The cost of Champagnes and sparkling wines varies widely, but fortunately there are good choices in just about every price range. Here are some of our favorites from vintners around the world.
At the high end of the spectrum are vintage Champagnes, usually the producers' best, and they cost between $75 and $350. Obviously, if you have a generous budget or you're having a small, intimate wedding, you can indulge. However, even those hosting larger weddings may want just one or two of these special bottles for the head table (or for the bridal suite afterward). Among the finest are 1996 Bollinger Grand Anne Brut Champagne ($78), 1996 Dom Perignon ($130), 1995 Veuve Clicquot Grand Dame ($190), and 1988 Krug Vintage Brut ($195).
Most vintners also make nonvintage Champagne, wines from several years that are blended to create a consistent house style. These refined, crisp, and delicious wines are excellent Champagne values, selling in the $40 to $60 range. Try Laurent-Perrier ($42), Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label ($42), Pol Roger ($38), and Piper-Heidsieck ($50).
Good sparkling wines are produced in many other regions of France besides Champagne. One is Burgundy, where the wines are called crémants de Bourgogne. Try François Labet ($17) or Charles de Fère from Boisset ($13). In the Loire Valley, sparkling Vouvrays (from the Chenin Blanc grape) have less mousse ("fizz") than Champagne, but are still elegant and refreshing. Look for Bouvet-Ladubay ($19) or Château Sainte-Radegonde ($14). Crémant d’Alsace is created from a blend of traditional Champagne grapes and Alsatian grapes like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling. Depending on the combination, they range from tart and citrusy to steely and mineral-flavored. Good choices include Boeckel ($16) and Dopff au Moulin ($17).
Two styles of sparkling wine come from Italy. The first, prosecco, is crisp and dry, with a vibrantly floral and citrus character. About a third of proseccos are called frizzante; they have a lighter mousse than the others, which are described as spumante, or fully sparkling. For proseccos, look for Sandi ($11) and Valdobbiadene ($12). The second style is asti spumante, which has traditionally been considered a syrupy, fizzy concoction. However, many modern versions are floral, fruity, and refreshing, such as those from Martini and Rossi ($12) and Fontafredda ($13).
Spanish sparkling wine, or cava ("cellar"), offers some of the best values. Cavas are made with white Spanish grapes: macabeo, parellada, xarello and, increasingly, Chardonnay. By law, cavas must be aged in the bottle for at least nine months, and the grand reserves for three years. Cava tastes less yeasty and more earthy than Champagne and has a deeper golden color. As with sparkling wines from Italy, the warmer climate means that cavas are also less acidic than Champagne. Try Codorníu Cuvée Raventos ($14), Freixenet Cordon Negro ($11), or Segura Viudas ($11).
Nearly all sparkling wine from Germany, made from a variety of white grapes, is known as Sekt. The best is Deutscher Sekt, the only one made from the two traditional German grapes, Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. German sparklers have a zesty, mineral character. They are usually either trocken ("dry") or halbtrocken ("medium dry"). Good labels include Henkell Trocken ($12) and Kupferberg Gold ($9). Deutscher Sekt, produced in smaller quantities, is harder to find, though worth seeking out.
New World sparklers tend to taste fruitier than those from the Old World. Their quality may not yet match the premium cuvées of Champagne, but the best bottles can easily stand up to the nonvintage Champagnes. In fact, many of the better California sparkling-wine producers are owned by the great Champagne houses: Domaine Chandon (Moët & Chandon, $25), Pacific Echo (Veuve Clicquot, $18), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger, $35), Mumm Cuvée Napa (Mumm, $19), and my personal favorite, Roederer Estate (Roederer, $30). Two other U.S. labels you can trust are Iron Horse Brut from California ($27) and Domaine Sainte-Michelle from Washington ($18).
And finally, Australia's cool-climate regions, the Yarra Valley and Pipers River, make such simple, fresh sparklers as Seaview Brut ($11), Hardy&'s Nottage Hill Chardonnay Brut ($13), and Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay ($13).
All this regional variety is great news if you want to choose a sparkling wine in honor of your heritage. You may also want to customize your bottle label—perhaps with your and your groom's names, the date of your wedding, and a note to your guests. Many wineries will do this if you give them at least one month's notice and order more than 25 bottles. Some will even provide half-bottles, which you can leave in the rooms of the wedding party the night before.
A few quick questions to consider: How many guests will you have, and how much sparkling wine do you intend to pour? For example, will you greet guests at the reception with Champagne, serve it only for the toast, or have it available throughout the meal? (Many couples choose a pricier label just for the toast.) You can plan on getting about five glasses from each bottle. Count on one glass per person for a toast and one-and-a-half to two glasses per person throughout the meal. Remember that given a choice after the toast, many people prefer to switch to red or white still wines or other drinks. For the reception or toast, look for a crisp, dry style that whets the appetite—one that says Brut or Extra Brut on the label. But if you're serving sparkling wine with the wedding cake or dessert, it's best to choose one that's demi-sec ("off-dry") or doux ("sweet").
• Ensure the wine is well chilled before opening: 20 minutes in ice water works best, but an hour in the fridge will do, too.
• Remove the foil and wire casing from the top. Keep one hand firmly on the cork while turning the bottle with your other hand. The pressure inside the bottle will start to push the cork out; it should emerge with a sigh, not a pop.
• Serve Champagne or sparkling wine in a flute—a long, narrow glass—to preserve the fizz and concentrate the aromas. (FYI, there are 250 million bubbles in each bottle—a desperate doctoral candidate counted them.) Even though saucer-shaped coupe glasses were molded after Marie Antoinette's breasts, they allow Champagne to go flat. For a festive touch, throw one or two ripe raspberries—or strawberries—into each glass.
• Use a Champagne stopper to preserve your bubbly for several days. The carbon monoxide in the wine is a natural barrier to oxidation.