Shiny metallic foil, a loud pop and flowing bubbles — nothing says “celebrate” quite like champagne. Whether authentic or American, there’s something about millions of tiny bubbles that makes it difficult not to feel more festive.
With the holiday season upon us, we decided to do a taste test to determine the best bubbles for your buck. For $8 or less, you’ll be set to celebrate every holiday from Blowout to New Year’s Eve with the best of the bottom shelf.
Of course, real champagne is grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France and can set you back quite a bit of cash. Instead, we tested five sparkling wines that market themselves as American champagne.
The favorite by far, Ballatore Spumante, is a light, extremely sweet champagne that floats over the tongue. The most fun and festive of the bunch, it is easy to drink, lacking the harshness common in champagnes — especially in cheap bottles.
Though technically Italian for “sparkling wine,” in the United States, spumante indicates a sweeter champagne.
Despite the initial gasp of glee upon first sipping this champagne, don’t plan to drink it exclusively for too long. A bit too tangy, it leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. If you don’t like the overwhelming sweetness alone, it would mix well in a mimosa.
An atypical champagne, André Cold Duck, came in a clear second despite being far from ideal. Fruitier than the others, it hits the tongue with a fun sweetness. Trying to savor it, however, just causes the tongue to recoil. It’s good as long as you don’t keep it in your mouth very long.
Cold duck was inspired by the German tradition of combining leftover wine and champagne. Originially called kaltes Ende (cold end), the name evolved to kalte Ente (cold duck) — likely a reflection of the mediocrity inescapable in such a blend. In the United States, the recipe — trendy during the ’70s — usually involves some variation of mixing California red wine and New York sparkling wine.
Though this combination gives it a more robust, interesting flavor than the other contenders, its strong processed sensation evokes Welch’s grape juice infused with bubbles.
Oh, André — the typical college student’s go-to brand for any celebration that demands a bottle of bubbly. The best of the bruts we tried, André Brut lacks flair or uniqueness — a blessing in disguise making it the most drinkable of the bunch. Less sweet than the favorites, it lacks the bitterness of the losers. Fruity notes a bit difficult to place smooth the harshness expected from a cheap champagne.
“It tastes the way I think champagne should taste,” one taste-tester said. “But I don’t really like it.”
With a more muted sweetness, this champagne is both more masculine and more sustainable, something you could sip regularly throughout a party instead of just for the toast. Ironically, as one taste-tester noted, this champagne is the best from our sample for someone with a more sophisticated palate — sophisticated being relative, of course.
Brut indicates a champagne with between six and 15 grams of sugar per liter — less than spumante, cold duck or even, paradoxically, extra dry (which has 12 to 20 grams per liter). Though this lesser amount of sugar came as refreshing in the André Brut, the bitterness colored our other brut selections beyond salvation.
J. Roget Brut sparked a bevy of initial reactions, few of them positive. Boasting a fuller, more wine-like flavor, it barely edged out Cook’s to avoid last place. Flavors include burnt and chewable medicine — probably not intentionally.
“Not only does it leave a bad taste on my tongue,” one taste-tester said, “it leaves a bad taste in my throat.”
The least favored option of the evening, Cook’s Brut tastes something like nail polish remover. Pure alcohol — the only noticeable flavor — overwhelms your nose and burns all the way down. At 11.5 percent, this champagne has the highest alcohol content of any we tried, and it shows; the taste is reminiscent more of carbonated vodka than sparkling wine.
During the taste test, we found that we kept sipping, hoping it would begin to taste better. It never did. Like tequila shots and Jaeger bombs, this is one of those drinks you can only tolerate well into the night, once your taste buds have been sufficiently numbed.
Of course, some consider taste a secondary component when selecting a champagne. After all, the pop of a cork and subsequent deluge of frothy bubbles is half the fun. If you’re looking to start with a bang, stick with a traditional cork. André brags about a resealable lid, but don’t be fooled: “resealable” means screw-top. All the others we tried had genuine corks, complete with a protective cage. While it’s definitely the best deal ($3.99 on sale), skip the André if you’re looking to hit the ceiling.