It’s finally (finally!) time to say au revoir to 2020.
To mark this occasion, you might want to celebrate in style by popping a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine this New Year’s Eve.
And while these drinks can be notoriously expensive, it’s actually possible to find bargains that also taste good. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.
We talked to a few experts for their best tips when it comes to finding a decent bottle of Champagne that’s still affordable.
Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne: What’s the Difference?
To make an informed choice when shopping for your celebratory bubbles, you first need to understand the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine.
Not all sparkling wines are Champagne, but all Champagne is sparkling wine, according to Michael Bottigliero, Detroit-based founder and chief sommelier at Bottles Nation.
Champagne is sparkling wine made in the traditional method from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and aged en tirage, also known as “sur lie aging.” This is when the wine gets a chance to age with dead yeast cells, giving it its characteristic toasty flavors and aromas. The longer it stays with those dead yeast cells, the more complex the wine becomes. It must age for no less than 18 months to be called Champagne.
“These wines have gained notoriety throughout Europe for centuries, and that has carried on to today, making them well established in the marketplace,” Bottigliero said.
8 Tips to Help You Find Good, Affordable Sparkling Wine
Here are a few more things to look for when shopping for a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne.
Understand Vintage vs. Non-Vintage Sparkling Wines
You’ll also need to understand the difference between vintage and non-vintage sparkling wines when shopping for your bubbly.
Non-vintage sparkling wines are allowed to be blended with wines from prior seasons. That creates a consistent flavor for every release, according to Bottigliero. Vintage wines are made from grapes produced in one growing season or year. These are typically higher in price, as they are considered to tell the larger story of that growing season.
In addition, some wines are special vintage, which means they’re made only in extremely high-quality growing seasons. These are brands like Dom Perignon and La Grande Dame, which are extremely costly.
“It’s all about the marketing, quality and supply and demand when it comes to pricing,” Bottigliero said.
Look for Clues on the Bottle
The bottle itself should be thick, dark glass — or else you may find yourself with stale grape juice rather than a tasty wine, says Haith Razuki, owner of Buy My Liquor in San Diego.
The labeling also holds keys to the wine’s quality. There are three classes of Champagne: classic, reserve and prestige. If you’re looking for a budget-conscious factor, try one of the classic Champagnes on the shelves. There are six levels of sweetness — varying from dry to supersweet — so select one according to your taste preference.
“A good inexpensive bottle to try would be Luc Belaire Luxe,” Razuki said. “They offer several varieties, including a rose, so you can explore the selection and find something you enjoy.”
And the label itself may be an indicator of quality as well — emphasis on “may.”
“The care placed into labels is often a good sign of quality, though fancy labels can equally exist on low-quality wines,” said Amie Fields, a sommelier, marketing and education director and partner at Botanist & Barrel Cidery and Winery in Asheville, North Carolina.
Look for Sparkling Wines from Specific Growing Regions…
“Getting a wine which only says ‘Bourgogne’ or ‘Burgundy’ versus a smaller appellation in Burgundy like Nuits St. George, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, etc. will indicate to the novice that, ‘Hey, this wine might have an individual microclimate and terroir, making it more special than grapes sourced from all over the Bourgogne region,’” Bottigliero said.
Best of all: They also tend to be more affordable.
… and Check Out Wines From Lesser-Known Regions
Be open to exploring wines from areas you might not already have on your radar, like Australia, South America and New Zealand, as they can all produce good-to-great quality sparkling wines that aren’t expensive, says Shawn Paul, wine operations director at Foxcroft Wine Co.
Don’t discount wines from the United States either; we have a lot of regions that make good quality wines too.
Look for Grower Champagnes
You may also want to look for grower Champagne, which is grown and produced on the same estate, according to Fields. These come in a large range of prices, from expensive to affordable.
You can determine if the bottle you’re looking at is grower Champagne by looking for the initials RM (meaning Récoltant-Manipulant) in small print on the bottle’s label.
Seek Out Small, Independent Brands
Small, independent castles specialize in a few grapes, and they sell through direct visits and little to no export or sale to other markets.
Huge brands, on the other hand, tend to mix various grapes from different producers they own to supply the demand created by their marketing departments, says Yoann Bierling, founder of YBierling, an international consulting firm. Bierling’s family produces Champagne in France.
“A good bottle of Champagne from any of the many independent producers in the Champagne region costs around $20 — or $30 for a special one (late harvest or other prestige mix-up), while brand-name Champagnes can skyrocket for no specific taste, but a better branding and marketing,” Bierling said.
Be Open to Trying Different Styles of Sparkling Wine
You may want to opt for sparkling wines like Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant D’ Alsace, Cremant de Jura, Cremant de Limoux or Cremant de Loire. These are all made using the traditional Champagne method, but they were created in different regions of France.
“These wines are made with local grape varieties and are priced lower than Champagne, but you still get to enjoy the same level of quality,” said Amanda Goodwin, a sommelier and founder of The Real Housewine Blog in Pennsylvania.
You may also want to sample a style of sparkling wine like pétillant naturel (or pét-nat), which is produced using the process used to create the first sparkling wines. You may also want to try ones made using new grape varietals. Fields goes further and suggests keeping an open mind to things like a dry cider or a perry instead of a traditional grape wine.
Pét-nat wines and ciders are less expensive without any sacrifice in quality. You can find an exceptional bottle of pét-nat on the shelf for $15-$25. Since they’re bottled younger in their life, they cost less to produce, Fields says. They’re fresh, alive and full of expressive flavors, a true snapshot of that time in the vineyard or orchard.
Ask the Professionals
When in doubt, turn to the pros. The best way to discover new sparkling wines is to speak with a knowledgeable wine professional at a retail store and ask for suggestions from them. They should be able to help you identify a quality sparkling wine that’ll fit your budget.
Danielle Braff is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.