Big-C Champagne makers are desperate to have you believe their product is not just for big-C Celebrations: New Year’s, significant birthdays and anniversaries, spraying around locker rooms by Super Bowl champs… that sort of thing.
And they have a point. With its bubbles, varying styles and degrees of sweetness, Champagne goes with just about anything, popcorn to Popeye’s, and whatever you want in between.
But in defending a brand (Champagne with a capital “C” can legitimately be called that only if it’s produced within a designated region in France and from specific grapes), the big Champagne houses have also created a problem: price.
Fortunately, there are options, all under $25. Or close to it.
And one of the best is right in France: Crémant. Crémant is made exactly like Champagne (which is to say it undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to yield the bubbles), but it can be made in grape-growing regions as diverse as Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Jura and even Alsace — from the grapes that typically grow in those regions. A fan of Chablis from the Loire? You’ll love the Crémant with its foundation of chablis and chardonnay. Crushing on the big reds of Burgundy? Head straight to Crémant de Bourgogne. The Bordeaux and Limoux regions also produce Crémants. A personal, perennial favorite is Lucien Albrecht’s Crémant d’ Alsace in either the brut or rosé expressions. It’s also widely available. But given that the labels still look Frenchy and the producers generally know what they’re doing, feel free to give almost anything you find a try.
Blame Prosecco’s bad rap on mimosas (and, to a lesser degree, Bellinis) — at least I do. Much of the stuff is made in the charmat method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in large, stainless steel tanks, not in individual bottles. But there is nevertheless some very good sparkling wine from Italy’s Veneto region out there. Yes, it will be a little fruitier and less nuanced than Crémant, and most of it is labelled “extra dry,” which despite the obvious implications, is actually a little sweeter than straight dry or brut. (Got that?) But it’s also generally less expensive. Some good names to look for are Carpene Malvolti, Mionetto and Ruffino. More than most Champagne alternatives, you get what you pay for in Prosecco — so unless you really are planning to slam bottomless mimosas (we don’t judge), avoid the cutesy labels and the really cheap stuff. For a peek at what Prosecco can produce at the top — or superiore D.O.C.G. — end, look for Valdobbiadene, or Coneligiano-Valdobbiadene on the label. Don’t worry about pronouncing it. Just know that this is the wine’s most highly regarded sub-region.
I’m willing to bet that Freixenet, the Spanish stuff in the black bottle, led the charge away from big-bucks bubbly. It was cheap generations ago, it still is (under $12) and you should not be ashamed of serving it. Segura Viudas and Jaume Serra Cristalino are two other labels that deliver exceptional bang at a party price. But now that most of us are long outta college, we can begin to look a little farther up the food chain for Cava, the Spanish champ generally produced from a three-grape blend in the Penedés region near Barcelona. Freixenet offers a more upscale bottling called Elyssia in both rosé (from pinot noir) and Grand Cuvée Brut renditions (blended with some chardonnay and pinot noir). Segura Viudas counters with an impressively packaged Brut Reserve Heredad of its own. Other good names include Cordorniu, Juvé y Camps, Naveran and the impressive Raventos y Blanc in vintage-dated versions along with a NV (non-vintage) La Vida al Camp Brut.
Pretty much any country that produces wine makes a sparkling wine as well. The march of global warming means that even England is turning out some very desirable bubbly. So, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. is home to some standout examples. In the Pacific Northwest, big-gun Chateau Ste. Michelle makes a dependable party pounder in its Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut. You should be able to find it at under $15 — sometimes well under. Oregon’s Argyle Brut, heavy on the pinot noir as you might expect, is equally appealing.
As the nation’s biggest producer, California was naturally first to the party and thus has the deepest back bench of bubblies. Look for the basic bruts of Mumm Napa, Roederer Estate and Chandon (all French) and Gloria Ferrer (Spain’s Freixenet family) among many others. From Coppola comes the Instagram-ready Sofia Brut Rosé Monterrey County 2017; it’s pretty in the packaging and explosive on the palate. New Mexico comes on strong with Gruet in several worthy expressions. And New York’s Finger Lakes region is well-represented by Dr. Konstantin Frank Sparkling Brut made with the entirely traditional blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meuniere. (They also do a riesling sparkler.)
Speaking of riesling, Germany’s bubblies are known as sekt, but there’s little availability here. Nor are we likely to see anything from, say, Hungary. Yet there is, oddly enough, a terrific sparkler from Tasmania. Yup, Tasmania — it’s not just about devils any more. I tasted the Jansz Tasmanian Rosé at High Street Wine Company just the other night, and it’s a beautiful wine (it’s not just about the bubbles, either) with light strawberry flavors and aromas. The bottle price tops our limit, but you can sample it for $11 a glass. You get bragging rights for being ahead of the small-c curve in the bargain.
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