Your choice doesn’t have to be Champagne or one of its derivatives. All around the globe, bubbling, frothy wines signal joyous occasions.
Champagne is a superb sparkling wine, just as Bordeaux and Burgundy are exquisite reds. But more and more Americans are drinking sparkling wines other than Champagne for the same reasons that they are drinking red wines other than Bordeaux and Burgundy: price, variety and the desire to sip a wine that best suits a particular meal or occasion.
For informal lunches, light suppers, most parties, picnics and other casual get-togethers, bubblies other than Champagne strike the right note. And when traveling, why wouldn’t you prefer to drink the local sparkling wine? It seems silly to order a pricey bottle of Champagne in a Venetian restaurant when all that delicious Prosecco is being made at nearby wineries.
Many wine regions, including California, produce sparklers using the same grapes found in Champagne—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and, occasionally, Pinot Meunier—and the same method of second fermentation in the bottle. (In fact, Champagne producers own many of the major sparkling wine producers in California.) But these sparkling wines often cost as much, or nearly as much, as Champagne itself.
As a counterpoint, this article focuses on sparkling wines produced from “local” grapes. Thankfully, in this day and age of global commerce, there’s no need to be there physically to sip a taste of the exotic. While the grape varieties range from well-known (Shiraz) to virtually unknown (Freisa), all of these sparkling wines deserve to be better known.
This quintessentially Italian sparkling wine has become popular in the U.S. thanks to the many Italian restaurants that serve it by the glass for a reasonable $5 to $8. Prosecco is made near Venice and Treviso from the grape variety of the same name. It’s a simple, pleasant apéritif, low in alcohol (about 11 percent), and it comes in dry, off-dry and sweet styles. Prosecco is available frizzante (slightly sparkling), spumante (fully sparkling) or even as a still wine (but it’s better with bubbles). If you want the driest version, look for Prosecco labeled “Extra Dry” or “Extra Brut.” In Italy, unlike France, “extra dry” means exactly that, not “slightly sweet.”
Prosecco is the perfect wine to have with Italian antipasti, such as vegetables, calamari, anchovies or spicy salami. Its fresh, fruity flavors not only cleanse your palate but serve to whet your appetite. Sergio Mionetto, whose company is one of Prosecco’s leading firms, says that “Prosecco has caught on because it’s light, casual and easy to drink.”
Most Prosecco bears the appellation of one of two villages in the Veneto: Valdobbiadene or Conegliano (or, in some cases, both). The best news is that it’s eminently affordable; most Prosecco can be found at retail for $10 to $18 a bottle. Recommended Prosecco producers include Astoria, Bisson, Canevel, Carpenè Malvolti, Mionetto, Nino Franco, Valdo, Zardett, and Zonin.
Asti is Italy’s most famous sparkling wine; it’s sweet enough and low enough in alcohol (about 7 to 8 percent) that even Italian children enjoy it. Made from the Moscato (Muscat à Petits Grains) grape, it can be a delicious, floral, peachy wine—if you avoid the really inexpensive versions and buy it when it’s still fresh. (Purchase it in a store that sells a lot of it, because Asti is not vintage-dated, and you have no way of knowing how fresh it is.) Brides and grooms: No wine goes better with wedding cake than Asti. (Champagne is too dry.) Recommendable Asti producers include Fontanafredda, Martini & Rossi, Gancia and Cinzano, all retailing for $12 to $14.
Moscato d’Asti (Italy)
Moscato d’Asti is a frizzante style of Asti, even lower in alcohol than Asti Spumante (from 5 to 7.5 percent), always vintage-dated and somewhat less sweet. It’s a great apéritif in warm weather, and it’s a tasty accompaniment to biscotti after dinner. Moscato d’Asti retails around $12 to $15. Never buy a vintage more than two years old; it won’t be fresh enough. Good Moscato d’Asti producers include Paolo Sarocco, Dante Rivetti, Cascinetta (made by Vietti), Ceretto’s Santo Stefano and La Spinetta. American versions are being made by Ca’ del Solo in California and Silvan Ridge and Tualatin in Oregon.
Two Lambrusco producers whose wines you can find everywhere in the U.S. are Riunite and Giacobazzi; Lambrusco retails for around $5 per 750-ml bottle.
Brachetto d’Acqui (Italy)
Brachetto d’Acqui is similar to Lambrusco in that it’s red, usually frizzante and typically made in an off-dry style. But true to its Piedmontese heritage, it’s a more substantial wine than Lambrusco, and costs more. You might say it’s a Lambrusco with a college education. The Piedmontese serve it as an apéritif and with antipasti. It’s quite delicious on its own, especially when it’s young. Wines to look for include Marenco’s 2001 Brachetto d’Acqui ($17), Banfi’s 2001 Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui (about $24), and Giacomo Bologna’s 2001 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui (about $27).
Freisa d’Asti (Italy)
Freisa d’Asti can be a dry red wine, but its high acidity makes it a perfect candidate for a frizzante wine, which is its traditional style, and the way the Piedmontese usually drink it. I love it both ways; it’s like Barbera, but with more pizazz. As such, it works well with pizza or fresh mozzarella with tomatoes. Two producers to look for are Cascina Gilli and La Zucca. It retails for between $20 and $25. American vintner Randall Grahm produces a version from Freisa grown in Monterey under his Ca’ del Solo label.
Saumur, Crémant de Loire and
The Loire Valley, especially around Saumur and Vouvray, is France’s best and largest source for sparkling wines outside of Champagne itself. The major business in the town of Saumur is sparkling Saumur, as well as a variation called Crémant de Loire. Both use Chenin Blanc, often supplemented by Cabernet Franc, and are made in brut (dry) and extra dry (slightly sweet) styles.
Crémant de Loire must be aged on its lees for a minimum of two years, whereas sparkling Saumur requires only nine months aging before disgorgement. Another distinction is that Saumur may not contain more than 20 percent Chardonnay or other varieties (in addition to Chenin Blanc), whereas Crémant de Loire has no such restrictions. Both retail in the $10 to $15 range for standard wines, but premium blends can cost a bit more. The best producers of Saumur and Crémant de Loire are Langlois-Château, Bouvet-Ladubay, Ackerman-Laurance, Gratien & Meyer, Caves de Grenelle and Veuve Amiot. Caves de Grenelle is the smallest of these producers, a family-owned operation whose sparklers are worth seeking out.
These hilltop vineyards in the Veneto are the source of Italy’s versatile Prosecco.
|Sparkling Vouvray comes both in pétillant (slightly sparkling) and mousseux (fully sparkling) styles, and tends to be produced in years when the Chenin Blanc grapes don’t ripen enough to make good still Vouvray or the famous late-harvest, sweet moelleux style. The less-ripe grapes, with their high acid levels, are ideal for making sparkling Vouvray. Look for sparkling Vouvrays from Domaine du Clos Naudin (of Philippe Foreau), Domaine Le Haut Lieu (of Huët-Pinguet), Didier Champalou, Marc Brédif and Domaine Bourillon d’Orléans. Sparkling Vouvrays typically cost $15 to $20.|
Almost all Loire sparkling wines are not vintage dated and are best when consumed shortly after you buy them. Try them with river fish, such as trout, with salmon or with a warm goat cheese salad.
Blanquette de Limoux (France)
A totally unique sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux claims to be the world’s oldest sparkler. It was first made in 1531 by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, located in the village of Limoux, near the Spanish border. Made from the local Mauzac grape, also known as Blanquette, it is a lively, frothy bubbly with delicate aromas of fresh-cut grass. It comes in brut, extra dry and semi-sweet styles, and sells for about $10.
A variation of Blanquette de Limoux, called Crémant de Limoux—containing a minimum of 30 percent Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc—is now also produced; frankly, it’s less distinctive than the traditional Blanquette de Limoux. The latter is marketed in the U.S. under the brand name “Saint-Hilaire.” This can be confusing, because a rather ordinary sparkling wine from the Loire Valley is called St.-Hilaire. Always look for the “Blanquette de Limoux” appellation on the bottle to experience the genuine Limoux sparkler. Try it with fresh peaches or strawberries, or soft French cheeses.
Crémant d’Alsace (France)
Most Alsace producers also make a sparkling wine called Crémant d’Alsace; it’s made primarily from early-picked Pinot Blanc grapes, and sells for about $15. Although fairly dry, Crémant d’Alsace often has a short finish. Pierre Sparr has made this sparkling wine one of its specialties.
Crémant de Bourgogne (France)
Made both as white and rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne can use any or all of the grapes grown in Burgundy (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Aligoté, Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne and Sacy—with a maximum of 20 percent Gamay) in its blend. Crémant de Bourgogne is not particularly distinctive because its grapes tend to be those left over from the production of other Burgundy wines, rather than being grown specifically for sparkling wine production. Charles de Fère and Kriter are two important producers of Crémant de Bourgogne; at $9 to $10 retail, they represent decent values. A red sparkling Burgundy, with the appellation Bourgogne Mousseux and made from 100 percent Pinot Noir, also exists; Chanson Père & Fils is a major producer.
Sparkling wines from all over Spain are known as cavas, but most cavas are made near Barcelona in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, an area in the Penedés region of Catalonia. If you want to spend less than $10 a bottle for decent bubbly, cava is your best bet. Most cavas come from three local white grapes: Macabéo (aka Viura in Rioja), Xarel-lo, and Parellada, but a few more expensive cuvées use Chardonnay. Cava has a distinctive, earthy, mushroomy flavor, and is always dry. Cava is great with spicy Spanish appetizers, such as olives, salted nuts and seafood. Freixenet and Codorniu are the two leading producers; four other good brands are Paul Cheneau, Mont Marçal, Segura Viudas and Juve y Camps. A few brands cost $15 or more.
A huge amount of inexpensive sparkling wine, called Sekt, is made in Germany using the charmat (tank) method, rather than the méthode champenoise (fermentation in the bottle) technique. Formerly, Müller-Thurgau was the primary grape variety in Sekt, with a few quality-conscious producers using Riesling. Nowadays, with Germany procuring most grapes for Sekt from inexpensive sources in other EU countries, all sorts of grape varieties go into the cuvée. Fortunately for the rest of the world, most Sekt is consumed within Germany. Two leading Sekt brands available in the U.S. are Henkell Trocken and Deinhard Brut; both sell for about $11 or $12.
Sparkling Shiraz (Australia)
Sparkling Shiraz is a uniquely Australian bubbly. As the name suggests, it’s made primarily from Shiraz, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other red grape varieties may also be used—sparkling Petit Verdot, anyone? These sparkling reds are dark purplish-red in color—deeper than you’d ever expect a bubbly to be—full-bodied and usually somewhat sweet. Sometimes they’re made in a fruity style, with no oak aging, and sometimes they’re oak-aged, which is definitely an acquired taste. Maybe its novelty is one reason that it has caught on with quite a few wine drinkers. Try sparkling Shiraz with barbecued meats and vegetables. Two Southcorp brands, Seaview and Seppelt, are leading sparkling Shiraz producers; the Seppelt has some oak aging. They retail for about $12 to $14. Other, pricier, Australian producers include Rumball and Fox Creek. A new winery in California’s Napa Valley, Treppaux, is making a variation on this theme—a blanc de noirs from Cabernet Sauvignon.