bucks on a bottle o' bub'. So if you're going to buy (relatively) cheap bubbly, which one's the best? To figure that out we assembled a panel of tasters who sipped and bickered and picked favorites from a group of 10 that all cost less than $30. The panel was composed of Alibi Food Editor Gwyneth Doland, Editorial Intern Laura Marrich, National Distributing's Ryan Twitchell and Bill Nolan of Bacchus/Wine Patrol/Southern Wines and Spirits along with Sam Etheridge and Jamal Davis of Ambrozia (Rio Grande and Central, 242-6560).
Labor of Love
Ellerd and Josephine García share fond memories of a Christmas tradition
Ah, the holidays in New Mexico—the smell of wood burning in the fireplace and the delectable aromas of posole, tamales and biscochitos that fill the air and warm the soul.
Most of us were surprised to find that this wine was American and not French because it seemed French in style. Several of us noted that it was “well made” or “well structured” as well as crisp and clean” with “steely, nice fruits and a great bouquet.” One taster dissented and called it, “pretty and honest but [without] a whole lot of personality—not as complex as I'd like it to be.” Still, after repeated tastes and discussion we all chose it to be among our top three.
This French Champagne impressed us with what one taster described as a, “seductively fruity nose with enticing flavors of Pinot Noir”—otherwise known as “fruit and earth” with “a nice finish”. Others described it as “elegant” but “unassuming” and “great for a party” but “without much character.” Though we couldn't find it for under $33 on the day of the tasting, we heard sworn testimony that it can be found for as little as $27 on sale at Cost Plus World Market.
We had a near consensus that this wine was “soft and pretty” with an “earthy, sweet nose” of “green apples.” We did disagree over whether the finish was “lingering” or “quick” but even the dissenters who derided the Blanc de Blancs as “unfocused” conceded that they'd have no qualms about serving it at a party.
Those of us who like our bubblies lean and mean were wooed by this vintage bottle from the California arm of Taittinger. Some thought it was “fresh and lively” if also “simple and innocuous”. It was “approachable and crisp” with a “very nice flavor at first” even though others pointed out that the charm faded quickly. After one taster labeled it a “wedding toast” wine, several others concurred that this “refreshing” sparkler would do well for toasting.
This was certainly the best value of the tasting, easily placing ahead of the only cheaper wine (Seaview Brut). New Mexico's favorite everyday sparkling wine was variously described as being “clean”, “lean” and having a “steely nose”, which some did think indicated a “lack of depth” or “not much character.” Still, we found the bigger bubbles “vibrant” and “refreshing” and all appreciated the low price.
This is Gruet's sweeter sparkling wine and even tasting blind most tasters recognized it immediately. We admired its “floral nose” and “golden apple” flavor and thought it would be a good introduction for non-wine folks; In fact, one taster called it “training wheels for new bubbly drinkers”. Others called it “easy drinking” even though one suspected it would produce a “wicked hangover”.
Another American-made sparkler from a French Champagne house, we liked the “meatiness” that Pinot Noir grapes give the wine even though we could agree it was not that complex. We appreciated the “good acid and crisp finish” and suggested it would be good for slurping with friends at a party. One taster picked up a hint of cherry flavor and others quickly agreed, prompting a discussion of possible food pairings including classic French cherry clafouti.
The only Italian sparkling wine in the tasting, Franciacorta's Bellavista seemed a bit “metallic” and “somewhat sweet” though one taster was enamored of the “soft pear and apple flavors” and “just enough acidity”; Another called it “an ’I got lucky last night' morning-after” wine. Two suggested it for mimosas.
This Australian bubbly was the biggest disappointment of the tasting. Several of us reacted with chagrin when it was revealed that we had flatly rejected a wine we had highly recommended in the past. Either the wine has changed dramatically over the past few years or this experience taught us again the value of tasting blind. Though most of us were charmed by what we described variously as a “seductive nose”, “intoxicating smell” and “very nice bouquet”, we were disappointed by the fading bubbles, lack of acidity and quick finish. One taster went so far as to label it “not good at all—barely drinkable” but another suggested it might make a good end to the night, with “some leftover P.F. Chang's, a date and bad television.”
And finally, we tasted a sparkling Shiraz/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Australia. This unusual, dry red with bubbles provoked a number of furrowed brows until the folks from Ambrozia brought out a plate full of chocolate truffles. Eureka! We discovered that this red bubbly is a stellar match for not-too-sweet chocolate desserts like truffles (especially flavored with Framboise) and, we suspect, flourless chocolate cake.