Champagne Strife

Holiday Cheers Spawn Spirits Rivalry

by Robb Walsh

Every year at this time, I write a cute little article about the limestone caves under the city of Reims where Champagne is stored, or about the widow Cliquot who founded one of the great Champagne houses of France, or on some other seemingly charming topic related to the subject of Champagne. And at the end of the article, I list my picks for the best deals in town on sparkling wine. It's taken me three years to figure out that nobody ever reads the silly stories at the beginning of this article because they're in such a rush to get to the price list at the end. It's also taken me three years to figure out how to do the list.

The first time I tried it, I listed a bunch of great bargains on sparkling wines, but I neglected to mention which store had them. I was inundated with phone calls from readers who were trying to find the wines. The next year, I included the stores, but I got calls from readers who had found the same wine cheaper somewhere else. Last year, I think I got it right. In fact, I know I got it right, because of all the anguish I caused the wine merchants. In order to make sure I had the cheapest price on each bottle, I read them each other's prices. You should have heard the moaning.

"That guy is giving his Champagne away!" and "I can't even buy it for that price!" they screamed in my ear. Several wine dealers negotiated their prices on sparkling wine while we were still on the phone.

"He's got that for $18.99? I'll go down to $18.49!"

In other words, I unwittingly set off a Champagne War. Like two gas stations on opposite corners who keep dropping their prices to steal each other's business, some Austin wine stores and grocery stores are dropping their Champagne prices to unheard-of lows to get your attention.

Of course the idea is to set the Champagne prices low as a way to get you in the door to sell you other stuff. But if you ever drink Champagne at any other time of the year, you know that these holiday bargains are pretty outrageous. The wine producers are getting into the act, too. They know that every wine retailer in the country is looking for bubbly bargains this time of the year, and so they compete with other winemakers with wholesale holiday specials.

In some cases, this leads to exceptional bargains, in some cases it leads to inferior wines. Several retailers told me that they had dropped some of last year's bargain brands because the quality of this year's vintage is off. Some winemakers, it seems, are cutting corners or trying to use up oxidized stocks in their bargain blends.

So buyer beware! Last year's bargain could be this year's bellywash. I could go on, but what's the use? All you really want to know is how much you're going to pay for the fizzy stuff this year. So without further ado... bubbly bargains for 1995:

Domestics Under $10:

Here's a surprise. Chandon under $10? Could it be? After years of prices that seemed to slip ever higher, Domaine Chandon finally came to its senses and created a new blend that they could sell cheap. And judging by the cash register, it's quite a hit with consumers. Buy early; this one could sell out!

Chandon Brut Cuvée, $9.99 -- A new light and toasty-flavored blend from one of America's favorite sparkling wine producers. (Austin Wine Merchant -- AWM)

Chandon Blanc de Noirs, $9.99 -- A salmon-colored, full-bodied blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, a little heavier than the Brut Cuvée; I like it better. (AWM)

Domaine Ste. Michelle $8.79 -- Blanc de blanc from Washington State with lots of chardonnay and good crispness. (Wiggy's)

Domestics Under $20

This category used to be exclusively Californian. But a surprise contender from New Mexico made its way onto the list this year, thanks in part to Coyote Cafe, which has put New Mexico sparkling wine on the map:

Gruet Brut, $11.99 --"This is the, hands down, best value in the world under $15," raves Rob from Wiggy's. Gruet is a small French-owned winery in New Mexico that specializes in Chardonnays, but lately everybody is talking about their bubbly. (Wiggy's)

Domaine Carneros Brut, $14.99 -- Made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from California's premier cool-weather microclimate, a citrusy, crisp sparkler from the Taittinger people. (Wiggy's)

Iron Horse Brut, 1990, $18.99 -- This one is always highly recommended. Rob from Wiggy's says it tastes "racy and focused." (I love it when he talks like that.) (Wiggy's)

Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley Brut, $11.99 -- A great buy on everybody's favorite elegant California bubbly. (AWM)

French Under $10:

The best buys in bubbly under 10 bucks, in my humble opinion, tend to be the French sparkling wines made by the traditional champagne method in regions outside the borders of the Champagne district. Here's this year's favorites:

Marquis de Latour $8.99 -- A Chenin
Blanc-based blend from the Loire Valley, fruity and clean. (Reuben's)

Francois Montand, Blanc de Blanc, $7.99 -- Chardonnay-style, citrusy and crisp. (Central Market -- CM)

Charles de Fere, Blanc de Blanc, $7.49 -- Crisp, stylish Chardonnay flavors. (CM)

Varichon et Clerc, Blanc de Blanc, 1992 $8.79 - Light, dry, and crisp with Chardonnay fruit flavors. (CM)

Veuve de Vernay, $5.99 -- Toasty flavors and hazelnut aromas, a good bet if you're buying several cases. (CM)

Bouvet Brut Signature, $7.99 -- A great bargain on a refreshing light sparkler from the Loire River Valley. (AWM)

Charles de Fere, Brut Tradition Chardonnay, $8.75 -- 100% Chardonnay, rich creamy flavor, a great bargain. (AWM)

Non-Vintage Champagne:

Most of the top Champagne producers sell a non-vintage blend like Cliquot's "Orange Label." These tend to be much better buys than the snob-appeal top-end labels. Here's this year's list:

Veuve Clicquot, Brut, "Orange Label," $26.99 -- Nutty, yeasty, sensational: the best price/value bet in French Champagne. (Wiggy's)

Oudinot, Brut, $17.99 -- For just a little more than most California sparklers, this genuine Champagne with a Chardonnay flavor is a great deal. (Wiggy's)

Laurent-Perrier Brut, $24.99 -- Intense flavors and full toasty fruit, this wine usually sells for much more. (Wiggy's)

Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut, $18.75 -- They claimed to have changed their fruit and updated the blend, the bubbles are tighter than ever. This is the number-two Champagne in the State of Texas. (AWM)

Mumm Extra Dry, $17.99 -- For those who like their bubbly pleasantly sweet. (AWM)

Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, $19.99 -- A light and delicate sparkler. (AWM)

Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, $24.99 or $24 a bottle in a six-pack -- A creamy-style sparkler with very fine bubbles from an excellent Champagne house. (AWM)

Perrier-Jouet Blason de France, $42.50 -- The classiest non-vintage on the market with exceptional richness and depth. Maybe the best value in town. "Nearly perfect," claims James from Austin Wine Merchant. (AWM)

Pommery Brut, $19.99 -- Established in 1836, Pommery was once a very popular Champagne house. Today the brand is making a comeback; recommended for those who enjoy a full-flavored, heavy style. (Wiggy's/AWM)

Rosé

Pink Champagne used to be a joke. Not anymore. If you can track down a bottle of rosé Champagne made from Pinot Noir grapes, odds are, you're in for a treat. Of course, Pinot Noir grapes aren't cheap, so neither is the wine. Pinot Noir is responsible for the nutty, toasty flavors in Champagne. If you like the nuttier style (like Veuve Clicquot) then you'll love the 100% Pinot Noir rosés. Here are the best buys we could find:

Mumm's Cordon Rouge Rosé $22.99 -- Rumor has it that this non-vintage label is really Mumm's1985 vintage rosé relabeled for quick sale. The vintage stuff went for $40-50 a bottle, so if the rumors are true, this is quite a buy. (Reuben's)

Handley, Brut Rosé, 1990, $17.49 -- Beautiful Pinot flavors in a Mendocino sparkler. (CM)

Van der Kamp, "Midnight Cuvée" Brut Rosé, 1989, $14.99 -- A stunning rosé that spends three years on the yeast, just like the good French stuff. (CM)

Iron Horse Brut Rosé, 1989, $24.99 -- Full-bodied, rich, spicy, cherry Pinot flavors, the taste of a Burgundy in a sparkling wine -- outstanding! (CM)

Pommery Rosé, $23.99 -- A very soft and yeasty wine with lots of body and berry flavors from a famous old Champagne house on its way back. (Wiggy's) n Robb Walsh is a food writer for various publications including American Way. He is also the author of the cookbook Traveling Jamaica With Knife, Fork, and Spoon.

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