It's not surprising that Champagne is the traditional tipple for New Year's parties: The wine of kings has a luxurious reputation that elevates even the most plebeian celebration, and its cheerful little bubbles seem to promise a bright, sparkly future. But as 2011's annus pretty-damn-horribilis transitions into 2012, it is hard to justify shelling out a small fortune for a bottle of genuine French Champagne.
Still, if the idea of ringing in the New Year with cheap substitutions like J. Roget or Korbel leaves you feeling flat, don't worry: There are plenty of other sparkling options out there.
Prosecco and Cava: The Classic Standbys
Lorena Ascencios, the wine buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits says that, when it comes to great sparkling wines at a great price, the best choices are "Prosecco and Cava, hands down." Prosecco, produced in Northwest Italy, comes from glera or prosecco grapes. "It's a good sipping sparkler," Ascencios notes, with outstanding bottles available in the $10 to $15 range.
Part of the reason that Prosecco is so much cheaper than Champagne lies in its preparation method. Champagne is produced through a process called methode champenoise, in which it's fermented twice -- once in a barrel, and a second time in its bottle. Prosecco also has a two-stage fermentation method, but the second fermentation happens in a large steel tank. Afterward, the sparkly wine is bottled under pressure.
The Prosecco production process -- called the Charmat method -- costs less than methode champenoise and results in wines with larger bubbles. Ascencios likes Scu Do, which her store sells for $8.96 a bottle, and Mia, which costs $6.96. While these tend to be sweet, some Proseccos are drier: Castelir, for example, costs $16.95 a bottle and offers a more sophisticated flavor.
For those who prefer a more traditional champagne flavor, Cava is also a great option. Ascencios describes the Northeastern Spanish wine as "dry, with mineral flavors more attuned to salty foods, snacks, and seafood." Unlike Prosecco, Cava is often made through methode champenoise, which produces a drier bubbly. Not surprisingly, Cavas can be a bit more expensive, but Ascencios notes that there are some great deals available for under $15. She especially suggests Casteller, which Astor sells for $11.96 a bottle; Naveran, which costs $14.96; and Savia Viva, which costs $8.96.
Find the Real Thing ... for Less
While there are lots of great sparkling wines available for under $15, for some people, only true French bubbly will do. As with any other purchase, brand-name Champagnes often cost more than lesser-known gems. But the price difference doesn't necessarily reflect a higher quality wine. Large Champagne companies often spend a lot of money on promotion, passing the cost on to the consumer. By comparison, Ascencios notes, smaller brands often "are just doing what is second nature to them -- giving phenomenal value for the price."
Some especially good deals include Michel Loriot Blanc de Noir, which Ascencios' store sells for $36.96 a bottle; Pierre Brigandat non-vintage brut, which retails for $32.96 a bottle, and Brigandat Rose, which costs a bit more, at $39.96 a bottle.
Go Farther Off the Usual 'Wine Country' Map
Another method for getting a good bottle for less is to search among more obscure wine-making regions, which often produce outstanding vintages for less than their better-known cousins. For example, Hungary's Torley Winery has been producing sparkling wines since the 1800s, but its relative obscurity means its offerings can be real bargains. Tess Lampert, a representative of the Blue Danube wine company, notes that Torley's Gala wine "offers fruity flavors and loose bubbles," much like a Prosecco. Its Hungaria Grand Cuvee, on the other hand, is bottle-aged -- like a Champagne -- and has a "yeasty" flavor and "tight, small bubbles," much like the French wine.
Vintners from around the world offer sparkling wines that are surprisingly good and surprisingly low-priced. So when it comes to finding a great wine for New Year's Eve -- or for any day, for that matter -- Ascencios offers great advice: "Don't be afraid of something you don't recognize. There are a lot of interesting wines off the beaten path!"
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
7 Financial New Year's Resolutions You Should Keep
How to Get Your New Year's Eve Bubbly Without Paying a Bundle
As an added incentive, some employers and insurers are offering rewards in the form of gift cards or discounted deductibles for employees with healthy habits and fewer sick visits to the doctor.
Vicky Oliver, in her column Eight New Year's Resolutions for Frugalistas, advises trying to stay one step ahead of the retailers who are forever luring us with clever marketing strategies. "BOGO" sales (Buy-One-Get-One), she points out, only save you money if you actually want the second item. Ditto for "loss leaders," -- items the store under-prices so far that it loses money on them, in the hope that once you're there to buy them, you'll also pick up some higher-margin items that will allow them to turn a profit on you. Using special promotions and loss leaders only when they can really supercharge your savings -- and shunning them otherwise -- is the best frugalista formula, Oliver says.
She also recommends becoming a "groupie." Take advantage of the power of group buying sites, like Groupon and LivingSocial, that offer deep discounts, and special promotions from social sites like foursquare.
What's complex can be intimidating, and therefore tempting to ignore. Vow to simplify your financial life.
For starters, put bill-paying on auto-pilot. If you're still writing and mailing checks, set up online accounts so that bills are paid automatically. In addition to giving you easy access to your bank and credit-card accounts and spending history, going paperless has an unexpected benefit: People who pay bills online are happier.
Automate savings too. To the extent your cash-flow permits, max out your contributions to tax-advantaged savings vehicles -- 401(k)s, traditional or Roth IRAs, and 529 plans for college savings, advises Benjamin Sullivan, a financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group. Also, reduce the number of retirement accounts you have by consolidating 401(k)s from former employers and any other traditional IRAs into one rollover IRA.
If the last few years have taught us only one thing, it's that you can't afford to be in the dark about money matters. Make 2012 the year to focus on your financial education.
The more knowledgeable you are, the more active you'll be in planning to reach your financial goals, says Bob Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute, a nonprofit organization of investment professionals. Consider joining an investment club, or take advantage of any investing help that may be offered by your employer, such as one-on-one professional advice or educational workshops.
For most of us, it's less a matter of if an emergency will arise than when. And anyone who's been out of work for any length of time at all knows how quickly you can deplete your resources.
Start an emergency fund if you don't already have one. According to Susan E. S. Howe, a Philadelphia-based CPA and a member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, your emergency fund should have enough cash to cover at least three months of basic expenses.
It make take a while to reach that goal, but keeping track of where you spend your money even for a week can help you identify ways to cut back and start saving. Put all your change in a bucket for a month to see just how much money you could be saving rather painlessly, says Luke Vandermillen, vice president of retirement and investor services with the Principal Financial Group. Consider using that spare change to build or add to an emergency fund. If you're paying someone to mow your grass or wash your car, do it yourself and stash the extra cash. Not only will having a safety cushion help you when personal emergencies arise, it will also help you feel more comfortable during ups and downs in the economy.
Here's a risk-free place to put your money with a surefire return on investment of well over 10%, suggests Michael Kresh, president of Creative Wealth Management: Pay off your high interest debt. If you're getting charged 12.99% on your Visa account balance, and you're earning 1% on your money market account, take money out of the money market to pay off the credit card -- you'll end up with an 11.99% return.
Try to pay more than the minimum each month. Bankrate.com's credit card minimum payment calculator can show you how paying just a little more each month can dramatically reduce overall payback time.
One key to getting financially fit is a creating a household budget. You don't have to get too granular, so skip the complicated categories and subcategories. While having all those details may seem like a great way to help you understand your spending, a budget designed that way is unrealistic to maintain for the long term, says Devin Miller, CEO of Balance Financial.
Automate the tracking process as much as possible. Look for budgeting tools that do the work for you -- aggregating disparate accounts into one place, downloading data nightly, categorizing/memorizing transactions and more.
Monitor your progress. "No one gets it right on the first try, so check in regularly to make sure you have a clear understanding of how much money you have spent or have left, and adjust your budget accordingly," says Miller.
Be transparent. A household budget isn't a state secret. Keep your spouse or significant other up to date on spending, remaining funds and what the priority expenses are to ensure you're on the same page.
The New Year is a fresh start. Learn from last year's mistakes and move on. As for this year's resolutions, don't mean to change, do change.