In the pantheon of sparkling wines, Champagne has always stood at the top. Though good, even great, sparkling wines can be made in many parts of the world, in the Champagne region of France, the best wines attain a sort of ethereal transcendence.
There’s something about real Champagne that suits the holiday spirit. Champagne sales from Thanksgiving through New Year’s do more than just sparkle—they shoot through the roof. But there’s more than just tradition or marketing hype at work.
Champagnes taste different from other sparklers because the vines are grown in the chalky soils of an ancient seabed and demonstrate remarkably vivid, undeniable minerality. Combine that with the region’s cool climate, masterful blending (as many as 10 vintages may be used in a single nonvintage brut) and extended aging, and the results can be spectacular.
For many of us, Champagne has become a rare luxury. Meanwhile, other sparkling wines, like Cava, spumante, sekt and crémant, among others, have closed the quality gap while generally remaining more affordable.
Most of these sparkling wines employ what’s known as the méthode Champenoise. This means that the second fermentation, which introduces the bubbles, occurs in each individual bottle.
Look for words like méthode Champenoise, méthode traditionnelle, méthode classique or “fermented in this bottle” on the label. And if the grapes used are some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, you can bet that your California, Washington or Australian sparkling wine is likely to emulate Champagne.
These crisp, dry sparkling wines are remarkably flexible with food, especially salty and buttery snacks, appetizers and even main courses, so have some fun and be creative.
Champagne and oysters? Slam dunk! Champagne and caviar? A fine splurge, but bubbly and potato chips can be every bit as good. Just dip the chips in a little crème fraîche for extra flavor.
Not all bubbly has to be modeled on Champagne. Italian Proseccos often boast a touch of sweetness. Delicious and low in alcohol, they are delightful apéritifs made from the Glera grape. Other spumantes come from different varieties; the word simply means sparkling. Frizzante, another Italian wine term, refers to a sparkling wine finished at relatively low pressure.
In Spain, most traditional Cavas are made with Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada grapes. German sekts are usually all Riesling, while Austrian winemakers favor sparkling Grüner Veltliners. In Australia, sparkling Shiraz is quite popular, a rather tannic, blood-red witches’ brew. Somewhere in the world, someone is bubble-ating just about any grape you can name. —Paul Gregutt
$15 or Less
89 Le Colture NV Fagher Brut (Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore).
T. Edward Wines.
abv: 11.5% Price: $15
Prosecco is often painted as a low-cost Italian sparkling wine made in industrial quantities. But nothing about Prosecco Superiore is easy or cheap, although many boutique producers offer the highest quality at attractive prices.
“The wine is made under the most extreme and difficult circumstances,” says Giancarlo Vettorello, director of the Consorzio Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore. “The word ‘Prosecco’ is reductive and only tells a tiny piece of our story.”
Prosecco Superiore is produced in the townships of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the far northern reaches of the Veneto. Nearly vertical vineyards butt up against the Italian Alps, with steep slopes that are nearly impossible to farm with machinery.
Walking the treacherous rows by foot is challenging enough. Helicopters are employed for vineyard treatments, and special pulleys and trolleys are used to bring the fruit to the winery during harvest. In a nod to ancient traditions and sustainable farming, river reeds are used instead of plastic ties to attach the vines to the tree-branch trellises. Le Colture’s Fagher Brut is a perfect example. The perlage is fine, creamy and persistent. The wine shows the natural crispness and fragrant aromas to pair with most Mediterranean foods. —Monica Larner
90 Treveri Cellars NV Brut (Columbia Valley).
This creamy sparkler features a mix of apricot, peach and papaya flavors. It has exceptional length. Best Buy. —P.G.
abv: 12% Price: $14
88 Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Brut (Columbia Valley).
This sparkler is made mostly from Chardonnay, with the addition of 12% Pinot Noir. It features nice focus, density and length, especially at this price. Best Buy. —P.G.
abv: 11.3% Price: $12
88 Korbel NV Blanc de Noirs (California).
This was my highest-rated sparkling wine of the year in this price category. This is one of Korbel’s fuller-bodied sparklers, rich in raspberry, strawberry, vanilla and dough flavors. Best Buy. —S.H.
abv: 12% Price: $13
88 Segura Viudas NV Brut Reserva (Cava).
This wine always represents great value. It is crisp, tasty and supereasy to like. Freixenet USA. Best Buy. —M.S.
abv: 12% Price: $10
87 Jean-Luc Baldès NV Bul’s Rosé Vin Mousseux (France).
Tannic Malbec from the Cahors region made into a fruity sparkling wine? It would have sounded crazy a few years ago, but here it is, and it works. Miller Squared Inc. —R.V.
abv: 12.5% Price: $15
86 Loosen Bros. NV Dr. L Sparkling Riesling (Mosel).
This sekt admirably reflects its Riesling content and Mosel origins, delivering characteristic notes of lime, apple and gingery spice. Loosen Bros. USA. —J.C.
abv: 12% Price: $15
90 Jansz NV Premium Rosé (Tasmania).
abv: 12.5% Price: $22
In the $16–$25 price bracket, it’s tough to beat this sparkling rosé from Tasmania. Few other wines can match its combination of winning color, cool-climate balance and lengthy finish. And at $22 per bottle, it has very little in the way of true competition.
Cool Tasmania—it sits at approximately the same latitude as parts of New Zealand’s South Island—is one of the hottest regions in Australian viticulture right now, thanks in large part to the success of its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Not surprisingly, both of those varieties make their way into this wine, which is about as traditional a méthode Champenoise as you’ll find in the New World.
It shows toasty notes derived from time spent in contact with the yeast, plus hints of berries and peaches, while the mouthfeel is simultaneously creamy yet focused. The wine’s complexity is a result of winemaker Natalie Fryar’s skillful blending of several vintages. —Joe Czerwinski
92 Scharffenberger NV Brut Rosé (Mendocino County).
Resplendent in aromas and flavors of peach and strawberry, this sparkler is a stunner, with creamy mousse, medium body and bright acidity. —V.B.
abv: 12% Price: $23
91 J Vineyards & Winery NV 25th Anniversary J Cuvée (Russian River Valley).
This brut-style wine is refined and smooth, with a rich mousse seldom found in California sparkling wines. —S.H.
abv: 12.5% Price: $24
90 Bailly-Lapierre NV Pinot Noir Brut (Crémant de Bourgogne).
Because Bailly-Lapierre gets its grapes from the region around Chablis, this is a cool-climate sparkler, close to Champagne both geographically and in style. William Harrison Imports. —R.V.
abv: 12% Price: $24
90 Noceto 2010 Moscato Frivolo (California).
This deliciously crafted sparkler is slightly fizzy and superlatively refreshing. Its candied orange and jasmine notes are as fragrant and as fresh as a bouquet of flowers. —V.B.
abv: 7% Price: $16
90 Parxet NV Cuvée 21 Brut (Cava).
This Cava is sweet, powdery and inviting on the nose, with apple, white grape, kiwi and lime flavors. Given that only 2,500 cases were made, this represents an excellent value. CIV/USA. —M.S.
abv: 11.5% Price: $18
89 Domaine Ste. Michelle 2006 Luxe (Columbia Valley).
Vintage-dated and 100% Chardonnay, this is generously toasty, with the elegance and finesse found in true Champagne. —P.G.
abv: 11% Price: $23
89 Miguel Torres 2011 Santa Digna Estelado Rosé (Central Valley).
This is the closest a Chilean winery has come to producing a world-class sparkling wine. Made from the País grape, it’s clean and refreshing, with moderate complexity. Dreyfus, Ashby & Co. —M.S.
abv: 12% Price: $20
89 Sorelle Bronca NV Particella 68 Brut (Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore).
A shining star in high-end Prosecco Superiore, this vineyard-designated sparkler is zesty, crisp, tonic and bright. It offers a touch of perfectly ripe summer fruit. Polaner Selections. —M.L.
abv: 11% Price: $20
88 McFadden NV Brut (Mendocino County).
This very dry brut features green apple tartness with a high note of acidity.As it opens it becomes more fragrant, with pleasant flavors of honeysuckle, nectarine and sweet fig. —V.B.
abv: 12.5% Price: $25
88 Woop Woop NV The Chook Sparkling Shiraz (South Eastern Australia).
Change things up with this darkly hued, intensely fruity bubbly. Pair it with the same foods you’d serve with still Shiraz—it’s especially good with barbecued chicken. Epicurean Wines. —J.C.
abv: 13% Price: $20
92 Raventós i Blanc 2009 de Nit (Cava).
abv: 12% Price: $26
Occasionally, one comes across a Cava with enough finesse, quality of flavors and grace to push it into that upper tier of excellence. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a reminder that Spanish Cava, at its best, can be as good as fine Champagne. A wine like this one is doubly impressive given what similarly rated Champagnes and California sparklers can cost.
Raventós i Blanc ranks as an undisputed leader in quality among Cava producers. This particular vintage of de Nit contains 5% Monastrell for color and complexity. It has the slightly fuller body of a top-flight rosé, but all the freshness and cut of a high-end Cava made from the usual triumvirate of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.
Former El Bulli sommelier Ferran Centelles describes the wine as having an almost crystalline bouquet, fine bubbles and a smooth, voluminous texture. Pair de Nit with veal or pork medallions in a light mustard or cream sauce. —Michael Schachner
93 Gloria Ferrer 2004 Royal Cuvée Brut (Carneros).
Gloria’s Royal Cuvée is a classic brut blend of two-thirds Pinot Noir and one-third Chardonnay. The price is remarkably fair for a vintage wine with eight years of aging on the yeast. —S.H.
abv: 13% Price: $32
91 Ferrari 2006 Perlé (Trento).
A wine that shows its cool-climate, northern Italian roots, this Chardonnay based sparkler is redolent of Golden Delicious apple, roasted almond and zesty citrus. Palm Bay International. —M.L.
abv: 12.5% Price: $33
90 Quartz Reef NV Methode Traditionelle (Central Otago).
The price is a bargain for a hand-riddled and -disgorged sparkler that’s complex with biscuit flavor, yet crisp, dry and refreshing. Station Imports. —J.C.
abv: 12.5% Price: $27
89 Kluge Estate 2008 Brut Blanc de Blanc (Monticello).
Sweet notes of biscotti and candied orange peel accent this Virginia sparkler, which features striking acidity and a creamy, gentle froth. —A.I.
abv: 12% Price: $28
88 Hermann J. Wiemer 2006 Cuvée Brut (Finger Lakes).
Dry and fresh, with nervy acidity and a bright, lemony midpalate, this Finger Lakes standout seems endlessly effervescent. —A.I.
abv: 12% Price: $27
95 Domaine Carneros 2006 Le Rêve (Carneros).
abv: 12% Price: $95
Le Rêve is Domaine Carneros’s Blanc de Blancs bubbly, meaning that it’s almost always 100% Chardonnay—one of the few California sparkling wines made in that manner.
It’s been produced since 1992 by the winery’s CEO and founding winemaker, Eileen Crane. Hired in 1987 by Claude Taittinger (the estate is owned by Champagne Taittinger), Crane says, “I think the greatest and most ageable Champagnes are blancs de blancs.”
The grapes come from selected blocks in the winery’s estate vineyard, on the Napa side of the foggy, sprawling Carneros appellation. Released after six years, the ’06 Le Rêve, like its predecessors, is spectacularly rich and creamy. Crane calls the vintage “one of my favorites, so seamless.”
While the wine is drinkable now, it will age well for several decades. It’s a special wine, meant to be consumed with upscale fare. For an ideal food pairing, Richard Dean, the master sommelier at San Francisco’s Michelinstarred Taj Campton Place restaurant, calls Le Rêve “a premium, premium California wine.”
He suggests pairing it with slowpoached Maine lobster in a coconut-curry sauce, served with whole chickpeas, cilantro and basmati rice crisps. —Steve Heimoff
93 Bellavista NV Gran Cuvée Satèn (Franciacorta).
This Chardonnay-based sparkler shows beautifully smooth and silky qualities, with bright tones of tangerine skin, toasted almond and freshly baked baguette. Empson USA. —M.L.
abv: 12.5% Price: $79
92 Roland Champion 2007 Spécial Club Chouilly Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (Champagne).
Two popular Champagne trends convene in one wine: a grower Champagne and a blanc de blancs from Chardonnay. “Spécial Club” indicates that the wine has been approved by a select group of growers. Kysela Père et Fils. —R.V.
abv: 12.5% Price: $80
90 Sparkling Pointe 2002 Brut Séduction (North Fork of Long Island).
Aged eight years prior to disgorgement, then matured in the bottle for another few years, this is a stunning example of aged sparkling wine from Long Island. —A.I.
abv: 12.5% Price: $60
96 Jacquesson et Fils 2002 Aÿ Vauzelle Terme Pinot Noir (Champagne).
Vintage ’59 Imports.
abv: 12% Price: $300
Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet are iconoclastic traditionalists, breaking molds and returning to tradition at the same time. At Jacquesson et Fils, they have created a small jewel of a Champagne house that has reached the summit in the 38 years since their family bought what was at the time an almost moribund winery.
Since 2003, they have labeled each new bottling of their nonvintage Champagne, the 700 series, with a different number. This acknowledges that each blending of nonvintage is different in its composition—a first among Champagne houses.
They have done away with traditional vintage Champagne, and replaced it with a series of limited production, single-vineyard bottlings, produced only in the best years. For me, the greatest of the four is from the Aÿ Vauzelle Terme Vineyard, close to the Jacquesson winery in neighboring Dizy. The first release, of 1,800 bottles, was from the 2002 vintage.
This 100% Pinot Noir vineyard, a mere three-quarters of an acre, was planted in 1980. There is almost no dosage; instead, the sweetness of this sugar addition is replaced by the ripeness of the grapes.
Like all of their Champagnes, it’s a food wine first, a sparkling wine second.
“Laurent and I like Champagnes that have depth, structure and complexity,” says Jean-Hervé Chiquet. This wine is proof of that philosophy. —Roger Voss
95 Bollinger 2004 La Grande Année Rosé Brut (Champagne).
James Bond’s favorite Champagne is as much wine as Champagne, layered with depth and complexity. Terlato Wines International. —R.V.
abv: 12% Price: $235
95 Schramsberg 2005 J. Schram (Napa-Mendocino-Sonoma-Marin).
The best lots of the vintage go into this blend, which combines incredible richness with a nearly endless finish. —S.H
abv: 12.5% Price: $115
94 Perrier Jouët 2004 Belle Epoque Rosé (Champagne).
A beautiful bottle and a beautiful wine, coppery-pink in hue and marrying notes of croissants and strawberries. Pernod Ricard. —R.V.
abv: 12.5% Price: $350
What Makes All The Bubbles?
The average bottle of Champagne produces around 100 million bubbles. Once the cork is pulled, carbon dioxide, dissolved in the wine and kept at high pressure, reacts to dust, microfibers and other imperfections in your wine glass. It forms streams of bubbles that rise up gracefully from the bottom. The smallest, most dense bubbles are the hallmark of the best quality wines.
Bubble analysts at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne also found that when the wine is poured, it sends up a spray of tiny droplets. As they collapse back into the glass, they release a refreshing range of concentrated aromatic compounds. In layman’s terms, this science proves why Champagne smells good.
Though tall and narrow, flute-style stemware is still widely used to serve sparklers. Older and more expensive sparkling wines can also be served in still wine glasses, to better capture the aromas.
When pouring the same wine into several glasses at once, you may find that one glass fails to produce as many bubbles as the others. Using the point of a sharp knife or ice pick, scratch the very bottom of the glass. That should anchor the bubbles and get them streaming! —P.G.
Deciphering Sparkling Wine Terms
The official terminology associated with most sparkling wines is based upon the laws of Champagne. Here’s a quick guide to the meaning of the most important terms.
Brut NV: Often the best values, these are blends of several different vintages and vineyards. The goal is to capture a reliable “house” style.
Brut nature or brut zero: These wines are bone dry, an austere style great for drinking with oysters and fried snacks.
Extra dry and sec: These are actually less dry than brut, but not as sweet as the dessert-style demi-sec and doux sparklers.
Vintage: These are produced from a single year’s harvest, and often give a more focused expression of terroir and time (a particular harvest). Vintage Champagnes are released only in the best years.
Rosé: The best rosés gain color from skin contact; others simply add red wine to the initial blend.
Blanc de blancs: Made exclusively from white grapes, usually Chardonnay. Often the most elegant, delicate sparkling wines.
Blanc de noirs: Made exclusively from red grapes, typically Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. These bubblies generally have the most body and fruit.
Grand cru: In Champagne, as in Burgundy, vineyards are classified. Grand cru is the best. —P.G.
How To Safely Open Bubbly
When the bottle is sealed with a wire cage around the cork, you may assume it’s under intense pressure. Open it cautiously, and never with a corkscrew! Here is the safest way to proceed.
Remove the foil, revealing the wire cage. There is no way to know if the cork is going to come flying out once you have loosened the wire cage. So, before you loosen it, drape a clean dishtowel over the bottle top, applying pressure to the top with your thumb for added protection. Then carefully untwist the wire.
Keeping the towel and cage in place, grip the cork with one hand and twist the bottle with the other to remove the cork and cage at the same time. Gently ease the cork out with the bottle tilted at a 45-degree angle. A gentle hiss indicates that the pressure is slowly escaping and that the wine will not come frothing out. Unless you’re celebrating a World Series win, that’s just a waste of good bubbly! —P.G.