This holiday season I am putting to rest two widely held notions: Champagne is the only way to celebrate stylishly, and if you can’t afford Champagne, you must drink Prosecco.
Both have their place, but so do other regions that produce exceptional sparkling wines using the same time consuming, laborious method as the Champenois, with wallet-happy results.
So, let’s take it from the top!
Bubbles for Beginners
All sparkling wines undergo two fermentations: The first turns juice into wine; the second creates the bubbles.
Authentic Champagne comes from the Champagne region in North-Central France and the rest is sparkling wine. The Champenois have effectively stopped the rest of the EU (but not the Americans) from labeling sparkling wine products “Champagne,” hence the term méthode traditionnelle (traditional method) to identify wines made similarly.
To be considered traditional method, the second fermentation must take place in a bottle, spurred by the addition of yeast and sugar. Next, the wine must spend a minimum amount of time aging on the dead yeast (lees) to gain the desirable bread crust, biscuit and brioche notes for which Champagne is renowned. Finally, the yeast is coaxed into the neck of the wine bottle, the lees are frozen then expelled upon the uncapping of the bottle, and the bottle is corked.
Keep in mind these suggestions are not replacements for Champagne; they don’t taste like Champagne because they aren’t Champagne. Rather, each region offers a sparkling expression of its time and place. But would you only travel to Paris when you could also visit Tokyo, Cape Town and Bali?
FRANCE: The French have perfected the art of bubbles, and produce them all over the country in the style of Champagne, identifiable by the term Crémant. Two regions to try:
Crémant d’Alsace: I once had a sommelier tell me he wouldn’t put Crémant d’Alsace on his list because it wasn’t trendy enough. Ironically, this category of fizz tops the charts in sales amongst the French, after Champagne; gaining favor when the economy was tanking and bubble enthusiasts wanted less expensive, high-quality alternatives. The postcard-pretty region, set in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, has been making sparkling wine since the 1880’s. The grapes allowed are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Riesling and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is the only varietal for blanc de noir or rosé. If you can’t afford rosé Champagne, look to Alsace for cheaper yet charming options.
Wine to find: Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace Rosé NV, $24. This clean, crisp 100% Pinot Noir with a rose-petal tint exudes strawberry, raspberry and bright orange zest flavors with a hint of spice. Cheap and charming with a party-perfect hue.
Crémant de Limoux: Located on the mountainous, western edge of the Languedoc, most people haven’t heard of this region; a good thing if you appreciate high QPR in your wines plus bonus points for obscurity. Locals claim a record of sparkling wine production that precedes Champagne, meaning they have been working on the formula a long time. The wines are made from three grapes: Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Modern Crémant styles utilize Chard and Chenin, but the ultra-traditional, more rustic Blanquette de Limoux is made from a majority of Mauzac.
Wine to Find: Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux, $13. This dry, bright wine made from Chardonnay (70%), Chenin (20%) and Mauzac (10%) is how I imagine Chablis turned Crémant might taste. Fresh, zippy apple notes hang on an austere frame with nuances of bread dough and a chalky, mineral-laden finish.
ITALY: Prosecco is fun and friendly, but not made in the traditional method. Italy has two appellations offering serious yet affordable contenders to Champagne:
TrentoDOC in Trentino: Metodo Classico wine production in Italy dates back to 1902 with the founding of Ferrari winery in Trentino. Guilio Ferrari learned to make Champagne in Épernay then returned home to produce his own luxury brand, bringing along the first Chardonnay grapes to be planted in Italy. The high-altitude vineyards of the appellation, nestled at the base of the Dolomite Mountains in North-Central Italy, produce stunning, refined and structured wines. The region would be poised for recognition as the premier producer of Italian sparkling if more of the 38 wineries were picked up for exportation. As it stands, Ferrari is the dominant, albeit superior, producer available in the U.S. Although four grapes are allowed for sparkling: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc, blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) is the regional highlight.
Wine to Find: Ferrari Brut NV, $25. This creamy, elegant blanc de blancs with persistent perlage, offers bright lemon, fragrant pear and fresh bread-dough, for an incredible price. Make this your “house” sparkling.
Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardia: Franciacorta has at times been referred to as the “Champagne of Italy”, though never by the producers themselves who loathe the comparison. The wines are crafted where the Italian Alps descend into Lago D’Iseo in Brescia. The name Franciacorta applies solely to sparkling wines from this area, made in the traditional method using Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Although the history of sparkling here is nascent as compared to Trentino, Franciacorta enjoys greater name recognition in the U.S., thus wider distribution and slightly higher prices. Relative to Champagne, however, the quality to price for these structured, elegant wines is still outstanding.
Wine to Find: Ca’Del Bosco NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, $35. Packaged like Cristal, this house’s entry-level bottling is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The wine shows vibrant acidity, a creamy mousse and hints of pear, apple skin, and hazelnut, with a touch of honeyed happiness on the finish.