Bubbles for all budgets: Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Cava and Prosecco

champagne glass originalAs we emerge from the doldrums of the economic downturn, people are rediscovering sparkling wine and Champagne. Bubbles can be sanity-saving– salve a bad day, make Meatloaf Night an occasion or help celebrate a holiday. Luckily these days, high-quality sparkling wine comes in all price points. So whether you have a Hamilton or a Franklin in your wallet, it’s easy to toast to the good life.

In the $10 – $25 range, the choices appear endless. From super affordable Italian Prosecco and Cava to carefully crafted Californian sparklers, the wine lover wins. Most French Champagne and American sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes (a third red variety, Pinot Meunier, is often blended in). But Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava producers use indigenous grapes that are easier and less expensive to grow. And, as the infomercials say, the savings are passed along to us.

The Italians turn to a perfumey grape called Prosecco for their namesake bubbly. It’s lightly fizzy and refreshing and can be absolutely beautiful. The principal reason Prosecco is less expensive stems from the way they create the bubbles. The costly Méthode Champenoise (“in the method of Champagne”), the way most wineries birth bubbles, involves fermenting a second time in the bottle and aging for many months. But the fizz in Prosecco is introduced using the Charmat method. They pump the wine into a huge tank, add additional yeast and sugar to start the sparkling second fermentation, then seal the tank to capture the carbon dioxide which creates the bubbles. Perhaps less romantic, yes, but the cost savings allows us to guzzle Prosecco with decadent abandon. Avoid the wineries looking to ride the popularity of Prosecco by shopping for name or specific region. Look for those from Veneto in northeastern Italy, and the sub-regions of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene on the label. If you have a sweet tooth, seek out those bearing “Extra Dry” (go figure, this means it contains more sugar) but otherwise, Brut Prosecco is similar to the drier Brut Champagnes. Reliable Prosecco include Mionetto, Zonin or Sorelle Blanca.

Cava, named after the caves in which this sparkling wine is aged, is Spain’s solution to Champagne. Producers create the bubbles with Methode Tradicional (Méthode Champenoise to the Spaniards) — yet Cava’s flavor can be earthier and less refined than other sparkling wines because they use indigenous Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello grapes. But that doesn’t mean Spanish bubbly isn’t less refreshing or celebratory – just different. And Cava has a nice ring to it, no? It’ll impress your date.

Tightly regulated under Spanish wine laws, Cava is principally produced in the Penedès region in east central Spain. You’ll find both white and rosé versions, with varying degrees of sweetness (from driest to sweetest): Brut Nature (rarely seen in the US), Brut, Semi (or Demi) Sec or Dulce (Dulsec). Reliable names include Segura Viudas and Cristalino.

American sparkling wine (what we have to call it in the U.S.) has turned heads lately. Quality has never been better. Many are aged 18 months or more, giving them a depth of flavor and toastiness — something not found in Prosecco. And the prices aren’t too shabby either. California outposts of French wineries like Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, and Mumm Napa fall in the $20- $30 range. And American family-owned Schramsberg Vineyards, ranging from $30 – $40, never disappoints. For something fun and different, look for Gruet, a sparkling wine from New Mexico.

In the upper tier of bubblies, rap stars may have popularized the higher-end French Champagnes like Cristal but smaller, boutique “grower” Champagnes are all the rage in wine circles. Elegant, refined and delicious, these Champagnes are crafted with love. Super limited production precludes recommending specific producers (distribution is sketchy in most states) so it’s best to ask at your local wine retailer for advice on what producer to buy. Price start around $40, but they are worth every penny if you can swing it.

A bit of exploration will go a long way toward finding a sparkling wine that will dazzle your taste buds but can also work within your budget. So try a few, and who knows, you may find the perfect bubbly to make Meatloaf Night worth celebrating.

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