There may remain some Champagne bling-seekers who want to make like Jay-Z and ring in the new year with a gaudy, gold-dipped bottle of "Ace of Spades," the $300 bubbly by Armand de Brignac.
The recession reality, though, is that top-end Champagne has all but lost its pop. Overall French sales are down by 28 percent over the last year, according to the Associated Press. Anticipated sales are so low that some blue-chip bottles such as Krug, believed by many to be the cream of luxury Champagnes, are already being discounted.
"We used to sell Krug for $250, but now we've got it for $125," says Frank Pagliaro of Frank's Union Wine Mart in Wilmington. (Pennsylvania sells it for $159.99.) "That my suppliers are already discounting Champagne before the end of January when the bubbly business is done is insane. They're obviously overstocked."
Even those bargains are out of my league. And with sales of lower-priced sparkling wines frothing up 11 percent this year from California to Italy's Prosecco region, I'm not alone.
Does that mean we're going to suffer through the New Year's countdown with carbonated swill? Not necessarily. I still believe there's a quality difference between genuine French Champagne with a capital C (usually starting around $35) and its international imitators. But that disparity seems to grow smaller every year. Between tough-time discounts on lesser-known Champagnes and impressive sparkling efforts from Napa to northern Italy, I found six bottles that can put some elegant fizz into the holiday without putting too much pain in the wallet.
Simonnet-Febvre Chablis Cremant de Bourgogne NV: Take the steely mineral profile of still Chablis chardonnay, infuse with 40 percent pinot noir and a delicate but dynamic fizz (with tongue-tingling notes of candied ginger and lemon) - that's what you'll get with this excellent "cremant," the French name for sparkling wine made outside the Champagne district. On sale in Pennsylvania, this one's a great value, and also comes in a rosé. (Pennsylvania code 29809, $13.99 for the brut; code 20863, $14.99 for rosé.)
Henri Abelé Brut Champagne NV: Genuine Champagne doesn't generally come this cheap, but this French winery owned by Cava giant Freixenet (discounted in Pennsylvania by $17.01) is a worthy Chairman's Selection special for a reason. It's the real deal, with an extra hint of sweet fruit and pie spice, and a very reasonable price tag. (Pennsylvania code 20860, $22.99.)
Rigol NV Brut 1897 Cava: This sparkling Spanish blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada grapes is refreshing and straightforward, with big brisk bubbles and a light creaminess. The price, especially inexpensive in a mixed case, makes it easy to toast well and often. ($16.99 by the bottle or $9.99 in a mixed case at Frank's Union Wine Mart, 1206 N. Union St., Wilmington, 1-800-283-7265.)
Le Marchesine NV Franciacorta Brut: I'm tempted to call Franciacorta "prosecco for grown-ups," Italy's premium sparkling style. Considering it's made like traditional French bubbly, though, with chardonnay, pinot gris, and pinot noir grapes, I understand why Osteria's Jeff Benjamin calls it "Champagne for grown-ups." It's more affordable than its Gallic cousin, but with all the sophistication of yeasty buttered-toast richness, exotic fruits, and a soft creamy fizz. ($25.48 a bottle or $14.99 in a mixed case at Frank's in Delaware; there's limited availability in Pennsylvania for $29.99, code 29642.)
Schramsberg Blanc de Noir: There's enough cheap California sparkling wine out there. But here's proof that Napa Valley can produce a house cuvée that's absolutely first-rate. Schramsberg makes more expensive bottles (like J. Schram), but this blanc de noir is plenty decadent. It smells like pineapple upside-down cake with chantilly cream, and goes down with a bracing acidity (kiwi? lime?) that keeps it bright as the butter notes settle in. (Total Wine, 2100 Route 38, Cherry Hill, 856-667-7100, $33.99.)