"What is your host's purpose in having a party?" asked political satirist P.J. O'Rourke. "Surely not for you to enjoy yourself; if that were their sole purpose, they'd have simply sent champagne and women over to your place by taxi."
Despite his cynical take on social gatherings, his observations do acknowledge that a drop of decent bubbly can play its part in helping one have a good time. I've tasted through dozens that are currently available and have selected the ones that should provide maximum enjoyment for the season's festivities.
Champagne Gardet Brut Tradition NV $49.99/$39.99
When it comes to Champagne, the approach of Christmas heralds some very smart deals indeed. However, this beauty - with its rich yeasty savoury notes juxtaposed with crisp grapefruit - is keenly priced all year round and just under $40 over the festive season. It's spent a longer time in bottle, boasts an older base wine and has a higher proportion of higher quality grapes than many a cheaper Champagne and in my blind tasting gained similar marks to far more expensive specimens. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company.)
Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Particuliere Brut NV $64.99
This is one of the youngest Champagne labels, which since its establishment in the 70s - following a partnership between French businessman Monsieur Feuillatte and one of the region's co-operatives - is now the best-selling Champagne in France and number three globally. Quality has helped drive its success, illustrated by its signature Reserve Particuliere with its wonderfully fresh white fruits and citrus notes overlaid with notes of hazelnut and toast. (From Liquor Kings and all fine wine stores.)
Champagne Jacquinot Private Cuvee Brut NV $89.99
Though many folk play it safe by sticking to the best-known brands when they splash out on a Champagne, not venturing into lesser known territory means missing out on a gem like this. Made by the boutique family-run house of Jacquinot, it's an enthralling example with rich notes of apple and honey cake, supported by a lively line of citrus. (From unitedcellars.co.nz)
Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs NV $110
Grower Champagnes are another fruitful avenue to explore if you're search of something different and exciting: these are made by small producers from grapes grown on their own estate rather than by employing the widespread practice of purchasing fruit from numerous vineyards across the region. This dry, focused and extremely fine Blanc de Blancs is made by the biodynamic producer and one of my personal favourites, Larmandier-Bernier, and combines pure notes of crisp apple, bright citrus, mineral and hint of bread in its chalky textured palate. (From unitedcellars.co.nz)
Champagne Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 200 $250.99
For a real treat, Perrier Jouet's top cuvee delivers a svelte palate of fresh green apples, citrus and mineral underpinned by toasty savoury undertones, all wrapped in a fine mousse and finishing on a fabulously long note of nut and bread crust. Its bottle - created in in 1902 by Emile Galle, a leading light in the Art Nouveau movement - is also one of the most beautiful of any Champagne. (From selected fine wine retailers.)
Champagne Maxim's Brut Rose NV $59.95
Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of Rose Champagne, which tends to be taken more seriously than its still pink counterparts. This is a fine and well-priced example, with notes of fruits of the forest, crisp citrus, hints of florals and some nice depth to its yeasty undercurrent. (From wineimporter.co.nz)
Quartz Reef Central Otago Methode Traditionnelle Rose NV $35
A seriously good rose from one of our local producers, with an elegant creamy textured palate exhibiting delicate raspberry notes, silky citrus and a subtle toasty undercurrent. Quartz Reef makes some of the country's most impressive bubbles, with this recent foray into pink resulting in one of the finest examples. (From Glengarry, Point Wines, Caro's, Aorangi Bay Fine Wines, the Wine Vault, Primo Vino , Hamilton Wine Co, Cambridge Wine Co, Bay Wine Distributors, and Scenic Cellars.)
Daniel Le Brun Platinum Vintage 2001 $39.99
New Zealand is one of the few country's cool enough to produce high quality sparkling wines, with our best starting to edge up to the level of some Champagnes. This vintage wine has had over a decade to develop a rich and toasty mature character that combines with savoury marmitey notes and is counterpoised by crisp apple and mineral. A classy sparkler close to Champagne both in style and quality. (From Liquor Kings and all fine wine stores.)
Mansfield & Marsh Methode Traditionnelle Sparkling Wine NV $18.95
You get a big bang for your buck with this bubbly. It's got an intense bready character and weight that's a rare find at this price point, backed by bright fresh apple and lemon fruit. (From most supermarkets and liquor chains, First Glass, Herne Bay Cellars, La Barrique, La Vino, Scenic Cellars, Grantley's, Hamilton Wine Co, Hillsdene Wine Cellars, Oxford Fine Wines, Bethlem Wines & Spirits, Mount Liquor Mart, Uncorked Fine Wines.)
Augusti Torelli Reserva Cava 2008 $30
Spain's main sparkling wine is made by employing the same "Methode Traditionnelle" as Champagne and many of the world's other top fizz, but using different grape varieties - in this case a blend of the style's classic Macabeu, Xarello and Parellada. Cavas range from the simple to the stunning, with this good value Reserva a characterful example, exhibiting baked apple, spice, zesty citrus and toasty characters and finishing on a lingering note of nut. (From Wine Circle, Alberton Fine Foods, Wine Barrel, Blanc)
Morton Premium Brut Methode Traditionnelle NV $20.95
Morton has made much of its reputation through the quality of its bubbles, with its white label Brut a consistently reliable pick at the more affordable end of the sparkling scale. There's a beguiling freshness to this blend from Marlborough and Hawke's Bay, with its fruity palate of white peach with lemon meringue. (From most supermarkets and liquor chains, First Glass, Herne Bay Cellars, La Barrique, La Vino, Scenic Cellars, Grantley's, Hamilton Wine Co, Hillsdene Wine Cellars, Oxford Fine Wines, Bethlem Wines & Spirits, Mount Liquor Mart, Uncorked Fine Wines.)
Torre Oria Brut Cava $10-12
This has to be one of the best budget bubbly buys of the season: it's dry, light and fresh with a creamy mousse and notes of apple, hay and nut. As good sparkling wines tend to cost more to make than still - due to their lengthier and more labour intensive methods of production - to find something that's both so drinkable and affordable is quite astounding. (From Wine Direct, blackmarket.co.nz)
SPARKLING PARTY TIPS
How much? You don't want your party to run out of fizz, so do the sums to ascertain how much you'll need. Each bottle of bubbly will fill around six small flutes and then you'll need to calculate how thirsty your guests are likely to be.
How cold? Most Champagnes and sparkling wines are best served well chilled - between 7°C to 10°C - so allow at least 20 minutes in an ice bucket or at least an hour in the fridge before they're poured. However, mature and vintage examples should be served slightly warmer to allow their full character to be expressed.
Several Champagne houses have now demonstrated that the temperature at which sparkling wine is served quite radically effects its character: it appears to taste lighter and zestier at lower temperatures and richer and nuttier when served warmer.
How to serve? The retro saucer-shaped "coupe" was allegedly modelled from the breast of Marie-Antoinette, which was possibly a better template for a bra than a bubbly glass.
The best vessel from which to imbibe bubbly is the narrow flute, which concentrates the wine's aromas and whose etched bottom enhances the flow of bubbles through the wine.