How to Buy Delicious Sparkling Wine When You’re Broke AF

We had one of Brooklyn's most respected wine directors taste five of the cheapest wines money can buy to find out.

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Dec 30 2017, 5:00pm

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For Jay-Z and Whiz Khalifa, there ain't no stoppin' the champagne from poppin', but come 11:59 on December 31, those of us without record deals will probably be getting ready to pop something from Italy or Spain or some region of France most of have never heard of.

Real-deal Champagne starts out at about $40 a bottle, which makes it hard to buy a party's worth without going broke. So how do you provide your guests with bubbles that taste good when a case of Champagne will cost you anywhere from $500 to 500 paychecks? Well, for starters, you don't drink Champagne. There are plenty of perfectly delicious sparkling alternatives that simply don't have the name recognition to warrant outrageous prices.

But I wanted to find out whether it's possible to drink something respectable even if you're broke. Unfortunately, before Wednesday, all I knew about sparkling wine—besides the fact that it'll give you a crippling hangover—is what I'd learned from rap lyrics and from reading this quick guide to bubbly. So, I headed to Trader Joe's, home of outrageously inexpensive wine, and bought five of the cheapest bottles available. Then I went to to acclaimed Williamsburg wine-focused restaurant The Four Horsemen to get advice from wine director Justin Chearno. Where better to taste bottom-shelf wines than at place that serves nothing but organic, non-adulterated, farmer-made wine?

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Chearno, being a former broke-ass musician himself, understands the drink-what-you-can-afford mindset, and was kind enough to help me do just that in the classiest way possible.

"When I was in punk bands and we'd play the West Coast, we'd go to Trader Joe's and buy a case of Two-Buck Chuck and keep it in the van," Chearno said. "For us, we were just hardcore dudes who were like, 'If we don't get alcohol, we don't play the show.'"

READ MORE: This Is How to Turn Any Crappy White Wine Into Fancy Champagne

With Chearno's $2 wine days long in the past, we dove into a selection of bottles that ranged from $5.49 to $13.99, and we dove in blind, with each bottle masked inside of a paper bag.

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Prosecco DOC Cecilia Beretta, Italy, $7.99 Chearno: "This is weird tasting. It tastes like there's a lot of sugar. Like, a lot of sugar. And it tastes like the grapes are overripe. There is so much sugar in this that it's getting in the way of what it could be. It feels like it could be a very inexpensive Prosecco.

Who it's for: "It feels like for a very seldom drinker this could be a nice toast. This tastes like something that might be served at a wine opening or something."

What we learned: Just because it's from Italy and says 'Prosecco' on the label, doesn't mean it's good.

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La Granja Cava, Spain, $6.99 Chearno: "This smells like champagne. It's dry. Decent fruit. It doesn't get sweet. The bubbles are really tiny and beautiful."

Me: "So if you wanted to spend under $10 and get good wine, is that possible?"

Chearno: "I haven't seen a sparkling wine under $10 in years, even when I was a retail wine buyer, so I just don't even know if they'd sell that stuff."

Me: "This one is a cava for $7."

Chearno: No way! Really? That's so cool! I'm sure every single thing done to it is against every single rule that we have here, but that totally rules. It's technology wine. I'm sure the winery that makes it look a factory. Maybe the people who make it wear hard hats. But it totally delivers. You have a huge party, you get this for $7, and you bring a case of this home, and people would be really psyched."

READ MORE: English Sparkling Wine Is the New Champagne

Who it's for: You. Seriously, go get it now. It's $7 and totally palatable.

What we learned: The world makes no sense.

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Schloss Biebrich Sekt, Germany, $5.49 Despite being inside of a brown paper bag, this bottle had a clear plastic corkscrew cap that was a harbinger of doom right from the get go, and Chearno's bullshit detector went off immediately.

Chearno: "Whoa! Look at this crazy shit! That is a bad sign. Oh, This smells really gross. It just smells really, really ripe and sugary. Oh that's really—that's horrible. It tastes like Sprite, but with rotten grapes in it.

Me: Is there any way to recover this? Like in a cocktail or mimosa or something?

Chearno: "Sure, this might be a decent mimosa wine. No, even that's too far. That's too far for me. I really wanna know what that is. That is just gross.

Who it's for: "This tastes maybe like wine you'd buy at a gas station in Germany."

What we learned: Never trust a plastic corkscrew cap. Also, as Chearno said, "There is a sparkling wine in every culture and there are some really, really good German and Austrian wines, but this is not one of them."

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Mionetto Gran Rosé Extra Dry, Italy, $10.99 Chearno: This, again, is really sweet—very,very sweet, and very Italian tasting to me. No idea what the grapes are. It tastes like Cherry Coke. It's really stunning how sugary it is. This tastes like wine for people who drink Coke.

Me: Extra dry, my ass

Chearno: "Actually, extra dry means sweeter. If it's dry, then it's really dry. If it's extra dry, it's sweeter than dry. It's the strangest, most confusing thing."

Who it's for: People who drink Coke. Also, the kind of stereotypical bachelorettes who are looking for something to drink with their penis cake.

What we learned: As Chearno mentioned, the shiny pink foil and in-your-face label probably add to the price. If you're looking at a cheap bottle, consider that the cost might have as much to do with the production of the bottle as the production of the wine. Also, "extra dry" can actually mean "cloying."

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Domain De Bois Moze Cremant, France, $13.99 Chearno: "That's champagne. That's champagne, for sure. It's definitely got a mustiness and a dustiness, and it tastes like it was made in a barrel. It doesn't taste like it's been in a fiberglass tank like the other wines were. It's pretty rich. It's way more complex than any of the other wines. I'm 100 percent sure that's champagne.

Me: "Any guesses on the price?"

Chearno: "Trader Joe's is in its own world, so it's hard to say, but if this were in another store, it's pretty hard to find anything that says 'Champagne' on the label for under $40, so I'd put this right in the $40 zone."

I show him the bottle. It is not champagne.

"It's Crémant. There you go. The values to me in sparkling wine, are Crémant wines, which are Champagne-style wines made in other places. For years, Crémant was my go-to. This is 100 percent Chenin blanc too, which is good. That's a sick deal. That's totally something we'd serve by the glass here if it's grown correctly, and it tastes like it could be.

Who it's for: People who want to trick their friends—or wine connoisseurs they've never met—into thinking they're drinking real champagne.

What we learned: Generally speaking, when you're talking about bottom-shelf wines, every extra dollar you're willing to spend can make a big difference. That said, talk to your wine salesman, because there are no clearly defined rules. As Chearno says, "just go to the place that you trust the most, that cares the most about what you want to bring home, and then spend the money there. That's like the only way you're going to win. Don't go to the bulletproof place on the corner that doesn't give a shit."

The quotes in this article have been edited for length.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.