The other big, possibly insurmountable obstacle to Champagne becoming an everyday wine is cost: While there are plenty of bargain bubblies on the market, the quality threshold really begins at around $35 these days. As a general rule, sparkling wines are expensive to make: They are very labor-intensive, and because of the lengthy bottle aging that is required before Champagnes can be released (a minimum 15 months for nonvintage Champagnes, 36 months for vintage-dated wines), the carrying costs can be steep. So the reality is that good Champagne is always going to be something of an indulgence for most consumers. With other categories—Rhone wines, German Rieslings, even Bordeaux and Burgundy—a person can drink fairly well on a budget. A yen for Champagne is not so easily satisfied.
Yet even granting that Champagne is unlikely to escape its pigeonhole, there's no reason why people can't treat it as a regular wine on those occasions when they do drink it. So here's a suggestion: Over New Year's weekend, why not pop the Champagne early and serve it with lunch or dinner? Champagne matches well with holiday staples such as turkey and goose, and it can also work nicely with ham. If seafood is on the menu, an all-Chardonnay Champagne (blanc de blancs) or Chardonnay-heavy blend will make a good fit. A sturdy pinot noir-dominated Champagne can even stand up to red meat. Admittedly, bubbly and beef is an unusual combination, but at a time of year otherwise suffused with rituals, there's no harm in being a little deviant with the food and wine pairings. And who knows: It could even make for a milder hangover.
There are a number of Champagnes that I think would do well with food. My list is heavy on grower producers, but there are also a few big houses represented, notably Henriot, which is turning out excellent Champagnes these days. I've arranged my suggestions by price; most of the wines are under $100, and four of them can be found for $50 or less. With the full extension of the Bush tax cuts, this is obviously the season for giving to the least needy among us, and in that spirit, I have also included three great wines over $100. One of them, the 1996 Salon, is very expensive. It also happens to be one of the two or three greatest young Champagnes that I've ever tasted, and I am not alone in my enthusiasm. One collector loved it so much he supposedly bought 400 cases. However, he failed to corner the market; there are still quite a few bottles around, and if you're in the mood to truly splurge on Champagne this weekend, the 96 Salon would be a highly rewarding way to go. And if you are looking to celebrate New Year's on the cheap? The inexpensive sparklers that I recommended two years ago remain good choices, and there's no reason you can't put them on the dinner table, too. If your local retailer doesn't carry any of these bubblies, you can check with Wine-Searcher.com.
$50 and under:
Pierre Moncuit NV (nonvintage) Brut Blanc de Blancs ($40): One of my favorite Champagne producers, Moncuit turns out a lithe, consistently delicious nonvintage bubbly. If I had house Champagne, this would be it.
Henri Billiot NV Brut Reserve ($50): A toothsome pinot-dominated Champagne bursting with green apple and citrus notes and shot through with superb minerality.
Bollinger NV Brut Special Cuvée ($50): A rich, winey Champagne that is impressively complex and refined for a big-house nonvintage sparkler.
Gatinois NV Brut Tradition ($45): 90 percent pinot noir, and it shows—a deeply colored, opulent bubbly heavy on red-fruit aromas. A distinctive, thoroughly enjoyable Champagne.
Camille Savès Brut Millésime 2002 ($60): The 2002 Savès is arguably the best-value Champagne on the market these days—a complex, ebullient wine that is just a joy to drink. Simple advice: If you find this one, buy it.
Ulysse Collin NV Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ($70): This is truly a white Burgundy with bubbles; a taut, sinewy wine that demands food and that would probably also benefit from some decanting.