Bring on the Bubbly
This holiday season, don't get hammered by high champagne prices
By Liza Schoenfein

(MONEY Magazine) – The party starts in half an hour. The shrimp cocktail is on ice, the rumaki are in the oven and you've perfected your hot toddy. Hair? Fabulous. Mistletoe? Check. And then it hits you. Champagne, genius. You forgot the champagne. You dart to the liquor store in a panic. The champagne aisle is stocked, but most of it is unfamiliar. Fourteen bucks? Must be dishwater. California? Is that really champagne? Finally, you spot the familiar pea-soup label of Dom Perignon. It's $125 a bottle but, hey, it's famous (and it's the only one you've heard of). People will be impressed. You grab a few. It is, after all, the season of giving.

Well, yes, but it's also the season of jacked-up prices, especially on the most well-known brands of bubbly. "It usually starts right before Thanksgiving," says Shyda Gilmer, managing director of Sherry-Lehmann, the venerated Manhattan wine shop. "You see a huge increase in demand for champagne across the board, not only at stores but at restaurants and bars. It puts incredible pressure on prices." Great champagne can turn a toast into a sublime gustatory experience, but watching your loved ones slug it at $8 a sip can take the pleasure out of the party. And champagne, let's face it, is designed for nothing if not to give pleasure.

With a bit of research, the savvy cork-popper will discover that buying champagne—which around the holidays turns from frivolous luxury to necessary expense—need not be intimidating, nor should a supply of champagne absorb your entire year-end bonus. There are shelves full of quality alternatives to overpriced labels, and with the help of some experts, we found them. Why? Because there's nothing as festive as sipping a slender flute filled with sparkle—and nothing as satisfying as knowing that you've chosen it well. These champagne secrets should help you do both.

Avoid the price hike. If in December you're thirsting for a popular brand like Veuve Clicquot, choose a high-volume, warehouse-style store. "Distributors try to get a premium in December, but larger stores that have the space and the buying power can buy in September or October, when they can take advantage of the lower cost," says Adam Fishman, co-owner of Harvey's Wines and Spirits, a shop in West Hartford, Conn. "Smaller stores that don't have room to store the stuff and may not have the budget to buy in advance have to pay more and therefore charge more."

Smaller labels, meanwhile, don't raise prices late in the year because store owners have so many unknowns from which to choose. "A lesser-known brand won't raise its price [in December]," says Fishman. "Stores wouldn't carry it, because there are hundreds of other lesser-known brands to choose from." Bottom line: To find an undiscovered treasure at a good price late in the season, shop at a small store. To find Veuve at a regular or even reduced price, head to a warehouse.

Offshoots rule. Famous champagnes—Cristal, Dom Perignon and others—represent the finest that one company, or house, has to offer. But most houses make lots of champagnes in addition to their premier label. And while their less expensive offerings are not of the same quality as the high-priced ones, many are surprisingly good. This is because they are made using some of the same grapes and often by the same craftsmen as their famous brothers.

Take, for example, Champagne Louis Roederer, which makes Cristal. At its Anderson Valley, Calif. outpost, Roederer Estate, it produces a lovely $35 sparkling wine called L'Ermitage. The same four people who make Cristal in France fly to the Anderson Valley to make L'Ermitage. The main difference between the two is (Caution: Snobby wine term approaching!) their terroir, the elusive combination of soil, vine stock and planting habits of a particular vineyard. "The terroir is very different," says Xavier Barlier, vice president of marketing and communications for Champagne Louis Roederer in the U.S., "but the spirit is the same." Spirit and terroir are fussy words, so here's an oversimplified way to explain it to the neighbors come New Year's: "It's as close to Cristal as you're going to get for under 50 bucks."

Think small. Not long ago, some grape growers whose fruit is used in the world's finest champagnes had an idea: to make champagne of their own. "A lot of unknowns have been selling their grapes to the big boys forever," says Tom Verhey, owner of Pops for Champagne, a Chicago champagne bar that serves 125 different kinds. "Then they said, 'Why don't we hold some of this back and make our own?'" Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Brut, made using the same grapes the grower sends to world-class wineries, is one such "grower champagne." Its rich taste is reminiscent of nonvintage Veuve Clicquot Gold Label, and at $40, it's cheaper.

Ask smart questions. Show the merchant from the get-go that you've prepared. Knock out his predatory impulses with questions like, "Do you have any interesting grower champagnes?" or "Doesn't Roederer make a California sparkling wine that's pretty good?" This will show that the old "You've heard of Cristal, right?" line won't work on you.

Where to buy. Avoid the kind of liquor store that also sells Megabucks tickets and Cheetos. "Go to a reputable shop that's known to have competitive prices," says Verhey, where you're less likely to be stuck with a bottle that's been sitting in a window for months. "Better places are going to have fresh products, because there's turnover," Verhey says. Most people don't go to the corner store for an esoteric Nicolas Feuillatte, they go for Veuve and Mumm, making it more likely that the Feuillatte has been on the shelf since last Christmas.


More Bubble for Your Buck

We don't want to keep you from the party, so here are our experts' top selections. They tasted others, but these offered the finest quality at the best prices

GOSSET BRUT GRANDE RÉSERVE Nonvintage, $50 The oldest wine producer in Champagne, dating back to 1584. Apparently they've learned a few things over the years—this bottle tastes as good as some that are twice the price.

ROEDERER ESTATE'S L'ERMITAGE BRUT 1998, $35 The same four folks who make Cristal in France fly to California every year and apply their expertise to crafting this dry, fruity sparkling wine.

PIERRE GIMONNET PREMIER CRU BRUT Nonvintage, $30 An artisanal wine made by Didier and Olivier Gimonnet, Pierre's grandsons. They vastly expanded their vineyard in 1987, and since then the quality of all their wines, including this Premier Cru Brut, has risen steadily.

NICOLAS FEUILLATTE PREMIER CRU BRUT Nonvintage, $24 Universally hailed as an incredible value, Nicolas Feuillatte's champagnes are produced at one of Champagne's largest vineyards, where the same winemaker has headed up production for the past 28 years. This one is light and effervescent, meaning it stays bubbly for longer after being poured, a characteristic that's often considered a mark of higher quality.

TAITTINGER DOMAINE CARNEROS BRUT 2001, $18 Some champagnes and sparklers have a texture reminiscent of warm Pepsi foam. The bubbles in this excellent California sparkling wine are tiny and velvety.

ZARDETTO PROSECCO BRUT Nonvintage, $10 Despite its bottle-in-a-paper-bag price, this dry Italian has wine geeks falling all over themselves to top the next guy's "expert" description: One gushed that it tastes like "bread dough," and another actually used the words "Smithfield ham." Our expert opinion: At $10 a bottle, buy a case.

Fresh Eggs

This season, people who know caviar are buying American

The only way to improve on a flute of fine, reasonably priced champagne is to precede it with a dollop of fine, reasonably priced caviar. But a few years ago, the U.N. agency that monitors endangered species noticed an alarming amount of poaching and illegal trade among the Caspian Sea countries that produce 90% of the world's caviar. Since then, limits on the amount of sturgeon roe those countries can export have made $178-an-ounce beluga, for example, scarce. Plus, annual quota announcements drive prices up, as they did in mid-October. Add increased demand during the holidays, and you've got a pricey little canapé in your hands.

If you look for bargains on Caspian varieties, you're likely to end up with caviar that's been frozen or pasteurized or that's past its prime, says Sybil Sugarman, manager of Caviarteria, a caviar shop and eatery in New York City. So what's the best way to navigate the byzantine market for Caspian caviar this year? Don't. Buy American, and find out everything you can about the product before purchasing.

"When I buy caviar, I want to know where it's from," says Sugarman. Ask purveyors when they bought the caviar (correct answer: within three months) and whether it's been frozen or pasteurized (correct answer: no). A good merchant will let you taste, says Eve Vega, executive director of the Americas for Petrossian, a seller in Paris and New York. "If they don't, walk out," she says. For an affordable alternative to the Caspian standbys, try one of these home-grown types:

TRANSMONTANUS CAVIAR $75 for 1.75 ounces ( California's wild white sturgeon is endangered, but choosing the farm-raised variety is guilt-free. "It holds its own next to Caspian Sea variety," says Vega. "It will help remove the strain on the Caspian when people recognize it as a truly good caviar."

AMERICAN STURGEON ROE $20 for 1 ounce ( The eggs are smaller than those of the pricey Russian variety we tried, but just as flavorful. It's salty but not overpowering.

CAROLINA TROUT ROE $35 for 3.5 ounces ( Even a novice wouldn't confuse this product with its rich relatives—not least because of its orange color. But it's tasty: a little salty, a little smoky.