Champagne. It’s everywhere during the holiday season, like tinsel. Some of it is excellent with tiny bubbles that glide across your palate offering an effervescent lift to the aromas of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Much of it tastes like acerbic carbonated water with a dose of sugar to take the edge off. High-quality Champagne comes at a steep price; it is often difficult to find a worthwhile bottle for less than $35, which can be prohibitive when serving a large party or adhering to a budget. Fortunately, when looking for premium quality sparkling wine with small bubbles, distinctive aromas and loads of character, Champagne is far from the only choice. During the holiday season, when there is a reason to crack open a bottle of something sparkling almost every night, it pays to look beyond Champagne’s familiar borders to Crémant de Bourgogne, Cava, Prosecco, and Moscato d’Asti, where the best bottles can be had for less than $20. The bottles in this selection all offer quality, value and pleasure.
The word Crémant on a label of a French wine indicates that the wine has been made in the same exacting manner as Champagne with a second in-bottle fermentation, but in a different region with different grape varieties. Crémant de Bourgogne denotes a wine made with the same grape varieties, but 100 miles to the south in Burgundy. Maison Simonnet-Febvre is the only sparkling wine producer in Burgundy’s northernmost appellation, Chablis, where the mix of chalk and clay in the soil is very similar to that of Champagne. Their Crémant de Bourgogne is 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir. The grapes are hand-harvested and the wines spend up to two years in the bottle before being released. The result is an elegant well-integrated wine with fine bubbles, a creamy mouth-coating texture, fresh honey, lemon and raspberry flavors and a lean mineral finish. At $16 a bottle, it is a perfect holiday season sparkler.
Cava is Spain’s signature sparkling wine. Most of it comes from Catalonia in hills surrounding Penedès, an hour south of Barcelona. Like the French Crémants, Cava is made using the traditional Champagne method. The grapes, however, are authentically Spanish. Maccabeo provides Cava with its body; Xarel-lo lends notes of earth; and Parellada imparts a touch of ripe apples. Choosing a reputable producer is important. There is a strong movement toward crafting artisanal estate-bottled wines, but most Cava still comes from large cooperatives where the quality can vary. The award-winning winery Raventós i Blanc is Cava’s standard-bearer. Their L’Hereu Reserva Brut 2007 possesses pale gold bubbles that give way to a lively and complex wine with flavors evoking the fruit and olive trees that dot Spain’s Mediterranean coast. The wine pairs beautifully with seafood and sausage and is the featured local sparkling wine at El Bulli, the legendary Catalonian restaurant. At $20 a bottle, the L’Hereu Reserva is an unbeatable value.
Italy’s most popular sparkling wine, Prosecco, is grown in the northern province of Treviso near the Piave River. Prosecco undergoes its second fermentation in the tank (instead of in the bottle like Champagne, Crémant, and Cava), which emphasizes the wine’s freshness and clarity. An excellent example is the Adriano Adami Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Vigneto Giardino, 2009. The wine comes from a single-vineyard planted in a natural south-facing amphitheater, where vines wrapped around chestnut posts cling to the steep slope. It is pale lemon with gold highlights, fine bubbles, floral notes, and hints of ripe lemons and almonds. It would make a gorgeous Bellini, but at $20, this is a Prosecco that deserves to stand by itself.
Moscato d’Asti may be the perfect dessert wine. Made in Piedmont from ultra-ripe Muscato Bianco by the same growers who stock your shelves with world-class Barollo, Barbaresco, and Barbera, Muscato d’Astis are fragrant, light on the tongue and just sweet enough, like the finest Italian desserts. They’re also very low in alcohol, 5.5 percent, which often is all you want after a cocktail or aperitif and then wine with dinner. Since the best bottles tend to cost less than $15, Muscato d’Asti is a wine to be enjoyed any night. Tentimenti Ca’Bianca is a favorite. Pale gold wine with refined aromas of orange blossoms, honey and apricots, it is full-bodied, almost luscious, but its fizziness gives the wine a weightless quality. The Vietti, Moscato d’Asti, Cascinetta, is also very good. It is slightly richer than the Ca’Bianca, almost mouth-coating, yet it is beautifully balanced by a hint more effervescence. The Vietti’s sweetness calls out for Italy’s classic restrained desserts, like figs and almond tarts.
A lot of people drink Champagne cocktails and Bloody Marys with brunch on New Year’s Day. I prefer a glass of Rosé de Provence when the holiday parties are over and there’s not much to do but begin to dream of warmer months. It may not sparkle, but it goes perfectly with the egg dishes and smoked salmon we tend to serve. Whispering Angel possesses the appellation’s iconic salmon color, bright acidity, and restrained fruit character. It may well be my first glass of wine in 2011.
Sophie Helene Menin writes about food and wine, sense of place and the pleasures of the table. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Departures and Saveur, among other publications. She lives in New York City.