And everything you need to know about sparkling wine alternatives.
People often incorrectly mutter the word “Champagne” as a reference for anything with bubbles. But Champagne is sparkling wine that comes specifically from a region of France that bears the same name.
A token of luxury and prestige, Champagne can be made only from a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. And while deliciously rewarding in its own right (it is, after all, Champagne) there is a world of sparkling wine that often rivals it.
For a beverage to legally bear the Champagne name, it must be created by a very specific, traditional method: a first fermentation in barrel, a second fermentation in bottle, a slow tilting of the bottle until the yeasts reach the neck and are expelled, and a dosage (mixture of wine and sugar) is added.
The thing is, other sparkling wines—including Spain’s Cava and bubbly from the rest of France—are often crafted in this technique. And if you're into mixing (think: mimosas and brut with a sugar cube and dash of bitters) you should seriously consider spending a bit less on your bottle of fizz.
So this holiday season, when you reach for that bottle of Champagne, think twice. France’s other wine regions offer exciting crémants at just half the price, and sparkling wines from Italy, the United States, and beyond can easily hold up to the celebratory chin-chin.
Pick the Right Bubbly
Camille Braun Crémant d’Alsace Brut
The Alsace wine region is perhaps France’s most idiosyncratic, sharing great similarity with nearby Germany, of which the region was (on more than one occasion) connected. Camille Braun is an estate established in 1902, and today their vineyards are farmed both organically as well as biodynamically. This sparkler is a blend with 60 percent Auxerrois and 40 percent Pinot Blanc. With a mere 10 percent of its limited production arriving stateside, availability is scarce. It is simultaneously finessed and fun, showing notes of fresh apple, chalk, crème brûlée, and toasted bread.
To buy: binnys.com, $19
François Pinon Vouvray Brut Petillant
Vouvray is an appellation located in France’s Loire Valley, where the Chenin Blanc grape is queen. Climate is highly variable from year to year, and the wines can range from dry to sweet, with sparkling wine mainly produced in cooler vintages. François Pinon, a former psychiatrist, took over his father’s estate in 1987 and has focused heavily on retaining the characteristics of Chenin Blanc in Vouvray. His crémant offers aromas of fresh pear and orange blossoms, with a precise palate full of toasted brioche and minerality. It's a smart alternative to Champagne that can age just as well.
To buy: klwines.com, $22
Ruge Prosecco Colfondo L’Essenziale
Prosecco is so much more than bellinis and mimosas. There's Ruggero Ruggeri’ “L’Essenziale” for example, made of Glera grapes grown in the prestigious Valdobbiadene DOCG region, Ruggeri’s wines showcase the unique terroir of the steep vineyard slopes. Prosecco is made in large tanks (which is what largely sets it apart from Champagne), but the “L’Essenziale” goes a step further and is bottled unfiltered, or col fondo: Italian for “with yeasts." These yeasts eventually sink to the bottom and it's suggested that you gently turn the bottle up and down a few times to unleash their flavor. A cloudy yellow color, this Prosecco has notes of honeydew and cream, with a dry, slightly bitter finish.
To buy: 1000corks.com, $22
Domaine Collin Crémant de Limoux, Cuvée Tradition
Most people say sparkling wine got its start with a bunch of monks in the Limoux region in 1531. Champagne native Philippe Collin headed south to France’s Languedoc-Roussillon wine region in 1980, and has used his expertise to create outstanding sparkling wine at a fraction of the cost of Champagne. The cépage is a trio of Chardonnay (for brightness), Chenin Blanc (for richness), and Pinot Noir (for structure). Expect something drier than a brut Champagne, with notes of citrus fruit and Granny Smith apple, and a crisp finish.
To buy: mwcwine.com, $14
Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot Crémant du Jura
There’s no such thing as rosé season when a bottle of winemaker Stéphane Tissot’s Crémant du Jura is open. Hailing from France’s mountainous Jura region in the southeast, this wine come from vineyards planted in Arbois. Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Poulsard (a grape native to the area), this rosé is a deep pink color, with hints of orange. The palate is lush and fruit-forward, with notes of musty raspberry, sour cherries, and smoky orange rind. A dry and slightly floral finish make this wine perfect for the dinner table.
To buy: septemberwines.com, $26
Patrick Piuze ‘Val de Mer’ Non-Dosé Crémant de Bourgogne
Winemaker and native Canadian, Patrick Piuze, is highly regarded for his devotion to showcasing the many terroirs of Chablis in northern Burgundy. Made completely from Chardonnay, it smells classically like a Chablis—tart apples, crushed chalk, and flinty smoke. The mousse (or bubbles) is fine and carries the wine to a finish accented by cooked apple, sage, and lemon. There's even a rewarding toasty note reminiscent of nearby Champagne. It's best paired with a platter of oysters.
To buy: vintryfinewines.com, $20
Via de la Plata Cava ‘Brut Nature’
While most Cava is produced in Spain’s Catalonia region, the law allows that it can be produced throughout the country—as long as it’s made in método tradicional (the same method as Champagne). Via de la Plata is the country’s first Cava made in Extremadura: a southwestern region sharing a border with Portugal. Made up of 70 percent Macabeo and 30 percent Parellada, the Via de la Plata Cava benefits from substantial ageing on its lees (yeasts). The result is a welcome addition to any party, with a nose of juicy green figs, yellow apples, and red berries, and a dry palate with hints of buttered bread and balanced acidity.
To buy: europawinemerchant.com, $17
Il Mosnel Franciacorta Brut
Italy’s true answer to Champagne is not Prosecco—it is Franciacorta. The Franciacorta DOCG is located in Lombardy’s Brescia province, and the wines follow the Champagne method of production, but with an Italian sensibility. The Il Mosnel estate was inaugurated in 1836 and to this day, wines are still bottled on site. The non-vintage blend is comprised predominantly of Chardonnay, along with Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero. Its nose is an integrated bouquet of elderflower, sweet almond, apricots, apples, and cantaloupe. Perfectly balanced, with tamed acidity, the Il Mosnel proves to be an ideal wine for pairing with fish or cream-based pasta dishes.
To buy: astorwines.com, $29
Hofgut Falkenstein Riesling Sekt Brut
Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine, and consumption of such bubbles in Germany is pretty high (roughly five liters per capita). Hofgut Falkenstein is located in the village of Konz-Niedermennig in Germany’s Mosel region, which is renowned for its steep slate soil slopes overlooking the Mosel River. Winemaker Erich Weber takes a natural approach toward production, and is super traditional in his interpretation of Riesling. The estate’s sekt has a gingery nose with notes of anise, fennel, honeycomb, and lime. It’s complex, yet accessible, palate of freshness and minerality can easily convert any Riesling naysayer.
To buy: chambersstwines.com, $33
Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV
Cap Classique is the South African term for a traditional sparkling wine production, and Graham Beck has been consistently noted for its output of quality. Made from hand-harvested Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from two vineyards in the Robertson and Stellenbosch wine regions on the Western Cape, the non-vintage rosé brut is an attractive pour. Pale silvery pink, the wine bursts with aromas of ripe raspberry and black and white cherries, along with subtle notes of lavender, peach pit, and rose. Sip with cheese plates, savory desserts, or richer main courses.
To buy: wine.com, $16
Analemma Blanc de Noirs 2011
One exceptional American sparkler hails from the Atavus vineyard in Washington’s Columbia Gorge that was planted in the 1960s. Winemakers Steve Thompson and Kris Ford, whose operation is based over the border in Oregon, vinify their blanc de noirs sparkling wine from organically grown Pinot Noir. With the technical backbone of a Champagne wine, Analemma looks toward West Coast terroir for a wine with notes of sliced pear, tart wild strawberry, and watermelon rind. Before release, this surprisingly lean wine is aged for fours years.
To buy: analemmawines.com, $56
Choose the Perfect Champagne Cocktail
The French 75
Acclaimed mixologist Franky Marshall gives classic cocktails an update at Le Boudoir, a cozy Marie Antoinette-themed bar tucked away in New York City's Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. For her French 75, Marshall adheres to the drink’s simplicity (it has just three ingredients). Skip the gin and go straight for VS Cognac, mix with equal parts sparkling wine (instead of Champagne) and a splash of fresh lemon juice. Garnish with a lemon peel.
2 oz sparkling wine
2 oz VS Cognac
Splash of lemon juice
The Quick Draw
To slip inside Trademark Taste + Grind, located in Hotel Le Soleil, is to exit the concrete bustle of Midtown Manhattan and enter a place of comfort food, locally roasted coffee, and thoughtful cocktails. Gin lovers should take to the Quick Draw.
1 oz. Hendrick’s gin
1 oz. Wölffer Estate Verjus
.5 oz. Martini & Rossi Ambrato Vermouth di Torino
.5 oz. Nardini Acqua di Cedro liqueur.
Combine, stir, pour into a martini glass, and top with a dry sparkling rosé of your choice.
The Ingrid Bergman
Slowly Shirley, in Manhattan’s West Village, dubs itself “a subterranean cocktail sanctuary.” The mood harkens back to a more glamorous era, and the drinks list has something for classic and contemporary sippers. Recreate the bar's Ingrid Bergman: a citrusy and herbal blend of grapefruit, lemon, beer, and Cava,
Dash of grapefruit bitters
Splash of absinthe
.5 oz Cedrat
.5 oz lemon syrup
.5 oz beer distillate.
Top with a pour of Cava. Serve in a flute with a grapefruit peel at the rim.