December 28, 2005

Finding Good Bubbly

If fear of high prices and foreign words make alarm bells go off in your head when you near the sparkling wine section of the store, chill out. It is possible to find great bubbly wine at any price over $8. Start by looking outside of the most famous area, Champagne. Look for Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, Crémant from France, and sparkling wines from California, Oregon, Washington State, New Mexico, and even Michigan. Tasmania has also gotten into the game with crisp sparklers like those from Pipers Brook Vineyard.

If nothing but Champagne will do—that is, wine from within the officially delimited area of Champagne in France—you can expect to pay at least $25 for a decent bottle, but you don’t have to spend more than $60. To get the best deals in this wine region, look for grower Champagnes. These are Champagnes made by small companies, typically family-run, that both grow their own grapes as well as make their own wine. (Most large companies grow only a portion of their grapes, and buy grapes from others.) To find them, ask the salesperson at your local wine store, or look for Champagnes imported by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines; Organic Vintners; Kysela Père et Fils, and Veritas Imports. (The importer is listed on the back label of the wine bottle.) Grower Champagnes tend to have the small bubbles and all the flavor expected from any good Champagne for prices that aren’t inflated by hype.

Now, how to figure out the differences between all those bottles on the shelf? Use this crib sheet as a quick reference.

Blanc de Blancs: “White of Whites,” which means a white wine made from white wine grapes, such as chardonnay. Because of the lack of red grapes, blanc de blancs wines tend to taste somewhere between steely and chalky, with white fruit flavors like crisp apples or Asian pear.

Blanc de Noirs: “White of Blacks,” which means white wine made from red-skinned grapes such as pinot noir. While these are white wines, they will sometimes have a richer, redder fruit flavor than blanc de blancs.

Brut: Dry.

Brut Nature: Even drier than dry.

Cava: The sparkling wine of Spain. It’s typically made with native Spanish grapes macabeu, parellada, and xarel-lo, so the flavor is more applelike than that of Champagne, and it’s almost always bone dry. The natives drink it with tapas, little bites of powerfully flavored foods like deep-fried bacalao balls and Manchego cheese.

Champagne: The sparkling wine made in Champagne, France, a most northerly wine-producing region in that country. It’s the model against which all other sparkling wines are compared, though there are other sparkling wines worth checking out. Comes in a wide variety of styles, from light and airy to toasty and rich.

Crémant: sparkling wine made in France in the same way as Champagne, only made outside of the Champagne region. Alsace and the Loire particularly excel with crémants.

Demi-Sec: It literally means “half-dry,” but demi-sec wines are sweet enough to serve for dessert.

Extra Dry: A little bit sweet. To make sense of the term, think of it as dry with a little something extra—sugar, in this case.

Grand Cru: A designation given to the very best vineyards in France’s Champagne region.

Méthode Traditionelle: made in the same way as Champagne. Often seen on American sparkling wines.

Premier Cru: “First Class,” a designation given to some vineyards in France’s Champagne region that are considered better than most.

Prosecco: Sparkling wine made from prosecco grapes in Italy’s Veneto. With lightly peachy flavors and lots of soft bubbles, it’s a favorite with everything from corn nuts to tuna tartare.

Sekt: German for sparkling wine.

Spumante: Italian for sparkling wine. Asti makes the most famous spumantes, but better examples can be found in Franciacorta, Italy.

This article first appeared in the Denver Post.

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