SHOPPING for New Year's Eve Champagne sounds like fun -- visions of popping corks, dancing bubbles, clinking glasses as you pick through the bounty available for the holidays. It's mouthwatering just imagining the celebration. But when you actually walk down the Champagne aisle, your spirits may flag. Prices have soared in the last few years.
Take Veuve Clicquot. Two years ago, it was widely available for $29. Today, a rock-bottom price would be $35, and some Los Angeles wine stores charge as much as $45 a bottle for it.
Still, Champagne is flowing throughout the United States. Sales have been climbing for years, despite the rising prices. Wine stores in L.A. have Champagne stacked to the ceiling to meet demand.
So, are there any Champagne values left? Is it possible to buy France's legendary fizz without bursting your celebratory bubble?
Yes. There are good Champagne values available in most price categories, particularly during the holiday season when Champagne producers compete most fiercely for your dollars. Many retailers aggressively slash prices during the holidays, reasoning that it has never been easier for the annual Champagne buyer to comparison shop.
Priced to impress
BUT beware -- some retailers take the opposite tack. Convinced that Champagne consumers are brand slaves who only buy recognizable names such as Veuve, Moet & Chandon or Perrier-Jouet, they pump up prices to take advantage of the seasonal urge to pop an impressive cork. As a result, the same Champagne may sell for wildly different prices -- a 50% differential in some cases -- at various stores in the Los Angeles area. The more expensive the Champagne, the greater the price spread.
"Consumers buy Champagne as a gift or to celebrate," says Steve Zamotti, Champagne buyer for Wine Exchange in Orange. They want the excitement that comes with a brand that has been marketed as a high-quality wine. Unfortunately, he says, most of these buyers don't drink enough Champagne to know if the hype is worth the eye-popping price.
Several big Champagne houses have sought to improve their image just by raising their prices, Zamotti says. "It's the same wine. They are just repositioning themselves at a higher price point in the market."
Another wrinkle in Champagne pricing is the falling value of the dollar in relation to the euro. Jim Knight, an owner of Wine House in West Los Angeles, says he's watched prices soar in the last several months as the dollar has dropped. A Champagne purchased earlier in the year can be priced lower than wines purchased more recently, he says.
One way to find values is to focus on the small grower-producers. An increasing number are exporting their limited production Champagnes to the United States, and Americans are becoming more familiar with these unsung heroes of the Champagne world.
"The huge hike in prices has been with the prestige cuvees by the grande marque houses," says Paul Wasserman, a fine wine expert from a Champagne importing family. (Grande marque refers to the well-known major Champagne houses.) "The deals are the Champagnes from the small grower-producers."
That's not to say there aren't values in the grandes marques as well. It's just that the bigger the name, the more likely it will be that the Champagne house is relying on marketing, not quality, to sell its wines.
To help readers navigate the minefield that is Champagne in time for New Year's Eve, we sought out the best we could find in each of a number of price categories. (For the less-than-$20 category we included sparklers from around the world, because Champagnes aren't to be had at that price.) The Times tasting panel blind-tasted the wines -- more than 40 in all -- coming up with our favorites at various price levels. Then we called around to find the lowest prices on these standout bubblies.
We found plenty of easy-drinking yet compelling budget (priced less than $20) sparkling wines. Our three favorites included a sparkling wine from California, an Italian Prosecco and a Cremant de Bourgogne from France that were all festive enough for New Year's Eve.
The next category ($21 to $30) is entry-level Champagne. At this price, disappointing wines outnumbered the gems. Aromas that were too reticent, over-the-top effervescence and flat or unpleasant flavors were common. One of the two wines we do recommend, Drappier, is from the rare Champagne house that has lowered prices to compete, dropping prices 15% in the last two years, according to Zamotti.
There were more wines to recommend when we jumped up to the $31 to $40 price category, where the Champagnes generally have richer flavors and a bit of complexity. These wines, as a group, offered more generous aromas and lingering finishes.
Then we found a quantum leap in quality with Champagnes priced between $41 and $70. The wines we liked in this price range, the majority of which are produced by small growers, were the most exciting, offering complexity, distinctiveness and elegance that was missing from the less pricey selections. The panel's clear favorite from the two-day tasting was in this category -- a nonvintage Domaine Bruno Gobillard Vieilles Vignes Brut, available for $54. A 1995 Pommery, however, a vintage grande marque available for about $60, did impress.
Well-known and worthy
ODDLY, we found there wasn't a similarly remarkable bump in quality when we stepped up to the next group ($71 to $115), and there is less available in this price category. These days, most of the prestige cuvees in Champagne (Roederer Cristal, Pol Roger cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, and Perrier-Jouet cuvee Belle Epoque) retail for much more.
The surprise is that one of our favorite wines in this priciest category is also arguably the best-known wine in the world, Moet & Chandon's cuvee Dom Perignon. Made with grapes primarily from grand cru vineyards, Dom Perignon is the tete de cuvee (most prestigious bottling) for the largest producer in the Champagne region. We included this Champagne in the tasting when we found that, although it is available in fine wine stores for $150 a bottle, it also sells for $115 at Costco, Cost Plus and Beverages & More.
It was edged out as the No. 1 wine in the category by the 1995 vintage of L. d'Harbonville, the prestige cuvee of tiny grower-producer Ployez-Jacquemart, a wine known to a handful of Champagne connoisseurs.
Whatever your price range, there are plenty of sparklers to choose from to keep the New Year's Eve spirit alive long after midnight.