Cheers to sparkling wine season, the most wonderful time of the year. Champagne is the essential bubbly to ring in the New Year, though the fancy stuff from the famous region in France can strain most budgets. Here’s the lowdown on some bomb bubbly under $20, plus a demo on the world’s greatest party trick, also known as “sabering.”
Traditionally, sparkling wine is made from Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier or various blends of those varietal grapes, though other grapes can also be made into wine that fizzes when you pour it into a glass. The grapes are typically picked before they’re fully ripened, so they have high levels of acidity, the tart quality that provides the foundation for the still wine created during the first fermentation. Like the process used to make other still wines, yeast is added to the harvested and pressed grapes, turning the natural sugars into alcohol. In sparkling wine, there’s a second step that involves adding a “doseage” of slightly sweetened wine to the bottled still wine. The slightly sweet wine kick starts another round of fermentation, and when the wine is corked, it traps the carbon dioxide that’s a natural part of the fermentation process, creating the bubbles. When you see something referred to as Methode Champenoise, that’s the process that must be followed. After graduating from Champagne 101, there’s the drama of popping the cork.
In this short video, Thierry Rautureau shows us how to “saber” open a bottle of bubbly, using a chef’s knife. It’s essential to find the seam that runs vertically along the bottle, which is the line you follow to pop the top. “The spot where that seam meets the edge of the bottle near the cork is a weak spot, so aim for that,” said the Chef in the Hat, who has two Seattle restaurants — Loulay and Luc — and appeared on Top Chef Masters. He suggested sabering outdoors, pointing the bottle away from people: “You don’t want to put out an eye or break a window.”
He makes it look so easy, with one swift sweep toward the cork, the top flies off, but Rautureau cautions first-timers to be very careful about how you hold the bottle, taking care not to slice an upturned thumb on the back swing: “It’s kind of like golf. You want to be sure and follow through.”
No matter how you choose to pop the cork on your bottles of bubbly, it’s key to serve them well chilled — add salt to ice water for an ultra-quick chill — and also to serve sparklers alongside elegant appetizers. Classic pairings include caviar and rich pate, but for this tasting panel, I went low brow and served Cheetos and affordable whitefish roe on top of teeny roasted potatoes. Guess which one disappeared first?
You’ll need some bottles to open, of course, and our tasting panel, which included seasoned sommeliers, winemakers and wine writers picked a few favorites under $20. The cream of the bubbly crop, in alphabetical order:
Boschendal Brut, $19.99: From one of the oldest estates in South Africa, this blend of Chardonnay and Pinot noir received high marks for its creamy finish and a wonderful yeasty quality that reminded one taster of a brioche bread.
Dibon Cava Brut Reserve, $9.99: Hints of red apple, small, pretty bubbles, and an excellent finish were among the reasons tasters gave this Spanish sparkler a rousing toast.
Gruet Brut, $15.99: This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot noir from New Mexico has a fresh, elegant finish with bright notes of citrus.
JBC No. 21 Brut, $19.99: Described as toasty with the right amount of bright fruit, this wine from the Burgundy region of France could easily pass for a much more expensive bubbly from the heart of Champagne.
Jane Ventura Cava, $15.99: Featuring a trio of Spanish grapes — Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada — this beauty has an elegant, slightly yeasty flavor up front and explosive bubbles.
Piper Sonoma Brut, $19.99: A hit from way back, this California classic is beloved for its consistency. The panel was impressed by its balance of bright fruit and warm, toasty quality.
Michelle Brut, $12.99: Tiny bubbles, a whiff of tart fruit and a clean, crisp character made this Washington state wine a standout.
Trevari Cellars Brut, $17.99: While some found this wine made with Columbia Valley fruit from Eastern Washington state on the sweet side for a brut style, others enjoyed the fruitiness.
Affordable sparkling wines are genius for holiday entertaining, especially if you’re planning on serving cocktails made with bubbly.
Huge thanks to our special guests on this edition of our editorial tasting panel: Chef Thierry Rautureau, Chris Sparkman from Sparkman Cellars, Jeff Lindsey-Thorsen from RN74 and winemaker at his own W.T. Vintners, Jake Kosseff from Miller’s Guild, Jamie Peha of Table Talk Northwest, Erin James from Sip Northwest and Allrecipes.com’s Sonja Groset.