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Bargain Sparkling Wines for Summer Drinking

Fine Cooking Issue 51
Photo: Scott Phillips
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There’s a lot more to sparkling wine than just what’s made in the Champagne region of France. Good bubbly is made all over the world, and you can buy a tasty bottle for less than half the price of nonvintage Champagne. In the spirit of refreshing summer sipping and deliciously versatile wine, here’s a rundown of my favorite non-­Champagne sparkling wines, which are as good for apéritifs as they are for serving with light summer meals.

Cremant from France

Champagne aside, there’s more fine quality sparkling wine produced in France than anywhere else in the world. Cremant, which refers to any non-­Champagne French sparkling wine, is actually made using the Champagne method (now called méthode traditionale, or metodo classico in Italy), where the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, not in a tank. From the Southwest of France come Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, blends of the local Mauzac grape as well as Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Both offer bright lemon-citrus and toasty flavors and are some of the best sparkling wine values around. And from the Alsace region comes Cremant d’Alsace, a blend of mostly Pinot Blanc grapes. Cremant d’Alsace is similar in style to nonvintage Champagne but without quite the depth, earthiness, and complexity. All these wines are long on drinkability and easy on the pocketbook.

Cava from Spain

Champagne’s major competition in the world of sparkling wine is Spain. Cava, as it’s known in  Spain, is often made in the méthode traditionale, with blends of indigenous grapes such as Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. They’re not exactly household names, but the unique quality of these grape varieties is precisely what gives cava its exotic, spicy melon/peach fruit and mouth-watering crispness.

Prosecco from Italy

Italy is another great source for inexpensive and delicious sparkling wines. Prosecco is produced from the Prosecco grape using the Charmat process, where the secondary fermentation is induced in stainless-steel tanks (as opposed to méthode traditionale). The wines are available both fully sparkling (called spumante) and lightly sparkling versions (called frizzante), and the combination of bright pear/ citrus fruit and nutty qualities makes Prosecco an irresistible apéritif, especially with antipasto.

Lambrusco, made from the  grape of the same name, is a red Italian sparkler you shouldn’t miss, even though its reputation has suffered over the last two decades because of inexpensive mass-market brands. Lambrusco is made slightly sweet or dry, and its tart, juicy fruit and lively acidity make it another good candidate for casual summer drinking.

Good buys from the NewWorld

Many Champagne houses came over from France to invest big money in California during the 1970s and ’80s, resulting in some of the better non-­Champagne sparkling wines on the market. Sadly, you can’t call them bar-­ gains anymore: spiraling costs of vineyard property and exorbitant grape prices have pushed the price of the average non-­vintage California sparkler near the realm of nonvintage Champagne. As a result, places like Washington State have jumped in, making good bargain bubblies using quality fruit and the méthode traditionale to create wines that are priced to enjoy every day. And as with other wines, Australia is providing tough competition for everyone, producing some delicious sparklers for a fraction of what everyone else is charging.

Sparkling bargains to seek out

Serve all sparkling wine chilled to 45°F; if it’s any colder, you won’t be able to taste it. Two hours in the refrigerator or 30 minutes in a bucket of ice water will suffice. Always  use flute-shaped glasses to show off those bubbles, rather than the sherbet type, which kills the bubbles.

France
• Domaine J. Laurens Brut, Blanquette de Limoux
• Maison Guinot, Cremant de Limoux
• Meyer-Fonné Brut, Cremant d’Alsace
• Pierre Sparr Brut, Cremant d’Alsace

Italy
• Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
• Ruggieri Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante
• 1999 Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro

Spain
• Cristalino Brut
• Segura Viudas Brut, Cava “Aria,”

Australia
• 1999 Seaview Brut
• Yalumba Angas Brut, Méthode Champenoise
• Seppelt, Great Western Brut Reserve

United States
• Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blancs
• Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Cuvée

Delicious matches for sparkling wines

Seafood and salty foods are especially good partners for these-light sparklers. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Cheese straws and spiced nuts.
  • An omelet with smoked salmon, capers, and red onion.
  • Seared scallops with a lime vinaigrette or a lime compound butter.
  • Smoked chicken or smoked turkey sandwiches.
  • An antipasto plate with olives, dry sausage, grilled vegetables, and mild hard cheeses.

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