Let’s go by country, starting with France.
Champagne, of course, is our ideal of sparkling wine, synonymous with the bubbles in our glass. But equating sparkling wine with champagne does a disservice not just to champagne but also to other regions and countries producing various styles of bubbly. The champagne trade association has been zealous — sometimes too much so — in protecting the name for sparkling wine coming from the Champagne region. What used to be called the “champagne method” — producing bubbles through a secondary fermentation in the bottle — is now called the traditional or classical method. Champagne is made in various blends of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. Other varieties are allowed but rarely used.
Champagne is worth getting to know, if you have the budget. It can be very personal — people have their favorites among the major houses and small “grower” producers. A rule of thumb: Any champagne more than $40 a bottle is probably well-made. The differences tend to be style. Prices can soar well into the triple digits based on etherealness, scarcity and prestige. Champagne is a luxury product.
Pro tip: The Kirkland Signature Champagne Brut sold by Costco and priced in the low $20s is excellent and the best champagne value on the market.
France’s budget alternative to champagne is crémant, made in the same traditional method but in different regions, from different grape varieties and with less pressure driving the bubbles into your nose. Alsace, the Loire and Bourgogne (Burgundy) are the best-known in this style.
Pro tip: Crémant de Bourgogne, made from chardonnay and pinot noir in the region most famous for those grapes, comes closest to champagne in flavor and style, at a more modest price.
Get to know beaujolais, a food-friendly, affordable wine
Italy’s best-known fizz is prosecco, a delightful way to start an evening with soft bubbles. Prosecco hails from northeastern Italy and is produced in copious amounts to meet global demand. The bubbles come from forced carbonation in a large tank, a technique called the Charmat or tank method. This process accentuates the wine’s fruitiness, in contrast to yeasty, bread-like notes that emerge from the traditional method. Basic prosecco is cheap and often boring, with a dull sweetness.
Pro tip: Look for Prosecco Superiore, often labeled as Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore after the two towns in this sub zone. Higher elevation gives these wines more character. My favorite prosecco producers include Adami, Villa Sandi, BISOL and Perlage.
Two Italian regions are making a bid to match Champagne with top-notch sparkling wines made in the traditional method. Franciacorta is the best known, though it often approaches champagne prices as well (in the $40s or more). A boomlet is underway for Trentodoc, a designation for bubbly from Trentino in the mountains of northern Italy. The best-known and most widely available Trentodoc wines are from Cantine Ferrari — and, come on, you’ve always wanted a Ferrari.
Snag this lively, spicy red for your holiday meal for just $12
Spain’s cava has languished under a reputation for cheap, unserious fizz made from little-known Spanish grape varieties (though chardonnay often makes a cameo appearance). This has led some artisanal producers to eschew the cava label in their pursuit of quality. Raventos i Blanc is the best known of these, though the wines are hard to find and not cheap. They are outstanding. The new designation of sparkling rioja (I recently wrote about the Carlos Serre) is another example of an effort to distinguish quality standards apart from cava.
That said, I have tasted some delicious cava recently that makes me suspect the region’s producers are trying to overcome that perception of poor quality. And the best news: Cava remains inexpensive. Even a gran reserva can be found for around $25 or less.
Pro tip: Cava, which is made in the traditional method, has categories with different aging requirements corresponding to increases in quality and complexity. Plain cava must be aged on its lees for at least nine months, cava reserva for at least 15 months and gran reserva for at least 30 months. Cava de Paraje Calificado is a single-vineyard cuvée aged on its lees for at least 10 years. My favorite cava producers include 1+1=3, Biutiful, Juve & Camps and Navaran. Best bargains include Segura Viudas and Jaume Serra Cristalino.
California’s ‘class of 1972’ wineries continue to raise the bar
California has several sparkling wine producers owned by or linked to champagne houses (Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa, Piper Sonoma) and Spanish cava makers (Artesa, Gloria Ferrer), as well as homegrown (Schramsberg, Iron Horse). Many small labels also produce their own bubbles. Oregon makes some outstanding sparkling (Argyle, Soter, though the latter is not cheap). The industry buzz is that New York’s Finger Lakes is about to pop with a new wave of sparkling to join established producers such as Chateau Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer. And the two-year-old Virginia Sparkling Co., owned by the family behind Veritas Vineyards, is helping more Old Dominion producers make traditional method sparkling to join state leaders Thibaut-Janisson, Veritas and Trump Winery.
Pro tip: Some of the best budget-friendly bubblies come from unexpected places. New Mexico’s Gruet winery offers outstanding quality at a modest price (often labeled as American when grapes from other states are used). Laurent Gruet, of that family, is now making a beautiful sparkling wine called Silverhead Brut at Vara Winery, also in Albuquerque. South Africa’s Graham Beck and Argentina’s Amalaya are among my favorites.
This whirlwind tour has barely scratched the surface of the world of sparkling wine. I hope it has piqued your thirst for tasty and affordable bubbles this holiday season.