Some of us are easy pushovers for a glass of bubbly. It's an instant lift. It's an instant celebration. While we would happy to drink it in July with hot dogs, the holidays are the real season for popping corks. However, a top-notch champagne can break a holiday budget. To avoid that from happening, we asked Wine Folly blogger/author and wine expert Madeline Puckette to point us toward inexpensive champagne alternatives. See Puckette's recommended list below interview.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I'd like to talk about wines that sparkle, but do not have the word “champagne” on the label, the sparkling wines that are not made the way champagne is made and that are hopefully really good drinking for not a lot of money.
Madeline Puckette: This is the secret because there are so many great alternatives to champagne and many of them are made with the same exact technique. The first thing that I like to get out of the way when I'm talking champagne – or bubbles in general – is this: what level of sweetness do you like? There are different terms they plop on the bottle: brut, dry, demi-sec, doux. There are variants of brut: brut nature, extra brut, dry, extra dry. Here’s the kicker: the majority of all sparkling wine we find is in the brut category. That's a dry champagne. If you want one that is extra super-dry, bone-dry, go extra brut. But the truth is, as much as we say dry is dry, dry champagne and dry sparkling wine is actually a little bit sweet. It just has this twinkle of sweetness to it. In the extra dry and dry category, if you see these bottles labeled as such, it means they're a little sweeter than brut.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about these awesome alternatives. There's only so much champagne coming from Champagne [France] in the world; that's why it costs so much. It’s certainly an excellent wine, but if you're on a budget, cava is a Spanish sparkling wine that comes from the Penedès area of Spain – around Barcelona. It's made with the exact same technique as champagne. Cavas have a classification system that is very similar to champagne. If you get a regular cava, cava basic, it's aged for nine months. If you compare that to champagne, you can get a cava reserve, which is aged for 15 months – the same as basic non-vintage champagne. I always have my eye out for cava reserva. If you want to go for the fancy stuff, a gran reserva cava is the highest quality. I think it's aged for about 30 months, which mimics that of vintage champagne. Mas Condina and Raventos produce tremendous cavas. You can pick up a bottle of reserva for around $16-17.
LRK: That's ridiculous compared to $50-60 for champagne. What about South Africa? I hear so much wonderful wine is coming out of there.
MP: South Africa is a fascinating region. Most of the grapes grow in the Western Cape area and these wines have a predominance of chenin blanc growing there. We might think of chenin blanc as a sweet wine, but they actually produce it in a dry style. They'll make sparkling wines with chenin blanc, with chardonnay, just like they might do that in Champagne. They have this style, cap classique, as they've called it. It’s their version of champagne. I've seen a couple of producers in America. Graham Beck is well distributed; you can find it pretty much everywhere. These wines are fabulous. You can pick up a Graham Beck for about $14-16 a bottle. Their rosé wines are absolutely wonderful. If you love rosé bubbles, South Africa is a great place to go.
LRK: There’s something I found out a long time ago, and I thought it was so smart to figure it out: in areas that produce famous, expensive wines, often if you go just beyond the area those wines come from you will find very good wine, but at a very different price point. They'll generally be bargains. Does that exist for the Champagne district?
MP: There is a region just south of the Côte des Bar, the southern area in Champagne, and it's literally connected to the northern area of Burgundy. One the Champagne side they call it champagne, but on the Burgundy side, it's just a bunch of hills, and they call it crémant de Bourgogne. It’s made with the same grapes. They use chardonnay and pinot noir, just like they would in Champagne. Because they're all neighbors, they use the same production methods as well. When you're looking at crémant de Bourgogne, which you can get for $19-20 per bottle, compare that to just up north in Côte des Bar or the OBE region, it's a lot more. This is an awesome area to find some crémant. It’s what a lot of the regions in France call sparkling wine if it's not in Champagne. If you find a crémant de whatever: crémant d'Alsace, crémant de Limoux, crémant de Bourgogne, it is a sparkling wine and that is a really great place to look for value.
Madeline Puckette's favorite champagne alternatives:
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.