Champagne replacement: Prosecco and Cava are inexpensive sparkling wines

As the recession lingers on and on (and on) many people are experiencing budget bummers – the dooming dread of belt-tightening yet another month and forgoing those luxuries that make one say “Mmmm.” Sparkling wine might seem an extraneous purchase yet it can be sanity-saving — the difference between a stellar day or a crappy day. Bubbles have a way of scouring away the blues, making even Meatloaf Night a bit brighter. So perhaps it’s time to loosen the purse strings just a little bit and party again (while keep the spending to a low roar). It is possible to put bubbly in your buggy, even during these dark days.

Rap stars may have popularized the higher end $200 French Champagnes, further putting this recession-flogged wine segment on a pedestal. But, over the past several years, Italian Proseccos and Spanish Cavas – satisfactory substitutes for the French stuff – have made headway into the American market. Selection is at an all-time high and often cost under $20 per bottle.

Most French Champagne and American sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes (a third, 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 you.

The Italians turn to a perfumey grape called Prosecco for this namesake bubbly. It’s lightly fizzy and refreshing and can be absolutely beautiful. And occasionally complete crap. To avoid the wineries looking to make a quick buck, shopping by name or specific region is imperative. Look for those from Veneto in northeastern Italy, and the sub-regions of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.

The main 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 bubbles are born, involves fermenting a second time in the bottle and aging for many months (See pictures and read more about this intricate process). 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. Unromantic, yes, but the cost savings allows us to guzzle Prosecco with decadent abandon. If you have a sweet tooth, look for labels bearing “Extra Dry” (go figure, this means it’s less dry) but otherwise, Brut Prosecco is similar to the drier Brut Champagnes.

Enough of Italy and on to Spain.

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 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 Penedes 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).

A bit of exploration will go a long way toward finding an affordable sparkling wine that will dazzle your taste buds without requiring a second mortgage. So try a few, and who knows, you may find the perfect bubbly to make Meatloaf Night worth celebrating.

A few producers to look for:

Martini and Rossi Prosecco, $12
Mionetto Prosecco Brut, $12
Sorelle Bronca Prosecco Brut, $15
Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $15
Codorniu Pinot Noir Brut Cava, $14
Segura Viudas Aria, $12
Cristalino Brut Cava, $12
Segura Viudas Brut Rosé, $10

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