It’s so easy to shy away from acknowledging the feelings of wine—how it can resonate with us personally—lest we come off too earnest or precious. But if ever there was a moment for emotional transparency, let this be it. That something so routine as cracking a bottle of wine has the ability to turn up (or down) the volume of a moment is worth noting from time to time. Especially in a moment like this.
In any year, sparkling wine has its own particular volume control. But at the long-awaited end of this one? “In a year with so little to celebrate, opening a bottle of bubbles can seem tone-deaf, even perverse,” says Rafa García Febles of Brooklyn’s Le Crocodile. “For me, it’s been a salve: a bit of solace in a year where the bad news has been unrelenting.”
May we all find a little respite in something as fleeting as a bottle of sparkling wine.
In an effort to pull together a sound “sparkling wines of solace” playlist, we reached out to nine wine pros from around the country who have been through it all this year (closings, reopenings, delayed openings, rejiggerings). Here are their picks at $50 or less.
Rania Zayyat, wine director, Bufalina | Austin, Texas
“Year after year, I have been blown away by this wine. I chugged it at the finish line after finishing my first 10K four years ago; in February 2019, I was fortunate enough to visit the estate in the tiny region of Montlouis-sur-Loire. While their estate wines are primarily focused on chenin blanc, they’ve had some rough years with damaging hail and frost and started sourcing fruit from their friends around France to make up for it, and so Éxilé was born. [It’s] 100 percent gamay, sourced from a biodynamically farmed estate in Gaillac in southwest France. Gamay is a wildly popular variety to drink around the holidays, and I love it in this sparkling rosé form. It tastes like wild strawberries and cranberries, orange peel and marzipan with salty minerality, refreshing bubbles and acidity, and the slightest hint of sugar to round it out. Honestly, I’d drink this wine every day, no shame.”
Kyla Peal, co-founder Slik Wines and floor team at Verve Wines | Chicago
“I usually don’t need a reason to drink Champagne, but 2020 has been eager in giving me roughly 200 new ones. Cheers to the underdogs of this year, and same goes to the underdog [grape] of Champagne, pinot meunier. Third-generation winemaker André Heucq has dedicated 80 percent of his illite-rich vineyards to the grape and the result is an unfeigned expression of [it]. Four years of lees aging contributes to its roundness and long finish; think warmed apples and toasty bread.”
Margot Mazur, beverage director, Wild Child | Somerville, Massachusetts
“It was a serious year and I’m feeling vulnerable, honey. I just want to drink wines that are fun, that make me smile and think back fondly of traveling to Italy and getting caught in a massive downpour while harvesting grapes. Lucky for me, I have the exact wine in stock that those grapes made, and when I drink it, I remember the vineyard that smelled like wildflower honey, and the blisters the scissors gave my fingers after hours of harvest work. This brand new winery, Cantina Fermento, was started last year by Evita and Stefano Eboli in Orvieto. Procanico, verdello, malvasia, drupeggio and grechetto [grapes] make up this blend, aged on the skins for five days. It’s fresh and bright, floral and happy—drinking it will make you feel like you’re lying in a field on a summer day without a care in the world, and you know what? I’ll take that right now.”
Frederick Uku, owner, St. Vincent Wine | Washington, D.C.
“Crémant de Bourgogne generally lacks the finesse and status afforded Champagne, but this outkicks its coverage. Nuanced delicateness, lively citrus notes, a rich mouthfeel and a mighty fine bubble make this the cuvée of choice for this holiday season. It’s up there amongst the spendier crémants, but it’s still in your hands for a fraction of the price of some of your more-recognizable Champagnes. We just opened St. Vincent three weeks ago, so I personally like to drink Domaine des Gandines in the (incredibly humbling) company of the D.C. hospitality industry rock stars that have turned out in droves to support this project. Also, with Asher Blue cheese and chicken liver mousse.”
Ezra Wicks, co-owner/wine director, forthcoming Light Sleeper | Seattle
“Lambrusco is always a holiday season go-to for me, because it ends up being everyone’s surprise favorite. This is the bottle my wife Alice and I will be reaching for (and gifting out) this year. Luciano Saetti crafts bright, sapid versions of lambrusco salamino that undergo their second fermentation in the bottle, are grown organically and are completely unadulterated (no SO2!). His wines always have great nuance and tension, with generous fruit flavors of mountain strawberry, sour cherry and bramble. The scents of the season work symbiotically with the wine, too; an echo of Christmas tree and rosemary, some purple potpourri and clove. It always has just the right amount of chew to it, not too bold but not too light, and the price lights up people’s eyes like the North Star.”
Eben Lillie, co-owner, Skin Contact and Chambers Street Wines | New York City
“A Chambers Street favorite. I think of this one because times are a little rough and people might not have Champagne budget this year, but the Tissot is a ridiculous value and a true Champagne alternative, made from mostly chardonnay and pinot noir with a small percentage of poulsard. It perfectly plays the balance between toasty and creamy, fresh and dry, but has a delicate mouthfeel. Crisp apple, raw honey, toasted almonds. Stéphane is serious about his sparkling wines to a degree that equals Champagne producers we know; it’s a good way to feel fancy without spending a bunch of money.”
Sarah Minnick, owner, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty | Portland, Oregon
“I’ve been drinking FRV for over a decade and gamay is certainly my favorite grape. These days I mostly drink fizzy wines for their food-friendly nature, and even though FRV100 [pronounced ‘eff-er-ve-cent’] has a big personality, it calms down during dinner and fits many meals, especially in the cold-weather months. I took French in high school and instantly loved the name and label, but most of all I love its willingness to be a little sweet, low in alcohol and almost party-pomegranate-punch-like—a very special holiday wine. Friends are probably sick of me showing them the party label and asking, ‘FRV100… get it?!’”
Rafa García Febles, beverage manager, Le Crocodile | Brooklyn
“My go-to lately is this savory, herbaceous frizzante rosso, a boldly flavored, Negroni-colored pét-nat from Prosecco country that reminds me of Loire cabernet franc in its mix of red fruit and green herbs (in this case, a very Italian mix of tomato leaf and marinated bell pepper). Biodynamic and unfiltered, it’s 100 percent raboso, a characterful local grape variety whose name means, roughly, ‘little angry one’ (#mood). It’s an unusual wine but a friendly one, light in alcohol, bone-dry and hard to put down. As a pétillant-naturel, its bubbles are milder than what you’d get from a Champagne or Cava, less pushy than what you’d get from a Prosecco. Rather than lift your spirits, it soothes them. It’s sparkling wine not as a celebration, but as a relief.”
Michael Bajalia, beverage manager, Lyla Lila | Atlanta
“Raventós i Blanc has one of the longest documented winegrowing traditions in the world, with the same family farming the same land since 1497. Pepe Raventós, a 21st-generation winemaker, employs biodynamic vineyard practices and is a champion of balance, not only with the land, but also in the wine. In a world where Cava is undervalued, this wine stands tall and proud with enough body and class to withstand anything 2020 has thrown our way. Is it just me, or is anyone else yearning for consistency and balance these days? This wine has an amazing balance of fruit, elegance and structure that has me consistently popping another bottle.”