While ancient Babylonians generally get the credit for being the first civilization to celebrate a New Year, the custom of toasting its arrival with champagne seems to be a more storied tale. One of the most likely versions of the origins of the champagne toast has the members of the French monarchy honoring each other with the beverage at coronation banquets. The Cathedral of Reims, traditionally the site of the crowning of kings of France, is located right in the heart of the Champagne region, and it only makes sense that the local wine would be a part of the celebration. How the customs of kings became part of our New Year’s Eve celebrations is a little less clear, but however the tradition began, it does seem to be here to stay.
For the non-oenophile, though, how does one select which champagne to serve on New Year’s Eve? Recently we took an informal survey of a few wine merchants in the Hudson Valley for some suggestions, asking for choices in the budget-conscious range (which means most of us), and a few in the money-is-no-object category. And to get this clarification out of the way up front, a true champagne, to be labeled as such, is only made in the Champagne region of France; but the more prevalent sparkling wines are a perfectly acceptable bubbly of choice as the countdown to the New Year begins.
Eric Jagoda, manager of Miron Wine & Spirits in Kingston, has more than 30 years’ experience in the wine industry, and for six years wrote a wine column locally for the Daily Freeman newspaper. Prosecco (a sparkling wine made in Italy) is really popular right now for the budget-conscious, he says, and is good for a toast. He recommends the Prosecco from Ninety Plus (90+) Cellars, priced in Miron at $10.99.
The concept of 90+ Cellars, he tells me, is that they offer wines that earned more than 90 points from the wine press (on a scale of 100), purchased from winemakers selling off their stock at a reduced price. Rather than discount their wines and erode the value of their brand, the winemakers sell the wine to 90+ Cellars, who put their own label on the bottles and sell these highly rated wines at a discount for much less than they’d sell for if they had their original labels on them.
At the other end of the price scale, Miron carries a single three-liter handpainted bottle of Perrier Jouët from the 2000 vintage: one of only 2,000 made for the turn of the 21st century, and priced at (you guessed it) $2,000. (A three-liter bottle is the equivalent of six bottles in one bottle, however, if that makes the price more palatable.) “It’s a great champagne,” says Jagoda, “top of the line, made mostly from Chardonnay grapes; an extremely limited production of a really wonderful champagne.”
The vintage of champagne is only an issue for the more expensive ones, says Jagoda. Almost every champagne producer has a style of champagne: a house blend of as many as ten different vintages that create a certain style that they aim for every year.
For everyday price ranges, Jagoda recommends a sparkling wine called Anderson Estate from Louis Roederer at $25 a bottle. Made by a French company in a French style in California, it’s half the price of its French counterpart, he says, and it tastes like the real thing. A New York Times taster panel judged it their third favorite sparkling wine out of 40 that they tried, says Jagoda. “We had it before the Times article, but it’s nice to be reinforced.”
Ken Maguire is the wine buyer for the In Good Taste Spirit Shop in New Paltz. He also recommends a Prosecco as a budget-conscious choice for New Year’s toasts, offering the Italian Cortesia Prosecco from Botter at $11 a bottle. Prosecco is not usually as dry as champagne, he says, but that doesn’t mean that it’s sweet. “They tend to be slightly off-dry,” says Maguire, “with just a touch more fruit to them.” The Cortesia is a Prosecco on the dryer side, he says. Also at $11 a bottle, In Good Taste offers a Cava sparkling wine from Casas del Mar of Spain. They have two versions of it in the shop, says Maguire: a rosé and a blanc – the latter a Brut, meaning that it’s a little dryer.
Stepping up in price, at $23 a bottle, Maguire recommends another Brut: Szigeti from Austria. Made with Austria’s signature white grape, the Grüner Veltliner, it’s very dry, pairing well with food and able to cut through the richness of the festive foods often served on New Year’s Eve, like lobster and smoked salmon. It’s made in the méthode champenoise manner, he says, with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle, and is a refreshing, even “racy” option.
The R. H. Coutier Cuvée is a step further up the price scale, at $49 a bottle, and comparable to a pricier Veuve Clicquot, says Maguire. It’s a rosé, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, with the skins of the latter included at fermentation imparting a pink color to the bubbly. The perception is often that a pink wine is a sweet wine, says Maguire, but that isn’t so: “What the Pinot Noir gives it is a little bit more fruit in terms of aromatic quality and flavor, but it’s a Brut and bone-dry.”
His choice for a higher-end champagne is Pierre Péters, a Grand Cru (indicating a classification by village in the Champagne region). In Good Taste offers a Blanc de Blanc at $61 a bottle that Maguire describes as “an elegant choice.” While champagne is generally made from three principal varieties of grape – the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, each adding a particular quality to the finished product – the Blanc de Blanc is made entirely of Chardonnay grapes. The Pierre Péters, while not an inexpensive choice, is well-priced, says Maguire, as comparable Blanc de Blancs often sell for up to $100 a bottle.
In Good Taste Spirit Shop, currently 45 Main Street, relocating to 27 Main Street in January, New Paltz, (845) 255-0110; Miron Wine & Spirits, 15 Boice’s Lane, Kingston, 845) 336-5155, www.mironwineandspirits.com.