Wines Under 20: Bubbly Edition!

illustration by Louisa Cannell

Tis the season for twinkle lights, Christmas cookies, and holiday festivities left and right. And because there’s nothing more festive than popping a bottle of bubbly, I thought this would be a great time to tackle sparkling wines on my Wines Under 20 column.

Let’s jump right in. Champagne is the undeniable queen of sparkling wines,  but with a price tag fit for a queen, it’s not an everyday purchase for most of us. Sigh. But do not worry. I am here to show you that sparkling wine doesn’t have to be an extravagance! (or a headache inducer if you’re guzzling my friends’ bubbly of choice in college, “Andre”.)   For this edition of Wines Under 20, I’ve compiled a list of inexpensive, delicious sparkling wines for every occasion – from mimosas under the mistletoe to bubbly fit for an elegant holiday cocktail party.

For this wine tasting, I called in my friend-couple Louisa and Jeremy, who I knew had what it takes to try five different bottles of wine in one night. Louisa is also an incredibly talented illustrator-  she did the illustration of me at the beginning of this post!!  (Check her work out here!)  We tried a handful of wines, discussing them, comparing them, and as always, taking down some amateur notes along the way.

First, a quick Champagne primer that I think will be helpful to keep in mind as we go along:

Champagne is a type of sparkling white wine produced in the Champagne region of France. ONLY sparkling white made in this region, following a very specific set of requirements surrounding the grape varietals and wine-making process may be labeled ‘Champagne.’ No exceptions!! (Turns out that André we drank in college was NOT actually Champagne- who would have guessed?!)

Champagne is made using a two-step fermentation process. The first fermentation is the same used to make non-sparkling wines: added (or sometimes naturally occurring) yeast converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol. In the second fermentation, the wine is individually bottled along with sugar and yeast. The ensuing reaction produces CO2, which, trapped in the bottle, creates bubbles. Et voila- Champagne! This method is often referred to as the “methode champenoise” or “methode traditionelle.”

Oh, and a fun fact! Champagne is made with a blend of grapes that typically includes two varities of red grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and Chardonnay. The skins from the grapes are quickly removed from the extracted juice so they don’t turn it red!

And now, on to our Wines Under 20.

1. Crémant

Hubert Clavelin Brut-Comte Crémant Du Jura ($19) – France 

I’m starting with Crémant, because it reminded my panel of tasters the most of true Champagne. And that’s no coincidence. Crémant is a French sparkling white wine made using the same process as Champangne (the “methode traditionelle”) BUT because it’s produced outside of the Champagne region, it’s not given the distinction of being labeled Champagne.  Lucky for us, Crémant is just as delicious –  and without the prestige that comes with the word Champagne on the label, it tends to be less expensive.

Ask the Amateurs: The Cremant we tried was bone dry, crisp, and light in body. Someone remarked that it tasted “fancy” and “celebratory” and we all agreed this would be the perfect bubbly to serve at a cocktail party. This would also be our pick to bring as a gift to your holiday host.

2. Prosecco

Zardetto Brut Prosecco ($12) – Italy 

Champagne aside, Prosecco is likely the sparkling wine most familiar to you. It’s inexpensive, it’s sparkling, but it’s also… hit or miss? Here’s the thing. Unlike Cremant, Prosecco is not made using the methode traditionelle, where the second fermentation process happens once the wine is already individually bottled.  When Prosecco is made, that second fermentation (the addition of bubbles) occurs in giant steel vats. This method (called the Charmat or ‘tank’ method) makes the process faster, cheaper, and easier than the Champagne method. BUT, because Prosecco is both very popular and relatively easier to produce, two things have happened. There has been a surge in the number of large-scale producers pumping out the stuff AND high-demand has led to a price increase not always reflective of the wine’s real value.   In other words, there is a lot of bad, and bad and expensive, Prosecco out there. David at Domaine Franey in East Hampton told me a good bottle of Prosecco shouldn’t set you back more than fifteen bucks. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting a *premium* bottle if you’re paying closer to 20.

Ask the Amateurs: Prosecco is good, it’s fine, it’s affordable. It doesn’t make us particularly excited. This is our pick for cocktails, especially the brunch variety. This would also be our recommendation if you want to have a giant Champagne tower at your holiday party.

3. Cava

Bohigas Cava Brut Reserva ($14)  – Spain 

Cava is basically Spanish Prosecco, right? Wrong! Cava is made using the methode traditionelle, so it has more in common with Crémant and Champagne than with Prosecco.  Cava is typically made with a blend of Spanish grapes – including Macabeo, Parelleda, and Xarel-lo- that give it great character and depth of flavor. Given all this, Cava is considered to be an excellent value wine- with many highly rated bottles coming in well under 20 dollars.

Ask the Amateurs: We’d pick Cava as our favorite bubbly to drink with a meal. It’s got more body and personality than Crémant and can stand up to bolder flavors. Its bouncy, persistent bubbles make it especially refreshing when paired with heavier dishes. Serve this one alongside your holiday feast and feel the Christmas magic!

3. Pétillant Naturel or “Pét-Nat”

Château Barouillet ‘Splash’ ($23)  – France 

Pétillant Naturel has become the sparkling wine of the moment (with a cool nickname to boot) but it’s actually made using an age-old process that even predates the Champagne method. While yeast and sugar are added to wine to induce Champagne’s second fermentation,  wine made using the “methode ancienne” is bottled before the initial fermentation is complete. The CO2 produced in the first fermentation remains trapped in the bottles and there’s no need for additional sugar and yeast to be added.

Because of this process, Pét-Nat is only lightly fizzy, nothing like the big hard bubbles of Prosecco. It can have the “funk” typically associated with natural wines, though it certainly depends on the bottle. While Pétillant Naturel originated in France’s Loire Valley, but the methode ancienne has seen a resurgence around the world as natural wines have swung back into popularity.

Ask the Amateurs: You may have noticed this bottle is above $20. Natural wines tend to be expensive- they’re often made by small producers using organic farming and wine-making practices. So while this may not be a wine you drink all the time, we think it’s worth trying to see what the whole natural wine craze is all about it. Bring a bottle of Pet-Nat to your trendy friend’s party this Christmas and you’ll definitely be invited back next year.

5. Honorable Mentions: Sekt, Lambrusco and American Sparkling Wines

A few other sparkling wines to keep on your radar!

Sekt is the German’s answer sparkling wine. While the process for making Sekt was originally based on the Champagne method, Sekt can also be produced using  tank fermentation (like Prosecco.)  Quality can vary, but make sure to look for the word ‘Trocken’ (the German word for dry) on the label to make sure the wine you choose is crisp and dry.

Lambrusco is a semi-sparkling red Italian wine made using the Charmat (think Prosecco) method. It’s a favorite party wine of mine – there’s something so festive about its rich, black cherry-like hue.  If you’re interested, I featured Lambrusco in a past Wines Under 20. 

American sparkling wines are increasingly available, in every style from Champagne to Pet-Nat, though finding good ones under the $20 price point might be tricky. As with all these wines, ask someone at your local wine store for their recommendation.

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