Frugal New Year's: The best champagne ... on a beer budget

If your New Year's resolutions include toning up a flabby bottom line and avoiding becoming the biggest financial loser in 2010, toast your goals with the good stuff -- champagne and sparkling wines priced right for recession-weary revelers.

Following several cork-popping years of record-breaking shipments (and some might say price gouging) to the U.S., the Champagne Bureau is reporting a slump. It's hangover time. US sales of imported bubbly have gone flat in 2009 dropping 41.2% from January to August. The trade association, Comite' Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, reported by Slate Magazine's wine expert, Mike Steinberger, that there are currently more than 1 billion bottles all dressed up with nowhere to go, sitting in warehouses all over the Champagne region of France.

However, while the party may be over for French exporters, competitive pricing strategies are giving savvy bargain hunters a reason to celebrate.

Champagne taste on a beer budget? Your time has come. Literally. This year, the experience of uncorking high-quality, Champagne or sparkling wine priced well under $40 dollars is available to the aficionado, wine snob and layman alike. Don't expect to find Cristal or Dom Perignon for less than the price of a ticket to Disneyland, but they too have been marked down.

Champagne expert and author of The Bubbly Bar: Champagne & Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion, Maria Hunt, told WalletPop that it pays to look for deals at the warehouse stores. Hunt said Costco is currently offering Veuve Clicquot at $31 with a store coupon, "that is huge."

She also noted that even non-Costco and non-Sam's Club members can purchase liquor at warehouse stores due to sate rules that govern the sale of alcohol (consumers must obtain a "temporary shopping pass" at the membership desk, are only allowed to buy alcohol, and must pay with cash; to avoid any confusion you may want to call before you go just to clarify). Without the Costco coupon, the bottle is still a thrifty $34.99.

Want to save more? Hunt reports that Moet's White Star label (currently in the process of being re-branded as Moet Imperial), is the nation's number one-selling Champagne and is currently bargain-priced at Costco for $28.99.

Sparkle is also on sale at BevMo. Joseph Perrier Champagne Brut Royale (92 points) is slashed to $29.99, Paul Laurent Champagne Brut (89 points) is priced at $28.99, and Barefoot Bubbly Chardonnay Champagne, winner of a 2009 Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, is crazy priced at $4.99. Yep, you read that right. Yours for a five-spot.

If you're still reading this and haven't grabbed your keys on the way to the door, there is more good news. Both Hunt and Colom Keating, retail sales manager and wine buyer at the Heritage Wine Company in Pasadena, CA, encourage wine lovers to look beyond the labeling.

Apparently, bubbles by another name do taste as sweet. Since only sparkling wines originating from the Champagne region of France may be called "Champagne" on their labels, consumers may overlook other, equally strong selections.

Keating told WalletPop that he carries two alternative, "showstoppers" both priced at $25. One is a German sparkling Riesling by Wegeler, and the other is a "marvelous" 100% Chenin Blanc Chateau Moncontour from France, says Keating, "I can't keep it on the shelves." He also suggests a Gruet Brut Rose from New Mexico and said, "It's quite pleasant and
nowhere near $40 dollars." In fact, for those of you not in the Pasadena area, it's on sale at BevMo for $12.99.

The level II Sommelier also suggests considering Proseccos (lightly sparkling wines made from white wine grapes grown primarily in the eastern part of Italy's Veneto region) and Cavas (the official name for sparkling wines produced in designated areas in various parts of Northern Spain). Keating says, "I have a $13 dollar Delapierre (Cava) that I serve in my house." The problem with Americans, according to Keating, "is that we only drink (sparkling wines and champagne) on New Year's Eve and can be used as an everyday wine."

Hunt agrees. On her website,, Hunt details a range of recipes suited to pairing with sparkling wine and champagne. "Champagne can really be lovely with barbequed ribs," says Hunt, who also suggests savory, salty foods with crunch. Check out her recipes for Parmesan or truffle popcorn, Grissini (Italian breadsticks) with salmon and prosciutto, savory cheese biscuits and mini lamb burgers. "Really, it's great with everything," she says.

Hunt has also listed several party-friendly recipes for the coolest champagne cocktails. For a festive gathering, The Bubbly Girl recommends a creation called the "Lava Lamp" mixing champagne, Pama (pomegranate liqueur), and three pomegranate seeds (from a freshly sliced pomegranate, "don't use the ones from the package." Hunt says the seeds float through the cocktail following the bubbles up and down the glass. The same drink can be created as a non-alcoholic choice by substituting sparkling water and pomegranate juice.

Although she clearly knows her way around a cocktail, Hunt does not suggest watering down a fine sparkling wine as a cost cutting technique. "I like the idea that if you can only do one nice bottle of Champagne, serve that first while the palate is still clear ... then move on to a lesser priced bottle of Prosecco or Cava. If it's under $10 or $15, use that for cocktails."

In a similar vein, she shuddered at the suggestion of plastic ware. "It's just not as fun," says Hunt who prefers to use elongated flutes. "The shape of the glass creates long lines of bubbles, " she says, and as they pop at the top of the glass they release a fragrant aroma.

Hunt also points out, "all your flutes don't have to match." Case in point, she recently provided customized, Champagne cocktails for the launch of actress Alicia Silverstone's Kind Diet book and did not have enough matching flutes to go around. Hunt ended up using an assortment of Champagne glasses resulting in a fun, eclectic look. Bonus: everybody knows which glass is theirs!

It seems the biggest dilemma facing party planners this New Year's Eve may not be the price point, but the wide variety of options from which to choose. "Chandon, Mumm are good," says Keating, "but they are common." In a year where some of the loftiest labels have arrived at earthly prices mere mortals can afford, perhaps it's the time to try something new. Keating
encourages consumers to go into their local wine shops and not be afraid to ask questions.

"Just say, 'here's my budget, what have you got?'" says Keating, "they will help you find something."
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