- Don’t get intimidated by all that elegant-looking French that’s scribbled on champagne bottles. Remember: It’s just wine, and it’s meant for drinking.
- We’ve researched and tested dozens of champagnes and sparkling wines to find the best ones you can buy online, and Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2008 is our favorite.
Does champagne have to be of a certain vintage, or aged for years to be enjoyed? Of course not. It’s all about where and with whom you pop the bottle. And there are ways to doctor up even the lowliest of sparkling wines. Cut it with a splash of OJ or toss in a sugar cube, and a glass or bottle of budget-friendly new world sparkling wine becomes all the more drinkable.
But, of course, there are bottles of champagne worth cherishing, and if you’re going to go ahead and dish out, you want to make sure you’re not getting duped, right? We got in touch with a few sommeliers and wine importers to make sense of it all and to find the best champagne and sparkling wine you can get at a variety of price points.
First things first, though: What is Champagne? Usually produced using one of three grape varietals (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or Chardonnay), it is twice-fermented wine, widely believed to have been discovered by Dom Pérignon in 1693, but bottle fermentation has been traced back to at least 1531 in Limoux, France. What truly defines Champagne (and not champagne, but more on that later) is that it originates from Champagne, France, and particularly five districts: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne.
Champagne is about 90 miles northeast of Paris, and it’s a region known for exceptionally sweet grapes, hence the widely beloved Champagne grape Cognac. This is why Californian “champagne,” despite what Korbel might call it, isn’t really Champagne at all (and why the word is not capitalized), and anything available for anywhere south of about $30 might as well not be, either.
Once you get into a higher price range, you enter a bit of a gray, highly subjective area where it comes down to petty preferences, if anything at all.
Ashleigh Barrowman, a France-based sommelier put it best: “Champagne is the classic example of perfect competition. It’s all the same stuff, really.”
This is especially true of non-vintage champagnes, Pierre Haury of Luneau USA Inc. Wine Imports further explains: “If you can’t afford champagne but you want a quality sparkling wine from France, Crémant, from outside Champagne (from the Loire Valley) is better at [about] $18 than bad champagne at $25. It’s drier than prosecco, and a little more expensive, but much, much better.”
Yes, sparkling wines from outside the region, confusingly enough, are also sometimes called “champagne” thanks to a loophole, though that’s a technicality mostly decided by customs and trade agreements, and only certain brands outside of Champagne are allowed to label their wine as “champagne.” True champagne is a delicate matter, and if you’re not willing or able to dish out for it, Italian prosecco and Spanish cava more than suffice and often pair better with a wider array of foods.
If you do want to sip and savor your rosé, or get your hands on a special vintage to ask a special something of a special someone, we’ve got picks for you, too.
What is a vintage Champagne?
“Vintage” Champagne is Champagne that is produced using the harvest from a single, exemplary year, which only happens a few times per decade at most. While it’s up to wine producers to decide, deeming a harvest a vintage one is usually done in concert with other Champagne houses, who all tend to agree that a certain quality has been achieved.
In short, ask (or Google) around and you’ll quickly deduce that 2006 and 2008 are considered the best available vintages of late (though we can start to look for 2012 and 2013), and you can shop them while supplies last or pay extortionate prices to pry them from the cellars of collectors and the likes. We looked at the Wine Scholars’ Guild’s chart, which gives an independent ‘year in review’ each annum.
Basically, if you want to actually drink this stuff and not banish it to some dank and dusty old cellar just to visit and feel nostalgic every so often, go for a more recent vintage, like 2006 or 2008. You can buy older stuff, and it can have a unique and potentially exquisite profile, but you’ll pay dearly, and we don’t think it’s necessarily worth it.
All of the big houses take pride in these vintages years, and any of them will sufficiently whet your whistle and then some. Bollinger, Billecart-Salmon, Dom Pérignon (which exclusively produces vintages), Ruinart: Take your pick of these and you shan’t fail.
Fun fact: Champagne used to be exponentially sweeter, varying in sweetness depending on the taste of the respective royalty of the country in which it was destined to be drunk – Russian Champagne, or “Champagne Soviétique,” as it was labeled, was traditionally the sweetest. Even into the 20th century, Champagne was most commonly served as a dessert wine.
Here is the best champagne you can buy online:
- Best Champagne overall: Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2008
- Best non-vintage Champagne: Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot
- Best eco-friendly Champagne: Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée
- Best rosé Champagne: Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé
- Best prosecco: La Marca
- Best cava: Dominio de los Duques
- Best California sparkling wine: Mumm Napa Brut Prestige
Updated on 1/16/20 by Owen Burke: We added Mumm Napa as a favorite California champagne, or sparkling wine, but we still recommend spending a little more for a bottle of Champagne for that price, if you can. The rest of our picks from last year remain the same, though our favorite Ruinart 2006 vintage is no longer available.
The best champagne overall (for now)
Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2008 has been aged for 10 years and might be the champagne house’s best yet, according to many critics and sommeliers.
If you’re going to dish out a few hundy for a bottle of bubbly, it had better dazzle your tastebuds and come with a story. After all, when we get into vintage Champagnes, the sky is the limit.
There’s a lot of hype around Cristal Champagne, thanks in no small part to Jay-Z and his affinity for Armand de Brignac (which he now owns). More than one of the sommeliers I spoke with expressed sentiments of it being overpriced, but it’s still a lovely wine produced by several of the oldest and most revered Champagne houses.
Cristal is the flagship cuvée of Louis Roederer champagne house, one of the more prized and environmentally responsible ones in the region.
First crafted in 1876 for Russian Czar Alexander II, the bottle was – and still is – uniquely made with a flat bottom and no punt because the fearful leader was worried someone would plant an explosive in one and blow him to kingdom come. If that little bit of folklore doesn’t lend it to gangsta rap, it’s hard to say what would.
There’s also no real consensus as to why Champagne and wine bottles even have a punt in the first place, and it may just be a remnant from back when bottles were hand-blown.
But to get to the wine, Roederer’s Cristal 2008 was bottle-aged for eight years and then left to rest for eight months or more, and this is Roederer’s first 10-year-aged Cristal. It’s a 60%/40% blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Roederer’s own vineyards, which are mostly biodynamic, lending a powerful palate with hints of citrus and stone fruit on the nose.
What might have otherwise been an offensively bold wine, the exceptionally long aging process leaves us with a mellow bottle that has just as much right in the cellar as it does down your gullet.
Pros: Lofty critical acclaim, heavily aged, balanced, historic
Cons: Probably best saved for a few years, a lot of critics say to wait until 2025
The best non-vintage champagne
Moët & Chandon’s standard bottle of imperial brut isn’t cheap by any means, but it’s $10 cheaper than our other non-vintage pick, Veuve Clicquot, and if it’s within your budget, you can’t go wrong.
Moët & Chandon is another classic we all know and love, and its wines range from remarkably reasonable to unimaginably unaffordable. In short? The house puts out some 28 million bottles a year, and there’s something for all.
Moët produces bottles ranging from about $45 up to, well, we won’t go there. I might add that the company is the producer of the illustrious Dom Pérignon.
Now, Moët & Chandon owns Veuve Clicquot, and like Pierre Haury of Luneau USA told me, it’s more or less all the same stuff. He finds Veuve to be fruitier and more effervescent, which might please some palates more than others.
There may be no more subjective substance on Earth than Champagne. In short, to each their own, and at this price range, you can’t go wrong with either.
Pros: Reliable consistency, moderately affordable, both popular names most will know and appreciate
Cons: Not the most sustainable, some might consider Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot overpriced
The best eco-friendly champagne
A lot of the choicest champagnes will be relatively eco-friendly, but Bollinger makes a point of keeping its lower-tier wines eco-friendly, too.
Bollinger isn’t quite as popular in the US as Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon, and it costs a bit more than other non-vintage champagnes, but it’s organic.
Founded in 1829, Bollinger continues to be run by members of the family, which has winemaking roots in the region dating back to the 16th century.
Because Bollinger has a large enough estate of 399 acres, it can provide enough grapes for about two-thirds of its requirements, and it’s able to control the quality of its grapes. Apart from being organic, Bollinger has stuck to traditional farming, harvesting, vinification, fermentation, and disgorging methods.
Oh, and it’s not half bad, either. It is, after all, the only champagne James Bond will drink. And, for the true Bond-ophile, the brand has introduced a 007-themed 2011 grand année, packaging and all.
Pros: Organic, extra aging prior to disgorgement
Cons: Not cheap
The best rosé champagne
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé is fresh, clean, crisp, and surprisingly affordable for how much care goes into it. Plus, it’s organic.
Another wine that’s popular and found on many a festive table across Europe but perhaps not so much in the new world is Billecart-Salmon. The company makes wonderful champagne all around, but the rosé is, in our opinion, among the best you can get for the price.
And we’re not alone: Wilfred Wong of Wine.com says it “could be my desert island wine.”
Fine, slow bubbles and a heavy stonefruit aroma give this wine its character, and, yes, it does go great with salmon, especially the raw kind.
Fun fact: Rosé was taboo to produce, let alone drink, right up until the middle-to-late 20th century, thanks to it being a favorite in bordellos.
Pros: Organic, clean
Cons: Okay, so it isn’t cheap, but I feel like a broken record here: This is champagne we’re talking about.
The best prosecco
La Marca prosecco is an affordable but elegant alternative to champagne that goes with anything.
Champagne is prohibitively expensive for most of us, and there’s nothing more despicable than its cheap, lowly forms. If you’re willing to forego champagne altogether below the $30 price point, Italian prosecco or Spanish cava is the way to go.
They’re much less expensive to make, but they’re still equally as fun to pop and drink. They also go better with a wider variety of food. For about $13, La Marca does it all.
Prosecco is a specialty of northeastern Italy, and it must come from the region to be considered such – just like champagne. The main difference with prosecco is that there is lower pressure required during the carbonation process, which takes place in a stainless steel tank, resulting in a sweeter, frothier, more finely-bubbled beverage.
It’ll still do its job, we promise. And around the globe, people seem to think so too. According to Vine Pair, prosecco has risen in quality over the last couple of decades and, in 2013, outsold Champagne worldwide for the first time ever.
Pros: Affordable, goes with almost any food
Cons: Sweeter than champagne, too sweet for some tastes
The best cava
- Macy’s Wine Cellar
Dominio de los Duques is made with much of the care of Champagne, and all the body and flavor, but it’s much more affordable.
No, cava isn’t anywhere near as aged or carbonated as Champagne, but there’s no denying that it’s made with love.
Starting with hand-harvested Parellada and Macabeo grapes, Dominio de los Duques is matured in the bottle for more than 12 months. This keeps the dead yeast cells in touch with the wine in the bottle, offering a creamier body as opposed to prosecco’s fresher and fruitier notes.
Cava also might be a bit drier, on average, than prosecco, so those without a sweet tooth might prefer it. It also tends to be less metallic because it’s not aged in a stainless steel tank.
Our advice? Try both cava and prosecco side by side to find what you like – that’s part of the beauty of delving into more affordable wines.
Pros: Affordable, less sweet than prosecco
Cons: Creamier, more sediment (due to bottle aging)
The best California sparkling wine
California champagne (note the lowercase “c”), or sparkling wine will always do in a pinch. It is bubbly, fruity, and carbonated, and it is perfectly drinkable. We like Mumm Napa’s Brut Prestige, but don’t let it fool you: It is not Champagne.
More akin to Italian prosecco, and sweeter than Spanish cava, California sparkling wine (or “champagne”) lacks the complexity of Champagne. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s important that you know what you’re getting.
The most important thing that you want to keep in mind is that you do not really need to spend more than $20, and certainly not much more than $30, on a bottle of California sparkling wine. Once you’re above the $30 range, you may as well just spring for a bottle of Champagne. You also might consider prosecco or cava, which tend to be less expensive but share more praise from sommeliers.
So, if you’re going to buy a bottle of new-world bubbly, consider your budget. We like G.H. Mumm Napa, which was established by Champagne legacy brand Mumm in 1970. The nearly 200-year-old Champagne house has had 50 years to get acquainted with its new-world digs and making the closest possible champagne to Champagne.
As for flavor, you’re not getting a Champagne, of course, but a little yeastiness gives the otherwise fruity and mild-mannered wine a little something extra in the way of body. You could spend a little more and perhaps get something a little more exciting to the palate, but why bother when you’re then entering Champagne budget?
And if you want something to spray everywhere for a big celebration (because we all need to do that once in a while, to boot), look to Cook’s or Andre Extra Dry. And before you get to shaking it up and hosing down friends and loved ones, a pour or two won’t kill you.
Pros: More affordable than Champagne, pairs well with food, cocktails
Cons: Lack of complexity leaves something to be desired, kick in $15 or $20 more and you have Champagne
Where to buy champagne online
- Dmitri Ma/Shutterstock.com
We still haven’t done it for you? That’s fine, we get it. We also have a guide to where (and how) to buy wines and spirits online, and here are some of our other favorite champagne houses: