The life of a wine writer is a life of cliché: red wine with red meat, white wine with fish; endless and interminable (so my wife tells me, but I’m sure she’s wrong) musings as to which vintage is “classic”; and, yes, I drink champagne on New Year’s Eve. Champagne has been cracked open to celebrate the coronations of French kings for a thousand years, but is it a cliché to drink it to welcome in the New Year, or merely respect for a long-standing tradition?
My people and I drink champagne to celebrate another year survived and another one begun. I spend much of the year collecting the bottles required for our party and the nights leading up to it. Friends and family on December 31st may see appearances by Billecart-Salmon, Henri Billiot, Nicolas Feuillatte, Gosset, Charles Heidsieck, Henriot, Jean Milan, Moët & Chandon (I particularly like the 2006 in the market now), Laurent Perrier, Pierre Peters, Piper-Heidsieck, Pommery, Louis Roederer, Pol Roger and Taittinger.
But we’re not opposed to American bubbly as well: I am deeply fond of Roederer Estate’s top bottling, L’Ermitage ($48), and Domaine Carneros’ even loftier Le Reve Blanc de Blancs (about $100), especially if someone else pays for it. But there are more reasonable American sparkling wines: Oregon’s Argyle Brut ($29) is a favorite too. Washington State’s Ste. Michelle makes sparkling wine that is better than its price points (under $12) would suggest.
France offers bubbles from spots other than the magical, chalky vineyards of Champagne. I can easily recommend Lucien Albrecht’s Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose (as in rosy in color, though there’s nothing wrong with pink) from Alsace, that little slice of land that has been dragged back and forth between France and Germany over the centuries.
Spain’s Cava has been, until the rise of Italy’s Prosecco, the usual go-to for affordable fizz. Gramona Celler Batlle ($90) and Freixenet’s Casa Sala ($50) operate at a wholly different level than the stuff you’ve bought in the grocery store. Someday you might try them.
Italy has as much expertise with sparkling wines as any other country: Ca del Bosco and Ferrari ought to be on any short, Italian shopping list. But Prosecco is what stands in for Italian sparkling wine these days and as long as it is fresh, you’ll be fine with most brands out there. I tend to rely upon Bisol, Caposaldo, Carpene Malvolti, La Marca, Nino Franco, Valdo, Villa Sandi, Zardetto and a benchmark of the region, Mionetto.
But I crack open real champagne on the big night, the stuff from the French region known as champagne. You needn’t blow that kind of bread; every wine region makes sparkling wines. It’s the bubbles that fulfill the traditional celebration, along with the banging of pots and pans, the sloppy kisses at midnight, even the black eyed peas the next day. My friends and family have added our own little wrinkle: We like to burn the old calendar and dance around it; the neighbors sometime appear nervous. There’s enough predictable about the clichés of the wine writer that on New Year’s Eve, at least that one night, we try to surprise.