Champagne Cliffs Notes: The Best Bubblies to Buy for New Year's Eve

Categories: Wine Time

bear dalton champagne.jpg
Photos by Jeremy Parzen
Last week, Bear Dalton -- one of our nation's leading wine authorities and a Texan through and through -- walked me through his Champagne selection at the mothership Spec's on Smith Street.
The weather outside was frightful when I rolled up to the mothership Spec's on Smith Street one afternoon last week.

But it wasn't half as scary as the demolition derby that was unfolding in the parking lot there, between the old school Caddys, the C-Class Benzes, and the obligatory and ubiquitous GMC SUV, whose soccer mom pilot insisted on backing it into a space otherwise suited for a compact.

The holiday wine shopping scene inside reminded me of Dante's bufera (you know, the "storm" in the fifth Canto of the Inferno, "Where 'mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw / Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell / Their sorrows," as Keats once wrote). Lustfully happy wine shoppers literally flew through the aisles, navigating their passage between scantily clad women with painted faces offering plastic cups filled with all sorts of highly charged alcoholic beverages.

As I descended through the circles of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, "Cab" and Merlot, many a salesperson asked me graciously if I needed any help in finding what I was looking for.

But my Virgil was to be another: The wine buyer of wine buyers and poet of poets, Bear Dalton, had agreed to walk me through his Champagne selection, negotiating the often treacherous pitfalls of making that annual splurge purchase (aisle two for lust, three for gluttony).

Although I'm always one to patronize independent wine stores (and I encourage you to do the same), when it comes to Champagne, there is no place in Houston that can beat Spec's for the pricing, selection and caliber of storage.

As I made my rounds of my usual wine shopping haunts yesterday, I asked another one of my favorite Houstonian wine professionals, Marcy Jimenez of the Houston Wine Merchant (my favorite wine shop in town), why she didn't have the marquee houses of Champagne on her shelves.

"When it comes to the big names," she said, "we just can't compete on pricing."

That's not to say that Marcy doesn't have a number of top-tier Champagnes in stock this time of year. She just doesn't carry, for example, the entry-tier Taittinger (a wine that I love for its classic style, quality and value), because she can't deliver a price comparable to Spec's. (She did, however, show me a wonderful traditional-method sparkling Vouvray, the Domaine du Petit Coteau for under $25, a wine that was opened at our Christmas celebration this year.)

Not even the discount pricing at Kroger on Buffalo Speedway (one of my regular stops for competitive wine pricing) can deliver a figure lower than Spec's. (At Kroger, you have to buy six bottles of Taittinger to get their deepest discount. Technically, on a purchase of six bottles, Kroger did beat the Spec's cash/debit card price by fifty cents, but only if you buy six bottles.)

Unless it's Sunday and I need a bottle of Champagne in a pinch (when Kroger is a great alternative), I'm always going to go to Spec's for my Champagne purchase: Not only is the price more than competitive, I'm also confident that the wine has been stored properly (something not guaranteed by a Kroger or a Costco).

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I'm not going large this year on my Champagne purchase. But if I were, I'd reach for this under-$90 vintage-dated 1996 Demoiselle-Vranken, from one of the best years in Champagne in recent memory. "It's similar to [top-name] Krug in style," said Bear.
Spec's also has -- by far -- the biggest selection of large- and small-format bottles.

Not only does Champagne in magnum (equivalent to two 750ml bottles) impress New Year's Eve dinner guests by virtue of penis envy, it is also more highly coveted because it ages more gracefully (by the way, Champagne in large format costs more per volume because of this).

The Champagne selection at Spec's can be overwhelming and I highly recommend asking a salesperson for help if you feel lost in the forest of sparkling wine.

Space won't allow me to handicap every label available at Spec's, but the following are some of my moderately priced favorites (usually around $50).

Bollinger is my favorite of the big houses, yeasty and toasty in style. My wife and I always drink "Bolly" for New Year's, but we also always have a bottle in the fridge year round, just in case we have the urge, ahem, desire to drink Champagne.

Billecart-Salmon is my go-to for elegance and steely minerality, another favorite.

Taittinger is without a doubt my number-one value big-house Champagne when it comes to traditional-style, delicious food-friendly wine at a great price (the cash price at Spec's is around $40, a great deal for excellent, classy Champagne).

Gaston Chicquet is one of the many "growers' Champagnes" that have found their way to our market. The category denotes a farmer who stopped selling his fruit to the big houses and began making limited-production wines. I love the freshness and food friendliness of this wine.

Delamotte is one of Bear's top picks for value and quality. At under $40 for the entry-tier, "you're drinking classified fruit," in other words, highest quality grapes, "even though it doesn't say so on the label."

Gosset is another label that Bear recommends for its value (at $38 cash price), a classic and a favorite among wine professionals.

There are many others, but the above is my handlist of Champagnes for New Year's 2012.

You're not going to find much under $35 when it comes to good Champagne, but there are a number of sparkling wine alternatives at lower price points. Here are a few of my favorites that I found at Spec's yesterday. (See also my two recommendations at the Houston Wine Merchants above.)

Chateau Moncontour is a traditional method Vouvray (made from Chenin Blanc), one of my personal favorites because of its brilliant acidity and its fantastic price (around $15).

Ferrari, traditional method Chardonnay from German-speaking Italy, is another top sparkler for me (around $26), especially considering the extreme value for the quality. For $32 cash price, the rosé (made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) is one of my favorite sparkling wines from Italy.

Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) is my go-to for domestic bubbles. Made from fruit grown in what I consider to be one of California's best growing zones for acidity-driven wine, this wine is produced by the classic Champagne house Taittinger in my home state. A wonderful value at around $21 (the rosé is even better at around $34).

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Thanks for the run-down Jeremy, interesting stuff. Some of the bottles at Spec's look a little sketchy, and past their prime, and I don't think that applies to sparklers and Champagnes, right?


@fiorello honestly, I have had a lot of issues with tired bottles at Spec's but the Champagne selection was very fresh this year. Champagne can go stale, too, but it's less common than with, say, the Italian selection there.

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