Although rumor has it we’re at the tail end of the Great Recession, many of us are still feeling economically gun shy, and that extends to purchases of fine wine and spirits. Among the first things consumers stop consuming in recessionary economies is Champagne. Even people who can afford it tend to fall out of the habit, but after several holiday seasons away from Champagne, I think it’s time to pull “fat corks” again.
There are many options when it comes to bubbly wines and it can be confusing, even within the Champagne category. Bubbly wines are produced in every corner of the wine world but not all are Champagne (or are produced by the Champagne method). Some are vague copies, like prosecco, which uses both a different grape and different methods. Others, like cava, use the same methods as Champagne but different grapes. Carneros and Anderson Valley, two more producers, make the closest copies.
The most prestigious Champagnes are Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Winston Churchill or Clos du Mesnil that each house designates as their top Cuvée. The other tiers include: Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Vintage, Non-Vintage, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé and Grower Champagne.
While official, authenticated Champagne is great, it isn’t cheap. People looking to partake in a bubbly toast without breaking the bank can find better bargains by looking at other regions. But while these wines may be less expensive, many have their own legacies. The Roman historian Livy wrote of wines from Limoux before his death in 17 AD and records of sparkling vintages from the area have been found dating back to 1531. Limoux embraces the idea that it’s the birthplace of sparkling wine and continues to produce blanquette, a very good bubbly from local Mauzac grapes.
A bit further south in Spain is another historic region near Barcelona. Cava was originally called Xampan, but the name was changed when Spain prepared to join the European Union. The new appellation refers to the caves in which the region’s wines are aged. Cava is made in the same manner as Champagne but with local grapes macabeu, Paradella and xarel-lo, along with chardonnay and pinot noir.
Just about every region in the world produces a version of sparkling wine. Some have gained fame for their high quality while others offer drinkability and value. I think the finest versions are made in the traditional Champenoise method, which includes in-bottle fermentation to produce carbonation. This process is labor- and time-intensive, one reason the wines are expensive. The less complicated methods can lower the overall cost and, when done properly, preserve much of the quality.
Ready to get re-acquainted with tiny bubbles? Great tastes can be had from a variety of regions.
Pehu Simonet Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru: A grower Champagne from 100 percent pinot noir and the Grand Cru village of Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne.
Sparkling Pointe Blanc de Blancs: North Fork Chardonnay produced in the traditional Champagne style by Gilles Martin, a native of Champagne and former winemaker for Roederer in Anderson Valley.
Toffoli Prosecco: Organically produced in Conegliano, Prosecco’s finest region.
Côté Mas Blanquette de Limoux: From what is historically considered the birthplace of sparkling wine, this vintage is made from the Mauzac grape.
Segura Viuda Reserva Heredad Cava: The premium version of Spain’s great Xampan or Cava.