Perhaps you are planning a holiday open house for later this month. Or maybe you got suckered onto the committee charged with planning the end-of-year office party. In either case, you'll need a bunch of bubbly, and you'll face a dilemma when making your selection.
If you play it safe on quality and buy true Champagne, you'll likely bust your budget, popping bottles that cost more than $30 each. Moreover, you'll have done so while committing vinous overkill. It makes sense to serve good wine at parties, but it doesn't make sense to serve great wine.
My point here isn't the snotty old warning against casting pearls before swine. Rather, the point is that people just don't pay close attention to wine at parties, and the better the party, the more this point holds true. If cost is an issue, you should think about going with sparkling wine rather than Champagne for larger gatherings.
However, when you go with sparkling wine, you'd better not go too cheap. My reasoning here can be indicated with a single word: weddings.
Ever make the mistake of actually drinking the stuff typically poured for toasts at big weddings? I've heard stories from plenty of people who did, and many of them required years of therapy before they could once again face up to a bubbling glass of anything. In comparison with other lousy wines, really cheap sparkling wine is incomparably foul and uniquely debilitating.
So, when picking affordable bottles for parties, spend moderately and shop selectively. For party purposes, the sweet spot in the sparkling market is roughly between $9 and $12. Below that, almost all available bottlings are either tasteless or weird or sweet. Sweet may sound like the best of those three options, but beware: Dosing a sparkler with sugar is a standard trick for covering flaws, and nothing triggers a migraine quite like a sweet sparkler.
Many bottles are best avoided even in the $9 to $12 range, but my recent tastings turned up a dozen wines that are not only clean and competent but downright delicious. Recommended wines are reviewed in order of preference, with approximate prices and importers indicated in parentheses:
Rebuli (Valdobbiadene, Veneto, Italy) Prosecco ($12, Kysela): This wine is so much fun that it seems vaguely illegal. Lightly floral in aroma, it shows fresh but restrained fruit flavors. The effervescence is abundant but soft, yet the wine remains structured and refreshing thanks to crisp acidity. Clearly the top pop for parties.
Lucien Albrecht (Cremant d'Alsace) Blanc de Blancs Brut ($12, Pasternak/Winebow): Cremant d'Alsace is popular in France but doesn't seem to travel well and has never caught on in the United States. Bottles like this could change that, as this shows lovely aromas of nuts and fresh bread crust, with classy tart apple fruit notes and nice effervescence.
Yves Lambert (Loire Valley, France) Cremant de Loire ($12, J. Cambier): This is bright and wonderfully refreshing, with subtle flavors of crisp apples and autumn pears. Sweet sparklers can be flattering for a sip or two but then become tiring, whereas a zesty wine like this can be enjoyed for an entire evening.
Chateau Tour du Roy (Bordeaux, France) Cremant de Bordeaux 1998 ($12, Siema): I cannot recall ever tasting a Cremant de Bordeaux but look forward to tasting more of them after trying this one. Remarkably complete and complex for the money, it shows soft aromas with lots of little toasty nuances, followed by restrained fruit with excellent balance between faint sweetness and fresh acidity.
Jacobs Creek (Australia) Brut Cuvee ($10, Pernod Ricard): Made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this is delightfully fruity (as we would expect from the Aussies) but neither pushy nor overtly sweet.
Marquis de Perlade (France) Blanc de Blancs Brut ($11, W.J. Deutsch): This is an impressively classy wine, with superb acidity that balances a light touch of sweetness and helps the subtle fruit flavors ride through the soft effervescence. Crisp and clean, it is an excellent aperitif wine.
Gruet (New Mexico) Brut ($12, Country Vintner): The Gruet sparklers from New Mexico are consistently good, and this current release is certainly up to form, with pale straw color, restrained fruit notes, and a clean, well-balanced profile.
Cristalino (Penedes, Spain) Cava Brut ($9, CIV): Cava from Spain ranges from austere to aggressively earthy, and this wine tilts strongly toward the austere end of the continuum. With faint notes of yeast and tart apples, the wine is fresh and lively.
Mont Marcal (Penedes, Spain) Brut Reserva ($12, Classical Wines): Here is the other side of cava, as my sample of Mont Marcal was toastier, earthier and more mature than any bottle of this wine that I've tasted during the past decade. Full of aroma and flavor, it is recommended for those with a taste for dramatics.
Charles de Fere (France) Blanc de Blancs Brut ($11, Boisset America): This admirably consistent product is looking particular good in its current release, with subtle aromas of toast and pears, along with soft mousse and fine balance between acidity and light sweetness.
Tenuta S. Anna (Veneto, Italy) Prosecco ($12, Siema): This is a classically fresh, juicy Prosecco featuring subtle aromas of flowers and ripe fruit, with refreshing acidity that is well integrated with the flavors and effervescence.
Marquis de la Tour (France) Brut ($8, Palm Bay): Remarkably clean and balanced for the money, this is flawlessly made, with soft pear fruit, a light touch of sweetness and pleasantly soft mousse.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.