Helping guests at ABC is very eye-opening at times, especially this time of year. During the holiday season, I have many guests ask me for good Champagne, only to get sticker shock when I show them my most moderately priced bottle. Of course, if it’s not in the budget, there are many sparkling wines that I recommend. This sometimes leads to disappointment with some people when I describe it as sparkling wine rather than Champagne, though there are some excellent sparklers available.
All Champagne is sparkling wine, but only a few sparkling wines are Champagne. Make sense? Champagne is made only from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. The rules also require secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce those magical bubbles. Sparkling wines may be made with the same method (usually indicated on the label) or other methods and do NOT use grapes from the Champagne region of France.
If a bottle in the sparkling aisle calls itself “California Champagne” or some other iteration, it is NOT Champagne and is almost always a very poor substitute. This is simply winemakers looking for a way to sell their cheap imitation to less knowledgeable consumers. It is never “just as good” and usually the worst sparkling wine you can buy.
While Champagne does certainly have a reputation for producing the best sparkling wines (Mignon Cuvee Marne Grand Cru is one of the several lesser-known, but superb choices), there are many other options that aren’t from that region. Prosecco from Italy, for example, is becoming more and more popular (Collalto is one of the best). Also, Cava (from Spain) is very affordable (try Dominio Peseta Cava) and, in my opinion, makes the best mimosas. There are other regions of France where you can find sparkling wines without the premium of Champagne. Cremant de Bourgogne, for instance, uses the legendary Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from Burgundy to make sparkling wine on par with some of the most popular Champagnes. Veuve Ambal is an excellent choice, as is Chandelles sparkling white.
Of course, many buy a bottle of sparkling wine for celebrations, open it, and don’t drink it. This is usually done as a customary toast with something bubbly. I always try to find out if my guest LIKES Champagne and, if not, try to find something sparkling that suits their tastes. Many sparklers are done off dry (called Extra Dry), half dry (Demi Sec) and sweet. If you typically drink Moscato, an Asti Spumante will be much more enjoyable than a Brut Champagne. When it comes to celebrating, bubbles are bubbles, but the wine they are in is much more important.
Bill Dahl, Wine Consultant