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The Five Minute Sommelier

December 30, 2016

It’s almost New Year’s Eve, and man, there are a lot of great events going on around the Capital Region. It’s funny because while people can’t wait to be done with 2016, I’m not sure how many of them are looking forward and seeing better times in the year ahead.

Perhaps that’s reason enough to party. And by party, I actually mean drink. Maybe a little more than you should.

Whatever you do, just please be careful out there. I’d say to make sure to take a cab home, but our cabs are a disaster, and we still don’t have Uber or Lyft. Which is embarrassing. But not nearly as embarrassing as the state of our taxi cabs. Thanks to all of those who are fighting the good fight with the state to clear these challenging regulatory hurdles.

Sorry. Politics. Let’s get back to food. And by food, today I mean drink.

Oh, and while I’m in a contrite mood, I should apologize for the headline of today’s post. Nobody can be a five minute sommelier. Earning a sommelier title is no trifling thing. And we have precious few actual sommeliers in the Capital Region. There’s a lot of education and study that go into earning the right to call yourself a somm.

But with today’s post, you should be able to navigate the sparkling wine section at your local wine shop with ease.

Right, because it’s New Year’s Eve. And even if you are staying at home, or doing something mellow with friends, you should still find some way to bring a little bit of sparkle into the new year.

So pick up a bottle.

Here’s the thing. People don’t often want to talk about price when it comes to wine. Not everyone wants to spend a lot on a bottle of wine. And that’s fine. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have an enjoyable burst of bubbles.

You do need to spend more than $5. So here are some of the general guidelines at each rough price break.

$10 a bottle, more or less

You’re in the danger zone. There’s a lot of junk in here, and finding something good is a bit more of a challenge. But in this realm price and quality are more closely tied together. Your odds of the $12 bottle being better than the $8 bottle are high.

California sparkling wines are your friend. I’ve always liked the Domaine Ste. Michelle brut sparkling wine for its fine bubble structure that gives it an almost creamy feeling in the mouth.

Cava from Spain. Prosecco from Italy. They can be good values at this price as well.

Things to be suspicious about. Beware wines that have celebrities or animals on the labels. Don’t succumb to marketing come-ons. Remember, the wines that you have never heard of are likely to be better values than those large brands that are made in bulk, and spend money on branding campaigns.

$20 a bottle, or thereabouts

Most likely you are still not in true Champagne territory yet, but you can find some really good wine at this level. However, it’s also filled with high priced, mass produced bottles that may have names and labels you have heard of before. To be clear, those wines will be fine, but I think you could do better.

Look for domestic sparkling wines not just from California or Oregon, but from specific valleys within those states. The smaller the parcel, the better the wine.

You are also now in the realm of some really nice prosecco and cava. Just remember, if you want to pop a cork, the more lightly carbonated prosecco isn’t going to do it for you. But if the goal is some kind of delicious wine, the Italians are lovely.

$30 a bottle, plus or minus

Now we’re in Champagne territory. That’s anything from the Champagne region of France. And that may be important to you or not. But if you want to drink actual Champagne, this is what we’re talking about.

Again, it’s important to beware the big brands. Sure, your friends might be impressed with an orange label, and it’s good stuff. But I still think you can do better for the price.

Sometimes it’s about finding a store clerk who can direct you to a grower produced champagne. That means the people who grew the grapes also made the wine. Typically, these wines are more idiosyncratic and interesting.

Let’s look at beer for a second. Guinness makes a great stout, people love it. It’s insanely popular. But I’d rather have a Grimm Double Negative any day. It’s produced on a smaller scale, and doesn’t have a global reputation to carry it into stores. These smaller producers have to rely on the strength of the liquid in the bottle.

$50 or more

This is where things get interesting, and perhaps a little more complicated. The price to quality ratio pretty much goes away as differences in cost are largely based on manipulated market factors of supply and demand. A sixty dollar bottle of Champagne isn’t likely to be significantly better than a fifty dollar bottle. But at this price you can start getting rose and vintage champagnes. And these are delicious.

The tinge of pink comes from extended contact of the wine with the grape skins. More than color, it also adds flavor.

Most sparkling wines are non-vintage, meaning they are made from a blend of wines vinified over many different growing seasons. This practice insures that the bottle of Veuve Clicquot you bought in 2016 will taste like the Veuve Clicquot you last had in 2014.

Vintage champagnes come from the wine of a specific year, and then can be aged for a spell as well. The guideline is that it can sit in the bottle for as many years as the secondary fermentation sat on the yeast. That’s a lot of wine mumbo jumbo.

For the most part, it doesn’t matter. Aging wine is a terrible hobby. Drinking wine is a much better one.

So I do hope you get out there and pick up a bottle to drink tomorrow night. Best wishes for a joyful and delicious new year. I’ll look forward to greeting you on Monday with the first FLB post of 2017 and a whole new year of culinary adventures.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob W. permalink
    December 30, 2016 11:46 am

    I count myself among your readers that generally don’t read the wine posts, but am glad I clicked through on this one. This is the week where I find myself most often needing to bring a bottle to a party — this was very helpful. Thank you!

  2. llcwine permalink
    December 30, 2016 1:01 pm

    Gruet from New Mexico makes a very good pink sparkling wine as well as their regular sparkling wine both priced I believe under $20.00

  3. Maria C. permalink
    December 30, 2016 1:18 pm

    But what will you be drinking, Profussor? (We’re going with Bollinger).
    Regardless, here’s to a happy and healthy 2017 to you, yours, and all my fellow fussy readers.

    • December 30, 2016 1:26 pm

      I have no idea. Right now I’m in Pennsylvania, and will have to do the best I can from the Altoona state store.

      It used to be we would buy a case, drink it down, and then replenish our supply. These days we are drinking less, and are dedicating less storage space to bottles.

      I do miss having a stash on hand though.

  4. David Nardolillo permalink
    December 30, 2016 9:51 pm

    These articles are a year old, but they offer ideas from Dominick Purnomo, Heather LaVine, and others across the price spectrum.

    http://www.bizjournals.com/albany/morning_call/2015/12/heres-the-best-bubbly-to-celebrate-new-years-from.html?ana=fbk

    http://www.bizjournals.com/albany/blog/2015/12/lastminute-shopping-for-a-new-years-eve-toast-677.html

  5. Deedee permalink
    December 31, 2016 5:15 pm

    I thought Ste. Michelle was from Washington State. I’ve only had the cabernet, maybe the sparkling wine is from a different location.

  6. January 4, 2017 11:48 am

    A little late, but bubbly is good the other 364 days of the year too. Bellavista Franciacorta at around $27 is a serious contender to $30-$40+ Champagne.

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