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We Tasted 5 Cheap Champagnes So You Don’t Have To

By / December 23, 2015

If you’re like most Americans, you drink champagne maybe three times a year. New Year’s Eve, a friend’s wedding, one boozy brunch—that’s it. It’s only a special type of drinker who makes champagne part of their regular diet, and “poppin’ bottles” exited our culture through the same back door as Autotune, Blackberry, and LMFAO.

But, sometimes you need to pick up a bottle of bubbly for an occasion. Unfortunately, as with many products, you can’t trust a label or a price to signal how much you’re gonna like it.

To test this out, we walked to our local Target and purchased five bottles of inexpensive sparkling wines. Then we assembled a panel of brave tasters and gave them each a whirl. Here’s what happened.

(First a note: Yes, we are aware that “shahm-pan-yuh only comes from the French region of shahm-pan-yuh.” Thanks, Christopher Walken. These bottles claimed to be prosecco, sparkling wine, and “California Champagne.” We’re going use these words indiscriminately here, but if you care about this kind of thing, you might want to go read Food + Wine instead.)

The logistics:

Ten of our of bravest friends sat around an office conference room and tasted each variety. They covered their eyes so they couldn’t see what they were swilling, because scientific integrity. Next, they each sniffed, tasted, maybe gagged, and then told us what they thought. Then they predicted how much that bottle would cost at Target.

The results surprised us. Kind of.

bottles

 

First bottle: Korbel California Champagne, Brut
Price at Target: $11.49
Average predicted price: $5.50

We figured we’d get the most endurance from our intrepid tasting panel, many of whom had real work meetings to attend after this session, by starting with one of the more popular and moderately-priced options.

But Korbel was our biggest under-performer, and nobody really seemed to enjoy drinking it.

We heard from our panel, “this reminds me of childhood,” which is a weird thing to say about an alcoholic beverage, until they clarified that the bouquet evoked “Fruit Roll-Ups” and “Tree Top sweetened applesauce.” Other comments included:

  • “This is gonna leave with me horrific bad breath.”
  • “It doesn’t taste alcoholic at all.”
  • “Are there grapes in here?”
  • “It tastes like rotten water.” (Guys, don’t forget to keep your water below 40 degrees or it’ll go bad.)

Our favorite tester took a slug, muttered “This is dees-gusting,” and then slammed the rest. Better keep an eye on that one.

Verdict: No. Don’t.

 

Second bottle: Cook’s California Champagne, Brut
Price at Target: $6.99
Average predicted price: $3.14

Of all the samples we tasted, Cook’s was the most reviled, yet not the cheapest. The first thing you notice upon pouring is the color, or rather the lack thereof. This brute (get it?) is nearly clear, but kind of disconcertingly off-clear, like a glass of melted ice that once had a drunk-up cocktail in it.

But don’t let Cook’s looks deceive you. This bad boy goes to town on all your other senses.

Cheese came up a lot in the comments. Like “this smells like bleu cheese,” and “it smells like cheesy feet.”

Assessment of the flavor profile was nearly unanimous. Everyone made quizzical “I taste nothing” faces, followed by shared looks of disgust. The aftertaste was a major concern. (“This tastes like when you keep flowers in a vase too long, and then the water starts to turn.”)

How much did our testers dislike Cook’s? Mimosas were even ruled out. “I wouldn’t even put orange juice in this.” “This would ruin a good glass of O.J.”

The most positive comment was “I bet this would taste okay after you already had two glasses of it.”

Most people didn’t finish even their meager samples.

Verdict: Not for brunch. Not for evening. Maybe for well after midnight, under pre-soused circumstances.

server

 

Third bottle: Menage a Trois Prosecco
Price at Target: $12.99
Average predicted price: $8.64

Menage a Trois is a solid wine brand that’s really blown up in the last 10 years. And it was the first one we tried that didn’t make people wince.

The pour started well. “Ooh, it actually sounds fizzy,” remarked a tester with her eyes closed.

When they opened their eyes, more positive vibes were shared. “This is the most promising looking one,” we heard.

But one tester was unimpressed with the scent. “It smells like a handrail. Or maybe a bike rack.”

But people really liked this bubbly, at least compared with the prior two blech-makers. Comments included:

  • “Effective”
  • “You’re not gonna embarrass yourself serving this, at least.”
  • “This would most efficiently get me drunk.” (Again, we need to make sure that gal gets help.)

Verdict: Save this bottle for your friends, then serve something cheaper to randos.

 

Fourth bottle: Barefoot Bubbly, Brut Cuvée Champagne
Price at Target: $7.99
Average predicted price: $7.14

mmmno

Mmm, candy. Who doesn’t like candy? Our panel kept referencing candy varieties during the smell portion. “It smells like a Jolly Rancher.” “It smells like Haribo Peach Rings.” “It smells like chemical strawberry cough syrup.” Yum, all the kids’ favorites!

But things took a dark turn when they sipped.

  • “You can tell the sugar is hiding a bad secret.”
  • “Yeah, tasting this is already making me feel hungover.”
  • “Um, I don’t want this.”
  • “It stings my nostrils.”
  • “This tastes like battery acid.”

This Barefoot variety was clearly some kind of fruit moonshine concocted in a prison cell, and yet… and yet!… people went high on the predicted price. What is going on?

There’s a phenomenon called the Netflix Effect. People put Beasts of No Nation and difficult documentaries about the justice system in their queues, and then they binge on Chopped and Family Guy. Our actions often betray our hopes and best intentions.

So yeah, you wince at this sugary Barefoot Bubbly, but then you go and price it above retail, you wacky testing panel. You like it. You like the sweet stuff. It’s okay. Everybody likes candy.

Verdict: Drink it with someone who has even less shame than you.

 

Fifth bottle: Andre California Champagne, Extra Dry
Price at Target: $4.99
Average predicted price: $10.14

Andre California Champagne is Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. It is the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors beating Lebron. It is Hilary Swank winning Best Actress.

Andre, the cheapest bubbly at Target, won our panel.

This $4.99 bottle—yes, $4.99, less than you’d pay for an equivalent portion of 2% milk—received the highest predicted price from our tasters.

“This smells like champagne,” was the first comment we heard. “It’s still bubbling. That’s promising,” was another. Yes, people were united in their assessment that Andre was legitimately the type of fluid we had promised to put in their glass.

The tasters were split and generally not-negative. “It smells better than the last one, but it tastes just as sweet.” “I think it might be expensive.”

The strongest negative was a hearty, “Mm-mmm,” not like “isn’t this delicious?” but like “No way, mm-mmm, no.”

Overall, though, our panel was supportive of their desire to drink this one. Maybe having four others beforehand warmed our people up, but they really seemed to like it. How about that?

Verdict: Buy it, pour it under the table, then tell your friends that it’s a new, sweeter variety of Moët Chandon.

 

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