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Champagne taste, limited means

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted December 22, 2008

Champagne is normally associated with formal occasions and high living, and understandably so. The price tag on the genuine article serves as a more-than-adequate rationing device, unless one happens to be rich and free-spending. A run-of-the-mill bottle of Dom Pérignon typically runs for a lot more than I carry around in my wallet. The same sad (for me) criterion applies to the typical bottle of Cristal or Krug. Plunking down enough fundage for a quality vintage would get a collection department after me and quickly cause my credit card to be changed into a charge card. Even a lesser-known, quotidian brand of champagne carries a price tag approximately equal to a night's bar bill of someone with much greater alcohol tolerance (if not generosity) than the likes of me.

Thankfully for the perennially broke, there are off-rack brands that don't come from grapes hailing from the Champagne region of France. These kinds of off-brand bubblies are known as "sparkling wine;" the difference in the price tags of they and the real thing is sufficiently wide for someone for whom the taste of Ramen is always with him to have a good enough time.

What's below could be considered a kind of guide to what's in the bottom of the shelves of any profit-oriented liquor store. (Even the supposedly non-profit Liquor Control Board of Ontario has enough shopkeepers' sense to make them relatively inaccessible.) The six bottles I got for the purposes of this piece collectively set me back less than a single bottle of the typical real thing. They're so cheap, the cashier will humor you rather than flirt with you when you pay for them. (At least, that's what the gal at the register did with me.)

The two overall criteria I used were admittedly simple, but I purport not to be an expert in taste. That task, I'll leave to the writers who can scam free ones as "review copies." I also left the prices off because they vary from regulatory regime to jurisdiction. In order to bring a little bit of order to the testing process, I made sure that I ate the same meal beforehand and occupied myself with the same activity while downing it, just before sleep time on weeknights. So, all the juice is interpreted through the prism of a recently-eaten bowl of plain macaroni, covered with margarine, and the goings of the day according to the CBC Evening News. Five bottles I reviewed; an additional one, I downed in advance of the review run for testing. All of them were consumed over a timeframe of about a half-an-hour to 45 minutes. The reviews themselves indicate why I thought it prudent to use one bottle for a test go ‘round:

Seaview Australian "Brut" Sparkling Wine, White:

Taste: It's a sweet one, and leaves a grapey aftertaste. The first swig, I'm happy to report, didn't leave the bottle overflowing while chilled; the same was true for all of them. The bottle can be held by a large hand, but a regular hand might have trouble with it. The drink itself gets drier, and the grapey taste more pronounced, after a few swigs of the stuff. Still, I could almost taste "sugary" in the grapey aftertaste. There was little side-taste other than the above-mentioned grapiness. Not much carbonation; as a result, not much burping results. The burps are relatively easy to store and evacuate in another room. The resultant buzz tends to induce owlishness in the likes of me (but then again, I have a somewhat boresome life.) It sits somewhat heavy in the stomach, but the full buzz is a cheery one which makes for a happy drunk. This one tends to encourage eating, so it might be bad for dieters.

Hangover: A sponginess of the head well-known to some, but no real headache resulted. My stomach did have the queases, though. There was no immediately noticeable bad taste in the mouth. Accompanying the aforementioned was a need, but no immediate need, to gulp down a lot of water.

Remy Pannier Chardonnay "Brut" Sparkling Wine, White:

Taste: A little dry; grapey, with some carbonation. As with all the others, there's no overflow from the first swig if it's properly chilled in a fridge with a reasonable minimum of food and drink therein that no man dare touch. It comes in a relatively narrow bottle that can be held in a large hand. At times, it tastes like alcohol-enriched ginger ale. An insipid aftertaste, but noticeably so; there's some grape in the aftertaste too. The drunken part of the product sits a little heavy in the stomach, but settles in smoothly, as of approx. 2 hours after a large meal (at least, the basic meal I ate.) The buzz is calming, or relaxing. The resultant burping is largely controllable, but this brand did leave a fair bit of mouth gas. The drunk was cheery, with a relieving semi-deafness.

Hangover: There was more face-puffiness than spongy-headache from this one, but I did feel the potential of that kind of headache still hanging over me. The nausea was not quelled by gulping down more than 0.5 L of water right after waking up, but it was thankfully not encouraged either. The dry-mouth particular to hangovers kicked in after the water was swallowed.

Café de Paris "Brut" Sparkling Wine, White:

Taste:  This bottle was quite dry, but the carbonation blends in with it. The first swigs left a somewhat dry-mouth, or numb-mouth, aftertaste. There was no overflowing after the first swig, as was the case for all of them. Oddly, this brand tastes like flat ginger ale with carbonation added. The bottle was somewhat wide; it's not easy to grip except with a large hand. The drymouth disappears after a few swigs, but the aftertaste begins to resemble grape-skins. My tongue went somewhat stingey right after a full swig was sloshed around in my mouth; there wasn't much burpiness with this one. The buzz was somewhat somber; the cheeriness, muted. That cheeriness, though, does increase as the bottle is drained swig by swig. I found that the level of cheeriness depends upon the amount of social stimulation accompanying it, including what could be called "social compatibility." For social occasions when the guests are properly screened, this bottle would be the best one. For someone who wants to get bubbly while undertaking babysitting chores, this sparkler would be the worst one.

Hangover: This particular experience got an early start to it. The most noticeable feature of the hangover from this brand when waking up was the stomach turning. No vomiting or dryheaving appeared, though. The headache was not that bad and was intermittent. The same applies to the hangover-drymouth; I found that I needed only two mugs of water, and none right after waking up.

Cava Codorníu "Classico" Sparkling Wine, White:

Taste:  It was sweet, with the grapiness muted. This bottle had somewhat of a flat-ginger-ale taste, but with a somewhat-sour drymouth aftertaste. The sweetness was somewhat muted after the first few swigs went down the mouth. The flat-ginger-ale taste was more prevalent after several swigs. The bottle it came in was wide; one needs a big hand to hold it up to one's mouth. The resultant burping was more evident and less controllable. >From this bottle, I got a buzz that seems ‘sobering' in the colloquial sense. About half-way through, my head began swimming a little. (Admittedly, I was tired for this session; the previous day's hangover had accompanied a workaholic's wake-up time.) By the end of the bottle, the buzz did intensify but it was still a somberish one.

Hangover: Hardly a one, until long after the above-described others had kicked in with respect to time after awakening. Then, I felt some nausea and a little sponginess in the head. I required three mugs of water after waking up, followed by a couple of additionals a short time afterwards. Once the hangover did kick in, it displayed about the same force as the first one I described above.

Spumante Banbino  Sparkling Wine, White:

[Note: This bottle is the only sparkling wine of the five with a plastic ‘cork'. Also, by far, it's the cheapest. The paragraph below explains why therein.]

Taste:  Quite sweet; the sugar mutes the grapey flavor. There's more carbonation in this brand than in the others; it's quite bubbly. One particular swig did get a few drops up out of the bottle. There was some drymouth aftertaste, but not as much as compared with the others. This particular brand tastes more of grapes and less of grape skins than the ones I had downed previously – it was not unlike carbonated grape juice. The reason: it's little more than half-strength alcohol when compared with the others - 7% vs. 11-11.5%.  It was relatively easy to swig; in fact, it was the closest to a good old beer. The bottle was narrow; putting it to one's mouth can be swung with a normal hand-size. At times, it left a sugary taste on the lips. The buzz was cheery, and light-headening, but (given the alcohol content) was also mild. Of all of them, this brand makes for the best swigger. A person with greater alcohol tolerance than mine could bring along 3 bottles of the stuff for an afternoon-evening session in the lawn chair and find it serving relatively well as a get-away-from-the-usual beer-substitute. The greater level of carbonation would add to the compatibility of substitution. I do recommend, though, that you try out a test bottle if you decide to go through with this activity. 

Hangover: As noted above, the alcohol strength was muted, thus muting the hangover. There was hardly a one with this brand after a single bottle had been downed.


I'm ending with no general recommendation, not even for a hangover mollifier; the descriptions and spot recommendations above should suffice to scope out the brand that you feel would be most compatible with any wine-swigging activity of your choice. As for the lack of gravity of the testing sessions, I have this to note: these bottles, although serviceable, are not exactly Dom, Krug or Cristal. Nor are they, come to think of it, "'Vas." ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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