SPARKLING wine is the festive wine par excellence. It is invariably associated with most of life's gala events -- birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs and holidays from Thanks-giving to New Year's Eve.
Regal bluebloods of the sparkling wine industry are the French champagnes. While the exalted status of fine French bordeaux and burgundy has been challenged by the bold, aggressive California cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, champagne has no serious competition and reigns supreme as the world's finest, most consistent sparkling wine.
Yet one wonders what price we must pay to indulge in the glories of these deliciously effervescent wines. While prices for other French wines have tumbled over recent months, champagne prices have remained quite firm; and the small harvest in 1981, combined with low inventories of champagne in France, will probably mean more price increases.
To make matters worse, champagne producers have apparently caught on to the American consumer's predilection for buying "vintage" champagne. Where once upon a time, champagne vintages were declared three, maybe four, times a decade, the '70s have brought declarations of vintage years in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and probably 1978. Vintage champagnes sell for considerably more than the nonvintage champagnes and are more in demand by consumers, yet rarely offer any significant difference in quality unless the vintage is of exceptional quality, as was the case in 1970, 1971 and 1975.
Another marketing tactic that has been quite successful in America is the promotion of super or luxury cuvee champagnes at staggering prices of $ 50 or more. The success of Moet-Chandon's Dom Perignon, Louis Roederer's Cristal and Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne attests to the public's misconception that such high prices guarantee high quality. Hard as it may be to believe, most luxury champagnes simply don't offer quality that is proportional to their prices.
If all of this sounds pretty distressing, you can still treat yourself to some impeccably made champagne at reasonable prices, including some luxury cuvees worthy of their lofty price tags.
As you shop around for champagne, you should keep in mind a few basic rules. Most champagnes are quite dry to the taste. The driest of the champagnes are labeled with a "nature" designation, which traditionally has meant that no sugar solution or liqueur d'expedition has been added. Most dry champagnes in this country are labeled "brut," which means they can have up to 1 1/2 percent sugar solution added. Champagnes labeled "extra dry" can have 1 1/2 to 3 percent sugar solution added. If you do not like bone-dry champagnes, you should look for the extra-dry champagnes. Sweet dessert champagnes are designated by the words "demi-sec" (up to 6 percent sugar solution added) or "doux" (up to 10 percent sugar solution added).
Most champagnes are made from a standard blend of one-third chardonnay grapes, and two-thirds red wine grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Champagnes labeled "blanc de blancs" are made exclusively from chardonnay grapes and can usually be counted on to be lighter in body than other champagnes. Some champagne producers use a higher proportion of pinot noir in their blend of champagne, and this results in a fuller, richer and bigger-styled wine.
Readers who do not desire to part with the requisite $ 15 to $ 20 for a good nonvintage champagne need not despair, as there are several attractive non-champagnes that offer pleasant fruity effervescence in a straightforward format. From Spain, look for the nonvintage Cordoniu for around $ 7.99. It is a dry, serviceable sparkling wine that is consistently above average in tastings I have held. From France, there are at least two fine values in sparkling white wine. The highly publicized, meritorious sparkling Saumur Bouvet ($ 7.99 to 8.99) is dry, tart and fruity, and reasonably priced. Another fine value from France is the sparkling wine from the province of Savoie called Saint Germain. The 1978 vintage is retailing for $ 6.99 a bottle around town, and is bubbly, direct and cleanly made; it has no flaws.
Italy is known for its slightly to moderately sweet asti spumante. However, some fine dry spumantes are made, which offer alternatives to more expensive champagnes. The Ferrari Brut from Lunelli ($ 9.99) is 100 percent chardonnay and well made, as is the Pinot di Pinot ($ 8.99) from Gancia. Both wines are quite dry, with a clean fruity taste and good lingering effervescence.
An interesting Austrian sparkling wine is also on the market. It is called Gottweiger Brut ($ 6.99), from Roman Leimer, and is a straightforward, bone-dry wine that lacks complexity but is quite fruity and well made.
From America, I would recommend the various sparkling offerings from Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg and Mirassou.
Despite all of the above alternatives to champagne, they don't compare with the best of the real stuff, which is simply superb. My recommendations for great champagnes in the super or luxury category include the sensational 1975 Deutz, Cuvee William Deutz ($ 29.95), and the elegant 1975 Heidsieck Dry Monopole Diamant Bleu ($ 29.95). Both of these top-of-the-line super cuvees are finely crafted champagnes that are better than most of the other luxury champagnes selling for $ 45 to $ 60 per bottle. Two awesomely priced super champagnes that are deserving of their price tags include the 1976 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut ($ 54.95) and the exquisite nonvintage Krug Grand Cuvee ($ 55). Any of these four luxury champagnes represents the apogee of winemaking in Champagne.
More important, however, are the five very fine examples of nonvintage champagnes on the market. All of these wines are priced in the $ 15 to $ 20 range, with sale prices of these items dipping to $ 12 to $ 13 on occasion. The Deutz N.V., Laurent Perrier N.V., Louis Roederer N.V., Pol Roger N.V., and Pommery et Greno N.V. will please the most demanding connoisseur of champagne.
One final caveat: To ensure you get the maximum enjoyment from your sparkling wines, never serve these wines in the saucer-shaped glasses often labeled by manufacturers as champagne glasses. Champagne's soul is its effervescence, a component that will dissipate rather quickly in such glasses. Champagne should be served in tall, narrow fluted glasses. SALUT!