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Now reading A New Year’s Eve Sparkling Wine Cheat Sheet
2017-02

A New Year’s Eve Sparkling Wine Cheat Sheet

They all have bubbles—the similarities stop there.

The wonderful thing about New Year’s Eve is the lack of obligations. There is no turkey to fret over. No gifts to give. No family to disappoint. It can get lost in the glitter and limos and FOMO, but the last night of the year should be about hanging out with people you genuinely like. That, and sparkling wine. Whether it’s André or Agrapart, you’ve got to have bubbles. But which one to choose? Some fizzy wines aren’t worth drinking any day of the year. Others are wonderful, but not right for New Year’s Eve. So we’ve broken it down for you.

Big-house Champagne

A four-sentence champagne primer: First, it must be grown in the eponymous, relatively small region northeast of Paris. With rare exceptions, it’s made from chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, or a blend of the three grapes. (Two of those grapes are indeed red, but winemakers are able to make white wine from them by avoiding skin contact when pressing the fruit into juice.) The wine gets its bubbles via the méthode champenoise—it’s first fermented in tanks or barrels to make a still wine, and only gets all sparkly during a second fermentation in the bottle.

While all champagnes are made using this method, not all champagne is worth the c-word upcharge—the money that the luxury conglomerate-owned brands spend on advertising comes from somewhere. Those brands also tend to buy grapes, rather than growing them themselves. The resulting wines are blended to make a product that’s consistent from year to year.

But those same brands also make the high-dollar champagnes we tend to know by a single name or chill abbreviation—Dom, Krug, Cristal. Like similarly nicknamed celebrities (Kanye, T. Swift) these champagnes may have sold their souls for the glitz, but there’s a reason people want them—they are actually incredible. Some, like Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, only gets made in vintages that are deemed to be exceptional.

Year-round score: Medium

Some of it is mediocre, some is amazing, but either way you risk underwriting polo-tournament sponsorships with your purchase.

NYE Score: Medium

There’s probably better value out there unless you’re supporting yourself with a minimum wage wine shop job that makes you work on New Year’s Eve but pays you in vintage Cristal and caviar straight from the tin. If you go for it, drink it early: under no circumstances should a high-dollar premium cuvée be consumed when you’re already seeing double.

Grower Champagne

As covered above, much big-house champagne is kind of half-assed. The antidote is a growing movement towards champagne that is grown, picked, blended, and bottled all by the same people—look for the letters RM or RC on the label. While this won’t necessarily guarantee a better wine, you do know that it has been care has been taken from grape to bottle.

Two quick tips for wading into the world of grower champagne: First, any champagne imported by Terry Theise for Michael Skurnik is bound to be delicious—check the back label. Second, consider heading, away from where the big-name estates tend to blend. The southern sub-region of the Aube, once regulated by law to second-class status, is where you can find some of the most compelling champagnes these days, like Vouette & Sorbée, Jacques Lassaigne, and Cédric Bouchard. These are wines you want to smell. You might even elicit a few eye rolls once you get going about how the clay-limestone soil makes a vinous champagne closer to a burgundy-style than the traditional chalkiness of the north, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Year-Round Score: High

These are interesting, potentially polarizing wines, a delicious reminder that not all champagnes are the same.

New Year’s Eve Score: High

All the festive, old-world charm of champagne, with a fun, artisanal angle to bug your friends about. in terms of quality, memorable-ness, and straight-up tastiness, grower champagnes offer a higher reward for the same cost as a brand name, or less. Don’t waste this golden opportunity to splurge on some.

Pétillant-naturel

Pétillant-naturelpét-nat to those in the know—is a new-but-actually-old style of making sparkling wine that’s radically simpler than the method used to carbonate and filter Champagne. Basically, the winemaker caps a wine before it’s finished producing gasses through fermentation, so when you pop it open: poof! A lightly sparkling, vaguely alcoholic juice, with a little fizz, a little funk, maybe a little sweetness, but no filtering and nothing added. The fizz is bright, uncomplicated, and unexpected.

Also, this hasn’t like, been tested by the FDA or anything, but substantial anecdotal evidence suggests that, unlike with prosecco or grocery-store bub, which tend to come with complaints of headaches the morning after, a pét-nat buzz comes virtually pain free. And like an affinity for Gauloises or blue-and-white striped shirts, pét-nat is a thing that links crusty old men from the French countryside and Brooklynites who work in advertising. Togetherness!

Year-round score: High

Pét-nat is the sort of thing winemakers take on as a low-stakes side project, meant only to bring joy to maker and drinker. Because it does just that, it’s made the leap from wine-dork trend to a permanent place on restaurant lists and shop shelves.

New Year’s Eve score: Low

It’s rustic and fun, not fancy. Plus, they tend to be less carbonated than other sparkling wines and capped with a beer bottle-style cap rather than a cork. Opening a bottle of wine with a lighter like it’s a Heineken is great fun, but a new year calls for celebrating like you just won a Nascar race.

Lambrusco

So, yes, Lambrusco was the top-selling imported wine of 1981, and yes, much of that 1981 “vintage” probably tasted like carbonated cough syrup. But they really had something going there with these commercials. Let us take the liberty to say that, like the lady sings, lambrusco is so nice. It does taste oh so fine. You can even put it on ice if you want! Most get their bubbles from a second fermentation in a huge tank which is less labor-intensive—read: cheaper—than the champagne-style bottle-by-bottle method. But these days, you can find really good Lambrusco! The best evoke a cran-raspberry LaCroix, with a fuller froth and a deep-red hue. Like rosé, but for winter.

Year-round Score: High  

It doesn’t have to be cheap and sweet. It can be dry, delicious, and still pretty cheap, like Vigneto Saetti’s excellent examples.

New Year’s Eve Score: Medium

Sparkling red isn’t a conventional choice, of course, but something about it just feels right.

Sekt

At its best, these German sparklers can offer the quality of France at Aldi prices. The only problem is that Sekt can refer to virtually any sparkling wine made in Germany: from laboriously bottle-fermented, dry Riesling to bulk-carbonated plonk made with grapes from somewhere they’re easier to grow, like Spain. Look for bottles with the Wagnerian designation “Flaschengärung”—this just means they are made in the same style as champagne, except it’s a lot more fun to say. And if you see one made by Hild, Lauer, or Knauss, grab it.

Year Round Score: Medium

Points for originality with a slight deduction for unreliability.

New Year’s Score: High

No one is popping a good Sekt on NYE. Which is to say, you should.

Crémant

Crémants are sparkling wines, often delicious, made just like champagne, but from elsewhere in France. It’s difficult to generalize, since there is such an astounding variety—from sweet-ish sparkling Vouvray from the Loire, to sleek chardonnay from Burgundy, and or a minerally rosé made from grapes you haven’t heard of (Poulsard, Trousseau) from the Jura.

Year-round score: High

Much of what’s great about champagne (bubbles, Frenchness) without the price tag.

New Year’s score: Medium

A minor deduction for the potential that your friends are going to think you just cheaped out when you start to explain that “it’s, uh, like champagne, but…”

Prosecco

The national sparkling wine of Italy tends to be a bulk-carbonated buzz-delivery product. Nothing wrong with that! But there’s also a growing realm of proseccos made like real wines. Look for something made in the col fondo method (pét-nat for prosecco), that has been aged sur lie (on a layer of yeast—yeast feels very 2017), or anything that at least references the fact that prosecco is made from a grape called glera.

Year-round score: Medium

Who doesn’t like a spritz?

New Year’s Score: Medium

Prosecco on New Year’s says you’re both thrifty and very interested in catching a buzz, which is not at all a bad look, now that we think about it. If you’re running late and all you can grab is a yellow-labeled Mionetto from CVS, see instructions for André, below.

American sparkling wine

Domestic bubbles are difficult to generalize—we haven’t been blessed with the bureaucratic precision of our friends across the Atlantic. Two things we can say: If you’re drinking very tasty, very affordable Gruet from New Mexico, you’re the kind of person who gets your wine buying advice from Consumer Reports. If you’re drinking Ultramarine from Michael Cruse in California, you probably have “somm” somewhere in your Instagram bio.

Year-round score: High

Know where we can get some of that Ultramarine?

NYE score: Medium

Some may scoff that a label in French feels fancier, but America can do great things too. There are beautiful things to find in the realm of domestic sparkling, like Under the Wire and Minimus Wines, though NYE is not necessarily the night to do an exploratory tasting.

André  

Someone will bring a bottle of André to your party. Here’s how to deal: a sugar cube and a few drops of bitters makes a semi-elegant, pseudo champagne cocktail—your Instagram followers will never know the difference. Or, you can spritz it by mixing in even parts with whatever amaro you have lying around and topping it with club soda.

Year-round score: Low

Are you in college? Do you have a high tolerance for brutal hangovers? Great, go crazy.

NYE Score: Medium

It’s not great for drinking, but the plastic fake cork does at least make the correct celebratory sounds.