For far too long I’ve believed that champagne headaches came with the territory. (To be more accurate, I should say “sparkling wine headaches,” since I can rarely afford to nurse a headache brought on by grapes crushed and bottled in the Champagne region of France.)
Accepted wisdom holds that the more expensive an alcohol, the less savage a hangover it will bring. (Your Patron tequila, for example, will have fewer impurities than your Sauza.) But affordability and the ability to function on New Year’s Day are not mutually exclusive.
According to Peter Burgi, former wine buyer for Los Angeles restaurant Chaya Brasserie and former wine sales consultant (and current VC Reporter ad sales rep), it’s all in the bottle.
Cook’s, Ballatore, Tott’s — the usual suspects at most wedding receptions and holiday galas, as well as in my refrigerator — are bottled using the charmat method (sometimes referred to as the “bulk” method) to create carbonation. The grape juice itself is bought on the bulk market, which typically means it is of lower quality and often vague origin. And unlike champagne or a fine imitation (which, if outside of Champagne’s physical limits, must be called sparkling wine), wines created through the charmat method experience secondary fermentation in steel tanks, rather than the bottle itself.
The happier alternative is methode champenoise, which means that sparkling wine is not only fermented in the bottle but aged in-bottle as well. The classic, honest-to-God champagnes – Dom Perignon, Cristal, Moët & Chandon — are made this way, somewhat justifying their triple-digit price tags. Methode champenoise is a more laborious and time-consuming process, and yields what Burgi describes as pleasing “yeasty, toasty characteristics.”
There are visual differences in the product as well. While Burgi points out that more cheaply produced sparkling wines have larger and more uniform bubbles and bring to mind the look of ginger ale (which, like other soft drinks, has carbonation added via an injection of carbon dioxide), methode champenoise wines are more unpredictable and feature a steady flow of bubbles that appear to rise from the bottom of the flute.
But legendary champagne brands — firmly engrained in both Hollywood mythos and hip hop culture — do not have a monopoly on #methode champenoise# or, for that matter, good sparkling wine. Outside of Champagne, Burgi offers a list of dependable selections, like Domaine Ste. Michelle from the Washington state winery Chateau Ste. Michelle (available at Trader Joe’s), or bubbly from the Catalan winery of Freixenet.
He also recommends Krystalino Brute Rosé, available for under $10 at Cost Plus World Market and, more recently, Vons.
In an age where wine no longer needs to be French, Italian or region-specific to be good, it’s time to re-examine our preconceived notions of champagne. And although methode chamepnoise wines may still use bulk market juices, these juices are far less processed than in their charmat counterparts.
And Burgi assures: In his experience, headaches are not a by-product of methode champenoise bubblies.