The cachet associated with Champagne can cut both ways. Purveyors of fine sparkling wine demand a premium for its prestige and they get it-most of the time. On the other hand, its perception as a luxury product makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of disposable income. Look back no further than the crash of 2008, when, like lots of other bubbles, Champagne's burst.
Even in flush times, consumers tend to make sparklers "special occasion" wines, reserved for the likes of weddings and World Series championships. Is New Year's Eve a red-letter night in your book, or an extended amateur hour that gives serious drinking a bad name? Either way, it keeps the fizz biz afloat. According to Wine Spectator, more than 40 percent of annual sparkling wine sales occur during the holidays.
Bubbly deserves better. It offers instant festivity and the essence of pleasure, virtues that shouldn't require justification on any occasion. From the pop of its cork to its tickle down your throat, bubbly engages the senses in ways few wines can match. Save sparklers for midnight toasts and you'll miss out on their food-friendliness. In its 19th-century heyday, notes wine historian Hugh Johnson, Champagne was routinely served with dinner. Bubbly sings with salty, rich, and buttery foods, from popcorn and chips to lobster and caviar. Nothing goes better with smoked fish and sushi.
Just as important for us here at Baltimore's Champagne Taste-Beer Budget Weekly, the up-market reputation of sparkling wine belies its vast price range. Values abound, some weighing in under $10 (see Juice, Dec. 19, 2012). Bubbly comes in white, pink, and red, with diverse styles reflecting origins from all over the planet. It may even earn a spot on the wine map for, of all places, England.
Meanwhile, you can cross the channel to France, bubbly's birthplace. Alfred Gratien Brut non-vintage ($50ish, 12.5 percent ABV)-a true Champagne, from the eponymous region-pours clear and frothy, with apple, quinine, and lemon-cookie aromatics. Its broad palate carries sweet bread and citrus notes with a savory hint of smoked meat. Alfred's cute Loire Valley cousin Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Rosé 2010 ($20ish, 12.5 percent ABV) makes a cheaper date. Blending 80 percent cabernet Franc with 20 percent grolleau, it shows pale, copper-toned pink. Spritzy scents of rose, wild strawberry, and rainwater introduce lingering flavors of red berries and herbs, with traces of peppercorn. I won't need a resolution to enjoy more like these in 2014.