If there’s one time of year to drink bubbly, it’s New Year’s Eve. There are plenty of options available so you’re only limited by your heart’s desires (OK, and your wallet).
True Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, which is the country’s most northerly wine region located just 100 kilometres east of Paris. Only three grape varieties are permitted: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagne is the most expensive of all sparkling wine partly because the method used to produce it, called the Champagne or traditional method, is a lot more labour-intensive than other methods of making bubbly. I won’t go into the details here, suffice to say the main difference is Champagne is bottled still and then undergoes a secondary fermentation in the sealed bottle, which creates the bubbles.
But the main reason for Champagne’s higher price is its status as a luxury product. Certain bottles (Cristal, Dom Pérignon) have been made particularly famous by celebrity endorsements and pop culture, which drives up the price for those individual bottles as well as for Champagne as a whole: entry-level Champagne starts around $50. The best value is “grower’s” Champagne made by independent producers, as opposed to the Champagne made by the big-name houses (ie Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Taittinger, Piper Heidsieck)—a well-stocked wine store will carry a good selection of both.
Prosecco is the main bubbly alternative to Champagne. This Italian sparkling wine has exploded in popularity in the past few years because it is much less expensive than Champagne—an average bottle sells for around $20. Prosecco is made from the Glera (often just called Prosecco) grape variety and most is produced in the Charmat method, which means that the wine undergoes its secondary fermentation in a giant stainless steel tank and is then bottled already bubbly. This is much cheaper than the Champagne method, though it also results in bubbles and flavours that aren’t quite as fine or complex as real Champagne—but it’s still darn tasty.
Spain’s sparkling wine, Cava, is gaining ground as a great alternative to those who are tired of Prosecco or are seeking an even better value—an average bottle retails for less than $20. Wines labelled as Cava must be made in the same method as Champagne, though they are typically made from a blend of indigenous Spanish grape varieties: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Cava hasn’t enjoyed a particularly stellar reputation in recent years, but this is changing rapidly as it grows steadily in quality and repute.
North American Bubblies
North America has many long-time producers of sparkling wine, especially in California’s Napa Valley, that have gained quite a following over the years—notably Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros. It also has plenty of cheap everyday bubblies, so the quality really runs the gamut from blasé to remarkable. The best wines will be made in the Champagne method while many are made in the Charmat method. The cheapest are made the same way as pop: pumping carbon dioxide into the wine.
While there aren’t any Canadian producers who have devoted themselves solely to sparkling wine, several have succeeded in adding lovely bubblies to their regular wine offerings: check out the ones from Henry of Pelham, Sumac Ridge and Summerhill.
Elsewhere in the world, look for bubblies from cool-climate regions that make wines with high acidity. New Zealand has some great examples, as does South Africa.
And if you just don’t enjoy bubbly on its own, there’s nothing wrong with adding some orange juice and having a mimosa instead—just please don’t do that with a bottle of real Champagne. V
• Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (France)
• Flor Prosecco (Italy)
• Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava (Spain)
• Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay Brut (Canada)
• Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs (California)
• Oyster Bay Sparkling Cuvée Brut (New Zealand)
• Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc Extra Dry (South Africa)