The Noble Writ's Under-$20 Sparkling Wine Shootout!


Let's admit two facts. First, 2009 has been a hateful year, economically speaking, for a lot of folks. Second, most folks will have enough drinks in them by 11:59 p.m. on New Year's Eve that opening a bottle of fine Champagne will be an ego stroke rather than a wine experience to savor.

This week, I suggest a few sparkling wines that offer good flavors at a good price. As a bonus, my mother-in-law, an avowed lover of all wines sparkling, but especially Champagne, was in town and gamely volunteered to taste along with me. I've added her conclusions to my notes.

Do try to buy from a store that moves a good volume of sparklers, or at least matches its inventory to its sales volume. Unsure how long a bottle has been on the shelf? Ask. That dusty bottle in the sunny front window of the local minimart is unlikely to provide much pleasure, regardless of the price.

For this tasting, I purchased four different wines: three recommended by local shops and, as a control, one big brand from my local Schnucks. My mother-in-law and I tasted these wines blind. Unfortunately, one of the three nice ones was corked, and I was unable to procure a timely replacement. So I purchased another wine, which we didn't taste blind, to fill out the field.

I've noted the place I purchased each wine and the price I paid, though many of these are available at other wine shops around town.


Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut Cava, Spain (The Wine & Cheese Place, $9)

We've discussed Spain's sparkling bargain before, but for the price I was not expecting much from this Cava. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Extremely pale yellow in color. Lightly yeasty nose, with some nice toasty notes. Bright lemony fruit pops through on the palate, where the yeastiness is not overpowering. The finish is long and minerally. My mother-in-law is a fan of yeasty notes, and this wine by far had the most; I'm not a fan, and this was still within tolerance. Carbonation was on the low side, the weakest of the wines sampled, which took away some of the wine's festive nature.

Les Rocailles, Brut, Vin de Savoie (The Wine & Cheese Place, $17)

And now for something completely different. This is for those who don't like the yeasty, toasty, bready flavors of Champagne or its imitators. The Savoie is an individualistic region producing a unique sparkler built on two local grape varieties, jacquère and altesse, along with 20% chardonnay. The result is certainly not a traditional New Year's sparkler, and my mother-in-law was adamant that it wouldn't serve that purpose well, but it was my favorite of the tasting. Regardless, it's well worth sampling even if you need to do so under other circumstances later in the year.

Pale yellow in color with a light, very fine carbonation. Lemon meringue fruit with warm baking spice notes. No yeast influence apparent on either the nose or palate. Sharp fruit, led by candied citrus zest. Long, mineral-rich finish, with just a hint of sugar to round off the acidity. My mind can think of dozens of uses for this at the table. A truly delicious sparkler.

The recommended sparklers - DAVE NELSON
  • Dave Nelson
  • The recommended sparklers
Gruet, Blanc de Noirs, New Mexico (The Wine & Cheese Place, $16)

I will admit that I first bought a Gruet wine many years ago just to see what a wine from New Mexico would be like, but I was quickly converted to this reliable producer of good value sparklers. The blanc de noirs is a white sparkling wine made from 100% pinot noir.

Light gold in color with the highest carbonation of all the wines tasted, though the bubbles are also the finest and longest lasting. Sharp, lemon zest fruit, with some darker undertones, a touch of spice and very subtle yeast notes of rising dough. Lean and chalky in the mouth -- characteristics that are emphasized by the high carbonation. Long, acidic finish, with some lingering lemony fruit. This was the most Champagne-like and my mother-in-law's favorite as a result.

Not Recommended

Freixenet, Cordon Negro NV Brut ($9, Schnucks)

While I was not expecting great things from this grocery-store standby, I've purchased it in the past for making mimosas and other sparkling-wine cocktails. Frankly, I was shocked at how unpleasant it was.

Pale gold with light, large bubbles of carbonation. Volatile aromas of fresh vinyl, with a touch of bubble gum. My mother-in-law noted kerosene. Very harsh in the mouth with mouth-puckering acidity. I hope this bottle is an aberration, but I would be very leery of picking this off the shelf at the moment. The Aria is five or six times the wine for the same price.

Overall, I was pleased with the value selections I was able to find at a good wine store. So there is no need to be shy about heading to your favorite wine merchant to pick up some sub-$20 sparklers as there are some very lovely selections around town.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.


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