For many, the default drink at year’s end is Champagne, a name limited by law to naturally carbonated wines produced in designated regions of northern France. But while Champagne always commands a premium price, its cost has skyrocketed more in the last several years.
“Some people don’t want to spend $150 or $200 on a bottle of Champagne but they still want to have something decent,” says Gray Maddox, co-owner of Avine wine shop in downtown Birmingham. “You can find some really great alternatives without having to dig deep in your pockets for it.
If you’re looking for something different or special to usher in 2024, turn to the experts at wine shops across Alabama. They’re great resources to find a good wine (or wines) at the right price, or a splurge that is worthy of the exorbitant cost.
Maddox is a grape guru. Not only is he the former wine guy for Frank Stitt’s restaurants Bottega, Chez Fonfon, and Highlands Bar and Grill, but he also is a big fan of bubbly.
“It doesn’t have to be a celebration for me to drink bubbles,” he says. “I look for a sparkling wine that is dry, crisp, and has good acidity – that will keep my mouth watering enough I’ll want to have another glass.”
For an alternative to Champagne, start with Crémant, wines that are produced the same way as Champagne, but are from other growing regions in France. Look for ones from the Jura area, Beaujolais, or Burgundy.
“They all have really great Crémant — great quality and fun to drink,” Maddox says. “Crémant for me is something that is as close to Champagne in quality without having to pay a Champagne price.”
Maddox also has been seeing appealing sparkling wines from California’s Napa Valley. “I think they can be really good values and overdeliver for their price,” he says.
If prosciutto or pasta will be on the table, ask about sparkling spumantes from northern Italy. Maddox says he’s even found some Lambrusco – once dismissed as cheap, sweet, mass-produced plonk – that’s not overly fruit-forward.
Prosecco remains Italy’s top sparkler. “If you want some great bubbles you go to the Veneto region. You go to Valdobbiadene, the area in the Veneto where the best grapes grow for Prosecco.”
When celebrating New Year’s Eve, there are two distinct periods for drinking bubbly. There’s the lead-up party. Then there’s the midnight toast and beyond. Be realistic. If bubbly will flow throughout the long night, it doesn’t all need to be top shelf.
But if you splurge, when’s the best time to pop that cork?
“It’s tricky,” Maddox says. “The temptation is to drink it at midnight. But I say if you want to drink something special, do that early in the evening. That way you’re going to remember it.”
Wait too long to open the good stuff, “and it’s just a disaster,” Maddox says. “Nobody remembers it, nobody knows what happened. You just wake up and see an empty bottle on the table.”
Figure out your budget before going to the wine shop. Think ahead and answer a few questions that will help guide the seller. What’s the plan? Are you headed to a friend’s home for the night, or is it a stop before going out? Are you going out to dinner and want to bring a nice bottle to enjoy at the table? How many people will drink it?
“Coming in and knowing what you’re interested in doing will help you get steered in the right direction,” Maddox says.
Then you can focus on what really matters as this year transitions into the next. “What’s important is the friendship and comradery of popping that bottle and enjoying it with good friends. You’re there to have a good time and celebrate New Year’s Eve.”