Article By: David Singer
December is certainly the time for festive drinking and Champagne is usually the first pick as a celebratory wine during the holidays. But for some of our clients, Champagne isn't necessarily an option because of the price tag, and sometimes it just doesn't work economically for what we as wine professionals have in mind. Sparkling wines have also become popular year 'round items and cost is certainly a factor. We've seen tremendous growth in sales of lower cost wines, and the same customers would probably appreciate an affordable glass of bubbly.
Many restaurants these days are featuring cocktails such as Kir Royals and Bellinis and using a good sparkler in lieu of Champagne is a cost-efficient yet good quality alternative. In fact, I greeted guests at my own wedding reception with Kir Royals made with a sparkling wine from Jura. Non-Champagne sparkling wines are also good choices for when that unfortunate customer recovery moment arrives - when something has gone terribly wrong and you have to win them back on the spot. It can also serve as a wonderful reminder of travels when someone has visited a sparkling wine region other than Champagne and wants to experience the same wine again.
For a while, sparkling wines other than Champagne were lower quality, but over time the regions have become better than better. Champagne is not the only bubbles on the block anymore and our clients should take notice. Granted, Champagne is still what all other sparkling wines are benchmarked against and some of the sparkling wines I've tasted have taken that target for quality and style to heart. At half the price, a couple of the wines I reviewed for this article are certainly on par to some of the non-vintage offerings made by a few of the major Champagne houses.
One of these outstanding wines is from Cava, a region in Spain that makes wines according to the Champagne method using three local grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. In addition, since 1986 Chardonnay has become one of the authorized grapes and some ambitious producers have broken with tradition by making a Chardonnay-only Cava. Unlike any other Spanish DO, Cava was not restricted to a single delimited area until Spain joined the European Union in 1986.
At that time, the EU successfully pressured the country into requiring Cava be made from prescribed regions, so all Cava since then must be made from sparkling wines in the areas of Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja and the Basque. The regulation means very little in a practical sense, though, as 95% of Cava is, and always has been, made in the Catalonian region near the town of San Sadurni de Noya
Another alternative to Champagne is Prosecco, Italy's most famous sparkling wine. It is made in the northeastern part of the country and listed as the DOCs of Prosecco, Prosecco di Conegliano, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene or Prosecco Cartizze. Prosecco is easy to remember as the main grape as well as the region. The finer examples of Prosecco are usually completely made from said grape, however fifteen percent of other grapes such as Verduzzo, Bianchetta and Perera can be used. The grapes grow on the steep hills to either side of the Soligo River with Prosecco di Conegliano to the east and Prosecco di Valdobbiadene to the west. The theory is that Conegliano's wines are softer, while Valdobbiadene's tighter and more elegant. However, the difference is really not that noticeable. What is noticeable is the superiority of wines from Cartizze (Superior di Cartizze), a sub zone of Valdobbiadene with particularly steep slopes, which brings more complexity to the wine, and a much cooler microclimate, which lends more acidity, the more the better for sparkling wine. The majority of Superior di Cartizze is made in a semi-sweet style.
All Prosecco is made via the Charmat method, otherwise known as the Tank or Cuve Close. Unlike Champagne, where the secondary fermentation is done in the bottle, the Charmat method differs by having the secondary fermentation and filtration done in tank, and then bottled under pressure. It is important to note the difference between the spelling of the Charmat method and Cramant Grand Cru vineyard in Champagne. At first glance many of our clients, in my experience, can become confused by the terms.
Last, but not least, there are the Cremants, the lesser-known sparkling wine from France that is over-shadowed by Champagne. Cremant is the general term for sparkling wine made in France made with Champagne Method outside of Champagne appellation and with less atmospheric pressure. In the late 198Os the term Cremant was born when the European Union outlawed the use of the term Methode Champenoise by anyone other than Champagne. (Yes, I just used it, I'm sure a tactical team from Reims is being dispatched right now armed with Balthazars.) Before the change to the European Union laws, Cremant had referred to slightly less bubbly Champagnes whose bottle pressure was two to three times atmosphere compared to Champagne's five or six. Krug, for instance in the late 197Os made a Cremant.
Today, Cremant is made throughout France in regions other than in Champagne. You can find Cremants from Loire, Limoux, Alsace, Burgundy and even Bordeaux. The grapes allowed will overlap with other approved varietals of the area; however within those, a few are not permitted. For example Sauvignon Blanc is denied as a varietal for Cremant de Loire as it a grape that does not work well as a sparkling wine.
Cremant de Bourgogne is most similar to Champagne. It was called Bourgogne Mousseux before the changes to the appellation in the 197Os and used to have popular commercial appeal. Considering the grapes of Bourgogne are almost completely the same as Champagne (the exceptions are Gamay and Aligote) I'm surprised Cremant to Bourgogne doesn't have such popularity now. All the ones I've tasted that are the vintage or top cuvees have a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend or just Chardonnay which could easily hold their own against some houses of non-vintage Champagne.
"Bosco di Gica"
MO" Spumante, Extra Dry, NV
Gramona Cava Grand
Cremantde Bourgogne Notes