I remember the first time I bought sparkling wine. Or, to be more precise, had someone buy it for me. I was in college, and my girlfriend and I had an anniversary of some sort coming up. (Six weeks? Six months?) So I had one of my legal-age friends go down to the bottle shop and get us whatever he could for under $10. All I can tell you about what we ended up with is that it had André on the label. It may have been pink. And even then, I knew it was embarrassing.
For a long time, the choices available to Americans on the bubbly front were stark: spend a lot and get something good, or spend a little and get something bad. "Cheap Champagne," which as a rule is not Champagne at all, connoted sticky sweetness, soda-pop fizz, and the near-guarantee of a hangover to come.
But as with so much else in our age of increasingly enlightened indulgence, the options have expanded. If you're looking for something you can pop open New Year's Eve without damaging either your wallet or your self-respect, you've got some good alternatives.
The most rapidly growing of those is from Italy, in the form of Prosecco. "There's kind of a little Prosecco war going on," says Thad Cox, owner of Ashe's Wines & Spirits on Kingston Pike. Generally lighter and less aggressively effervescent than Champagne, Prosecco has in recent years become a favorite summertime drink. But it is also making inroads in the festive-occasion marketplace, not least because of its affordability. Rising demand has led to ramped-up production from a growing number of labels, with the result that Cox says he now carries four different brands for under $14 a bottle.
A few notes on terminology here: What makes Champagne Champagne is its place of origin. By international law, only wines actually produced in the Champagne region of northeastern France can be sold as Champagne. (The protection of the term was even affirmed by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.) They are made mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes, and are produced using a labor- and cost-intensive bottle-by-bottle fermentation process. By contrast, Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco are generally bulk fermented.
Lagging behind Prosecco in consumer awareness but offering similar value is Spanish Cava, a dry sparkler generally made from a blend of Spanish varietals including Macabeo, the main grape in white Rioja. The name is Spanish for cave, which is where the wines were traditionally aged and preserved. "Cavas tend to be not as toasty as Champagne, it's a little more dusty," says Matt Pacetti of Downtown Wine & Spirits. His store carries two Cavas from Segura Viudas, an Extra Dry and a Brut Reserva (which is even drier). Both sell for $10.99.
Cox points customers to a Cava called Cristalino, also $10.99. (He says there can be some resistance from people who mostly associate Cava with the mass-produced and pointedly unsubtle Freixenet.) But he says sparkling wines go well beyond the Mediterranean. Ashe's carries one from Argentina called Siesta, for $18.99, and a West Coast sparkling Riesling from Pacific Rim called White Flowers, for $12.99. And speaking of the West Coast, there's always filmmaker/vintner Francis Ford Coppola's sparkling Sofia (named for his daughter), at $20.
If you want something a little sweeter, and cheaper, Ashe's also carries a South African Muscat called Pearly Bay, for $8.99. And if your requirements are a little more specific, there is Yarden, a kosher sparkler from Israel at $24.99.
Of course, you don't even have to leave France to find other bubblies. "In the last five years, the Champagne from France outside of Champagne has really taken off," Cox says, before catching himself—it is not, of course, technically Champagne. But it is French, and reflects centuries of expertise.
For example, both Ashe's and Downtown carry Alsatian Crémants. "That stuff really drinks like Champagne," Pacetti says. "It's toasty and kind of buttery."
He also points to a bottle of Saint-Hillaire for $17, a sparkling wine that was being produced in France by Benedictine monks at least a century before Champagne really caught on. Pacetti says it was known to be a favorite of Thomas Jefferson's.
Of course, none of these are likely to give you the lighter-than-air textures and teasing complexities of really good Champagne. They are mostly simple wines, with straightforward pleasures. But the pleasures are respectable ones. And they don't say André on the label.