By Eric Asimov
July 23, 2020
Beyond Champagne, excellent bubbly now comes from all over in a diversity of styles. You don’t require a special occasion to enjoy them.
The world may not offer much to celebrate right now. Nonetheless, it’s a great time to drink sparkling wine.
Champagne, of course, sets the standard with its capacity for elegance, grace, subtlety and depth. But many other types of sparkling wine are available now as well, from unexpected places and a diversity of styles, making this summer a great time for a joyous exploration of the sparkling repertory.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that humans are fascinated with fizziness. From a child’s pleasure at blowing bubbles to our lifelong enjoyment of soft drinks and beer, to the purely adult satisfaction of watching Champagne beads float upward in a glass, we are taken with what sparkles.
The pleasure is visual; it’s aural, as in the seductive sound of a pop and pour; and it’s tactile. Bubbles from a good sparkling wine feel great in the mouth.
I recently scoured the online selections of Manhattan wine shops, looking for moderately priced bottles of sparkling wines other than Champagne.
Why omit Champagne? Mostly because of its price. While it’s possible to find bottles as cheap as $25 or $30, most good Champagnes these days start at roughly $40.
I decided that I wanted both to look for less expensive bottles and to explore the rest of the sparkling wine world. So I picked 12 sparkling wines other than Champagne, up to roughly the $40 point at which good Champagne starts to be available. The most expensive bottle among my 12 cost $41.
These bottles are not at all intended as Champagne replacements. They each offer their own personalities and pleasures, which can be enjoyed without reference to that overpowering presence among sparklers.
Champagne, by the way, has been having a tough time through the pandemic months. With bars and restaurants closing, and people not feeling particularly festive, sales have dropped sharply.
Buy Champagne if you like, by all means. There’s much to explore, from the best of the big houses to new names among the small grower-producers. But to look beyond Champagne is not to turn your back on it. It’s rather to open yourself to additional sparkling expressions, many of them distinctive in their own rights.
Several of the bottles I selected fall into the pétillant-naturel category, which has gained tremendously in popularity over the last decade, primarily from its association with natural wines. Pétillant naturel, or pet-nat, is most likely the oldest form of sparkling wine. Indeed, it’s often referred to on French labels as méthode ancestrale.
By this method, the wine is simply bottled before it has completed its fermentation. As it finishes in the bottle, the carbon dioxide, a byproduct, has nowhere to go and so produces the bubbles.
Champagne, and many sparkling wines made the same way as Champagne, employ two fermentations to produce the bubbles. A still wine is made and then bottled with the addition of something sweet, like unfermented grape juice, and yeast. This produces a second fermentation in the bottle, along with the sparkle.
One other production method, often called Charmat after its inventor, Eugéne Charmat, involves the bulk production of sparkling wine in tanks. Good wines can be produced using this method, like Tajad Frizzante from Le Vigne di Alice, a Prosecco-like wine I recently wrote about, but none are among these choices.
You won’t see any Proseccos here, either. As popular as the wine is, I have not found many interesting bottles recently, although I do recommend the Tajad Frizzante.
Here, then, are a dozen excellent summer sparklers, arranged in order of ascending price. Remember, these are just 12 of many worthy bottles. For additional options, please consult past articles on bottles under $20, cava or pétillant naturel.
Domaine de Montbourgeau Crémant du Jura Brut Zéro NV $26.99
The Jura region of France is a reliable source of Champagne-style sparkling wines that are subtly different from Champagne. This one, from the excellent Domaine de Montbourgeau, is a fine example. It’s rich and creamy, yet precise — bone dry and still rounded and lush. In most Champagne-style wines, producers add a dose of sweetness just before sealing the bottle to balance the often searing acidity. But if the wine is balanced without the dosage, as this one is, it can be omitted. Hence the designation, Brut Zéro. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
Ferrando Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante 2012 $38.99
Erbaluce di Caluso comes from extreme northwestern Italy, right about where the Piedmont region borders on the Valle d’Aosta. Ferrando is a superb producer best known for its Carema wines, which are essentially Alpine nebbiolos. This dry white, made of the erbaluce grape, is spicy and complex, with lingering flavors of apricot. The bit of age mellows the power of the effervescence. The wine is made using the Champagne method, but it’s a far cry from Champagne, and well worth trying. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant)