Strange timing for the subject of this wine column.
I mean, September, right? Aside from say, celebrating Labour Day (probably a better occasion to open up a beer), what could possibly warrant popping the cork on a bottle of champagne and proposing a toast?
Well, if that’s what you think about bubbly, you didn’t get the memo. Let me précis it for you here, very quickly – it’s 100 per cent fine to open up sparkling wine as often as your budget allows: any day of the week, big occasion or small or, in fact, no occasion at all.
Of course, you may not be able to afford ‘tete-de-cuvee’ champagne each night, but that’s where the title of this column begins to make sense. There are several delicious options from many parts of the globe that will satiate your bubbly craving without breaking the bank.
First things first: terminology. The inhabitants of the Champagne region of France – known as the ‘Champenois’ – have pushed vehemently to protect that term. Champagne is not a generic catch-all for sparking wine; Champagne can only ever come from the Champagne region and connotes a specific method of production (that’s a whole other column). But, as the region that developed and innovated bubbles in wine, I think it’s worth respecting the designation. So, next time you’re at the liquor store, ask your salesperson for sparkling wine, not Champagne, unless that’s what you’re looking for.
Armed with that information, you have a whole host of cool and interesting choices to enjoy, some that rival Champagne in taste and quality, and some that are light, lively and delicious in their own right. Let’s take a quick tour of the world of bubbly by country/region.
Many people know the excessively sweet and affordable Asti Spumante. Without making any judgment calls, it’s not Italy’s best sparkler… not by a long shot. The now-ubiquitous Prosecco is a considerable step up, and for the money, cannot be beaten for an everyday go-to bubbly. Some Prosecco can be on the sweetish side, but given its competitive pricing, half the fun is finding one that suits your palate.
Don’t forget red sparklers, something Italy does very well. Emiglia Romagna and Lombardy make Lambrusco, a sparkling wine made from the eponymous grape that can be dry as well as sweet. This is not the fizzy plonk brought to North America 30 years ago – the quality is way up.
Not as widely available, but simply delicious, are the sparkling wines from Brachetto d’Acqui, in Piedmont. In the case of both Lambrusco and Brachetto d’Acqui, ask for guidance to ensure you don’t get something you weren’t expecting, as there are varying degrees of dryness/sweetness to these wines.
It would be remiss not to mention the Italian sparking that rivals those of France: Franciacorta (pronounced fran-cha-KOR-tah). Located near Verona in northern Italy, Franciacorta makes sparkling wine remarkably similar to Champagne, using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir (the same grapes as Champagne) and the same method of bottle fermentation (method traditionelle or methode Champenoise as it is called). These are not necessarily value priced – the quality can be superb – but might be worth putting on your radar for future celebrations requiring something special.
If you’ve not yet tried Sekt, you’re missing out. Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine and admittedly, it’s not all that ubiquitous in North America. But, when you can find it, you should try it. Made from Germany’s signature Riesling grape, which lends this bubbly a very aromatic characteristic, it’s a delicious addition to your wine repertoire. You can also find rosé Sekt made from spätburgunder (pinor noir); trust me, you want these wines in your life.
Cava is Spain’s national sparkling wine. It’s delicious and, typically, a bargain. Traditionally, Cava is made with a blend of three grapes: Parellada, Xarel-lo (pronounced sha-rell-oh) and Macabeo. International varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.) are being used more increasingly, but in order to truly appreciate the wine the way it was intended, I say stick to orthodox Cava, usually hailing from the Penedès region. There are varying degrees of dryness/sweetness. If in doubt ask, but you’re most likely to encounter the driest versions (Brut Nature/Brut) most frequently.
Whoa, wait. Champagne is in France, so why another separate section on the list? Well, outside of Champagne, several areas in France make their own versions of sparkling wine, known as ‘Crémant.’ These Crémant hail from the Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Languedoc (Limoux). These sparklers err on the lighter and easier-drinking side, and yet bring a delicious sophistication to any occasion or meal. They’re real bargains, too!
This designation usually refers to anything outside of Europe: so Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.S. and Canada, amongst other up-and-coming regions. These areas produce sparkling wines that are usually very good quality, with the added benefit of being reasonably priced. The grape varieties are those used in traditional Champagne – usually Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – but because the grapes grow in warmer climates (well, maybe not Canada!), these sparklers can be richer and fuller on the palate.
So there you have it: an admittedly quick overview but (hopefully) a helpful way to get more sparkling wine into your life. And, if you’re one of those people who absolutely needs a reason to celebrate before popping the cork on bubbly, use life’s everyday victories as an excuse. The kids are back to school. Now there’s something to toast!