I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready to toast a not-so-fond farewell to 2016.
It’s been a trying 12 months, but a good glass of bubbly goes a long way toward easing the pain of an iffy year gone by — and setting up a happy start to the next one.
But despite what you may have heard, there’s more to sparkling wine than Champagne. In fact, it’s totally possible that what you’ve been calling “Champagne” for years is anything but, especially if you’re a Penny Hoarder.
So what have you been drinking all this time? And how do you find good, cheap sparkling wine?
Here’s why bubbly is way more complicated than you ever imagined.
There’s No Such Thing as Cheap Champagne
Larry Olmstead, a journalist who’s been writing about food for more than 20 years, recently published “Real Food/Fake Food,” an eye-opening look at the American food industry and why so many consumers are underinformed about their choices.
It’s a long story, but the Reader’s Digest version is this: America’s food-naming laws are quite different than much of the rest of the world’s. Specifically, they’re a heck of a lot less stringent.
Because food items are salable products, producers and retailers get a lot of leeway in naming those items for marketing and branding purposes. But this lack of regulation can lead to confusion on the consumer side of things — and even out-and-out deception.
For instance, a restaurant can list almost any product as “Kobe” beef, since the term isn’t regulated in the States — even though the real stuff is insanely expensive and rare. In fact, for many years, no real Kobe beef was imported into the U.S. at all, despite its widespread appearance on American menus.
Unless you’ve dined at a few specific restaurants in New York or Vegas, Olmstead says, you’ve probably never tasted real Kobe.
So what does this have to do with your midnight quaff?
The Best Cheap Champagne Isn’t Champagne at All
Well, unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s fairly likely the delicious sparkling liquid in your glass isn’t actually Champagne, especially if you got it on the cheap.
Although “Champagne” is certainly the most famous sparkling wine, it’s not the only one. In fact, every major wine-producing country makes its own bubbly.
Champagne is so famous, the term itself has become synonymous with sparkling wine — kind of like how “Kleenex” has become a synonym for facial tissue.
But unfortunately, not every bottle of bubbles shares Champagne’s impeccable quality. (That’s why many of them don’t share Champagne’s high price!)
Since American wine is usually marketed by varietal (type of grape) rather than appellation (where those grapes are from), we’re not trained to carefully study the bottle for its origin.
And although a bottle of bubbles must actually originate in the Champagne region of France to be officially labeled as such, American marketers have found loopholes to put confusing — but enticing — wording on their labels.
For instance, Cook’s “California Champagne” is a literal impossibility — it’s like advertising “South Carolina Florida oranges.” And if it’s the only taste of “Champagne” you’ve ever gotten, holy wow are you missing out.
Champagne is so famous because it’s really, really good. And that quality takes time and money to achieve.
By stealing the name — but not the labor-intensive high quality that drives up the price of the real stuff — producers rob you of experiencing the real thing.
After all, why would you drop $40 on a bottle of bubbles if you can get “the same thing” for $10?
But bad wine is never worth your money, no matter how cheap it is. Fortunately, there are affordable options that are still pretty darn good.
So if you’re in the market for some bubbles for New Year’s Eve (or any eve), here’s what you might find in the wine aisle.
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine — and an awesome buy. That’s because to be labeled “Cava,” the wine must be created through the traditional fermentation method used in Champagne. And that labor-intensive process is part of what makes real Champagne so freaking delicious.
However, although Cava shares Champagne’s method of production, it doesn’t share its price. In fact, you can usually find a decent bottle for less than $15.
If it takes the same amount of work, why is it so much cheaper? Well, some of it’s probably brand recognition: Champagne’s still the biggest name in the game. And Cava’s made with totally different grapes than Champagne, which might lead to a less complex set of flavors, some experts argue.
That said, if you want the closest thing to real Champagne for the lowest price, go with Cava. It’s usually dry, crisp and light — the perfect segue into a brand-new year.
Prosecco is Italy’s most famous bottle of bubbles, and it’s another good option for New Year’s Eve. You can get a good entry-level bottle for as little as $10.
That price tag’s low for a reason: Prosecco undergoes its secondary fermentation in steel tanks, as opposed to the bottle-aging method of la méthode champenoise.
It’s a whole lot cheaper, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing — foregoing the extra bottle rest pushes Prosecco’s fruit flavors to the fore, meaning you get a slightly sweeter swig after your midnight toast.
This is what Korbel, Cook’s and other rock-bottom brands bill themselves as. It’s a crappy marketing tactic that’s confusing at best (and deceptive at worst), and the wine itself is usually as bad as that business practice.
My recommendation? Avoid at all costs.
Even 10 bucks is a waste if it’s bad wine. (Not to mention you’ll spend extra pennies on Advil the next morning. Not the best start to a new year.)
This is the real deal, and it’s delicious — but it ain’t cheap. A good price on an entry-level bottle is about $40, and fancy cuvees and vintages can go for thousands of bucks.
And if you’ve never had the genuine article before, strap in — you’re about to find out just what you’ve been missing. (And hey, look: Now you have another reason to hoard pennies in 2017!)
Your Turn: What will you toast with at midnight on New Year’s Eve?
Jamie Cattanach is a WSET-certified wino and staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.