Bubbly on a Budget
Pop the cork of an inexpensive bottle and be pleasantly surprised
As a devout bubbly fanatic, I believe that Champagne is always apropos. However, this captivating libation is a must for celebrations, particularly when romance and wedding vows are involved. June, being the month of bridal parties, showers, weddings and other events marking matrimonial bliss, seems the ideal time to explore the seemingly infinite number of sparkling selections available and to spotlight affordable sparkling wines that won’t force you to hock your diamond engagement ring or delay your Caribbean honeymoon. While it would be fabulous to have the bucks to freely pop the corks of a luxury tête de cuvée for hundreds of thirsty guests, most of us don’t have the net worth of Bill Gates, so we have to make more realistic choices when choosing bubbly for a big bash.
The good news is that with an increase in domestic demand for quality yet affordable sparkling wines coupled with the number of French producers that have set up shop in California within the past 25-plus years, you don’t have to look hard to find great taste and value in a bottle of bubbly. Moët & Chandon was the pioneer in crafting an American counterpart to Champagne when it released its first California sparkling wine in 1976, under the Domaine Chandon label. Since then, Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger and Piper-Heidsieck have followed suit, and today they all produce fine examples of sparkling wine using traditional Champagne grapes and methods. Most of these French-California ventures try to maintain their specific French “house style,” so if you like a certain French producer, then chances are you will also enjoy the American-made version.
If you want to look beyond California for palatable, wallet-friendly sparkling wines, then consider Prosecco, Italy’s answer to Champagne. Prosecco is actually the grape, which is grown primarily in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is generally used to make crisp, dry still whites and also sparkling wines, both sweet, as seen in Spumante, and dry. Considered an “everyday wine,” it is best when consumed within a year of bottling. The key ingredient in a Bellini (with peach puree), Prosecco is elegant and crisp with a delicate fizzy nature and pleasing fruit flavors. Common aromas and flavors include almonds, apples, pears and citrus fruits, and some may offer a slight floral nuance. Prosecco pairs well with a wide range of cuisine, making it ideal with hors d’oeuvres or as an aperitif. A quaffable Prosecco will run about $10 to $12, and a really nice bottle will only set you back about $15 to $18.
Derived from the Catalin word for “cellar,” Cava is the Spanish version of Champagne. It is made using the traditional method, or méthode champenoise. Josep Raventós Fatjó of the Codorníu estate made the first one in 1872, and today there are hundreds of Cava producers, mainly located in Catalonia, south of Barcelona. Like Champagne, Cava varies in sweetness levels, ranging from the driest (no sugar added), labeled Brut Nature, to Dulce, a sweet dessert style. A star with four points printed on the base of the cork denotes a true Cava. Delicate and fresh, Cava is palate-pleasing and affordable, with prices running about $7 to $15 a bottle. Due to its moderate alcohol content and crisp acidity, Cava is a great palate cleanser, making it food-friendly and enjoyable throughout a meal.
You can also look to Australia for tasty and affordable sparkling wines made using the traditional method. Australian vineyards are known for growing fine examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two main grapes used in making sparkling wine from Down Under. Top Aussie winemakers are turning out bubbly of serious quality with round, fruit-driven flavors and a complex yeasty quality, typically for less than $15 a bottle. Cheers!
Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut, $11
This terrific value hails from the southern foothills of Limoux and boasts that it is the oldest sparkling wine in all of France. Delightfully fresh, crisp and dry with lively acidity, it is made primarily from the Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac grapes. One of the best sparkling wines around for less than $15.
Yellow Tail Sparkling, $11
Slightly off-dry with loads of tropical fruit flavors, this bubbly from Australia offers great value for the money. Pronounced aromas of green apples dominate the bouquet. On the palate, it is zesty and crisp with some sweetness. It will pair well with spicy cuisine.
Codorníu Pinot Noir, $17
Spain’s first rosé cava made entirely from the stylish Pinot Noir grape, this brut cava offers a wide range of fruit aromas and flavors, including raspberry and strawberry. It has a beautiful pale cherry color and a crisp citrus finish that give it notable personality.
Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, $20
This nicely textured, sophisticated sparkling wine offers exceptional balance, a fine mousse and juicy apple and citrus flavors with subtle hints of vanilla and melon. Firm, delightfully crisp and medium-bodied, it is the ideal companion to grilled or roasted chicken, oysters, scallops and shrimp.
Villa Sandi Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene, $18
Fresh and quite lively, this Italian beauty boasts enticing fruity aromas and flavors of ripe peaches and fresh pears, with a pleasant hint of almonds. On the palate, it is medium-bodied and off-dry with exceptional structure and lively acidity.
Domanie Carneros Brut, $22
From the makers of Taittinger comes this vibrant, impeccably balanced sparkling wine that for the money is hard to beat. Bright and crisp, this wine offers layers of flavors, from fresh cherries and citrus fruits to Oriental spice, vanilla and almonds. It all melds harmoniously into a creamy, lingering finish.
Domaine Chandon Brut Classic, $20
True to Moët, this California cuvée is distinctive, polished and refined, with notable class, elegance and balance. Firm, vibrant acidity and tiny persistent bubbles yield to a pleasantly round, creamy mouthfeel. A percentage of reserve wine from a previous year adds complexity and richness.
Cristalino Brut Cava, $8
This bargain bubbly packs quite a punch for the price, with a tempting palate of apples, brioche, figs, spice and peaches. Fresh, bright and lively, this Spanish cava