Sparkling wine can be separated into two categories: Champagne and everything else. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France, located about 2 hours east by car from Paris. The wine can contain chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The region boasts centuries of wine-making, but sparkling Champagne’s popularity only began in the mid 19th century. Many wine connoisseurs list Champagne as one of the greatest wine regions. They point to the tiny bubbles that create almost a creamy mouthfeel; complex, bready aromas and flavors from the yeast; and the bright minerality from the limestone soils. Many wine lovers talk of the terroir of Champagne. When you sip Champagne, you know it is from the region, and, in fact, could come from nowhere else. Unfortunately, the entry level of Champagne is $40 a bottle. Champagne is expensive, bruh!
Even within Champagne, there are two categories to consider: brands and growers. Brands are large houses that buy most or all of their grapes to make staggering amounts of bubbly. Veuve Clicquot and Moet are the dominant names here. These are not the best Champagnes, but they are the names that people recognize. The celebratory occasion that often coincides with the bursting of bubbly often has less to do with what is inside the bottle than the label on the bottle. Everyone knows that Veuve Clicquot is Champagne and expensive, which might mean more than the much tastier grower Champagne at two-thirds of the price. However, the people who wax poetic about the magic of Champagne are talking about the grower stuff. Growers at some point stopped selling their grapes to the big houses and began making their own Champagne. At one point a consumer would be lucky to spot the occasional Pierre Peters, but these days grower Champagnes are everywhere, in every different style. Many start in the $40 range and trend upward from there. If you have tried Champagne and feel like there is nothing else like it, this is the world you want to explore.
And what about everything else? These days, almost every winery has a sparkler of some sort. The most common remains prosecco. Whereas Champagne is elegant — even austere — prosecco is all frothy fun. The popularity of the brand led to oceans of it being produced, the majority of which is instantly forgettable if not outright bad. But there are some great values in prosecco to be found. Adami is one of the easiest and best values out there, and can be found for around $16. Producers like Bisson up the quality level another notch while keeping everything under $20. Cava is the other popular sparkling wine. Like Prosecco, there is lots of forgettable cava flooding the market. There are also producers making method champenois wines full of complexity and flavor at half the price of Champagne. Gramona and Raventos i Blanc are names to look for.
The hippest trend these days are pétillant naturals, or pét-nats. This ancient style of making sparkling wine results in a wide variety of bubble levels, and includes white, pink and red wines, with every type of grape. The wines can vary from year to year or even batch to batch. They often are small batch wines, so if you dig the natty wine scene, its best to consult with your wine merchant to pick something that fits your interests.
Some wineries in the Loire valley make wonderful cremants, the term for sparkling wine in France outside of Champagne. Sparkling wines do not need to be as ripe as table wines, so in America there are great examples not just in California, but all over the place, including Long Island and across the border in Massachusetts with Westport. England is one of the rising producers of bubbles (thanks, climate change), and while the quality is exceptional, the prices tend to rival Champagne.
Ultimately, there is a world of sparkling wines to explore for the intrepid wine geek, but here are five surefire hits:
Adriano Adami Garbel Prosecco ($16); Great value, dry prosecco
Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco ($16); Dry red sparkler, fun and delicious
Domaine de Martinolles Blanquette de Limoux Le Berceau ($16); Dry sparkler from the home of sparkling wine
Raventos i Blanc (price varies); Spectacular vintage cava
Thierry Triolet Champagne Brut ($40); Well-priced, well-made grower Champagne