Bubbly on a budget: Cause for celebration

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Chase Utley sprays champagne after the Phillies’ victory in the World Series. The brand he's brandishing, Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, is also good for drinking. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

One of the happiest moments of 2008 - for Philadelphians, at least - was one soaked in champagne: a long-awaited World Series victory doused in a shower of tiny bubbles.

Scratch that. It was a "sparkling wine" from Washington state that Chase and the Fightin' Phils were spraying like firehoses across their euphoric locker room. But if anyone actually managed to taste the bubbly, they would have found that Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut is not bad at all.

It's got a lively fizz and a well-tuned balance of toastiness, tangerine sweetness and limey citrus that has made it a perennial value pick. It's perfect for big-party sipping, or as a mixer for cocktails like Kir Royale and French 75. Even better, it's on sale for $9.99 in Pennsylvania, so you can buy enough to drink and spray on your guests!

While Domaine Ste. Michelle may very well be the single most affordable sparkling wine I'd still want to drink, there are a number of other good-value sparklers out there at slightly higher prices to consider. And judging from a recent report in the Economist about plunging demand for more expensive French champagne (Laurent-Perrier's third-quarter sales dropped 30 percent compared with last year), buying economy bubbly is already a popular trend this year.

Here are some of the best bets I've tasted in the last few weeks:

Also widely available in Pennsylvania

Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $13.99: Italian sparklers are always a great value. This bottle from Conegliano near Venice delivers simple frothy fun, with the pleasant sweetness of nutmeg-spiced pears framed by a grapefruit tartness and a creamy finish.

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, $17.99: American sparkling wines seem to get better each year, and this offering from the California branch of the famous French house has the complexity of a more expensive bottle. Endless streams of tiny, rising bubbles bring on flavors of lemon curd and chantilly cream, accented with ginger spice and a floral whiff. The orange-scented Mumm Napa Prestige Rosé ($20.99) is also worthwhile.

In South Jersey

Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé ($23.19): Easily one of the best I've tasted from a growing category of moderately priced California rosés, this pretty pink sparkler was irresistibly elegant - a kiss of strawberry juice rounded with clove-spiced orange zest and toasty caramel. Inconveniently, it's available only by special order in Pennsylvania (a six-bottle minimum, $22.89 each). South Jerseyans are more lucky: Wine Legend (1811 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill, 856-317-1234) should have plenty in stock.

In Delaware

Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut and Brut Rose ($21.24 for one bottle; $19.99 each for six; $16.67 each for 12): Don't completely write off France as a source of sparkling values. These excellent bottles come from a venerable Loire producer in Saumur, and deliver a crisp elegance that is so old-school Euro. They're almost austere next to the California bottles (especially the salmon-colored rosé), but there's also an admirable balance of minerals, floral notes and yeast that really help the bright fruit shine through. As always at Frank's Union Wine Mart (1206 N. Union St., Wilmington, 302-429-1978), larger by-the-case case purchases bring the worthwhile discounts.


French 75 (With Cognac)

Makes one drink

Making fizzy cocktails is a great way to get the most out of a bargain sparkling wine. Here's one of my favorites, a variation on the French 75 that replaces the usual gin with richer, sweeter cognac. It was inspired by an entry from a blog called the "Intoxicologist Is In" (http://intoxicologist.wordpress.com).

- Craig LaBan

11/4 ounce Hennessy VS

   cognac (replaces gin)

1/2 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup

4 ounces sparkling wine

Lemon twist

1. Shake the cognac, lemon juice and syrup over ice and strain into a champagne flute.

2. Top with the sparkling wine and a fresh lemon twist.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.