Chances are — especially because you're reading this — you will enjoy a glass or two of sparkling wine this holiday season. And chances are — even though you are reading this — that might be the only time this year you drink bubbly outside of a wedding, a birthday celebration or other special occasion.
The vast majority of Champagne and other sparkling wines sold in the United States are purchased and consumed in December. We associate Champagne with celebration and luxury, a result of marketing efforts by Champagne houses dating back to the Belle Epoque era of Parisian excess in the late 19th century. This is the month we celebrate, until the New Year's resolutions kick in.
Of course, Champagne is the cream of the crop when it comes to sparkling wine. It is expensive; we tend to call any wine with bubbles "Champagne," because that reinforces the idea of indulgence and excess — which, in turn, offends our collective American fear that enjoying the here and now will somehow deprive us of pleasure or virtue in the hereafter.
When we stop equating bubbles with Champagne, and therefore luxury and extravagance, we open up a world of possibilities. (And believe me, Champagne producers would be very happy if we stopped referring to the cheap carbonated swill a lot of us drink as "Champagne.") A bottle of Spanish cava, Italian prosecco or California fizz costs $10 to $20, so celebrations can happen any day. What better way to greet friends who come for pizza night, book club and mah-jongg than with a festive glass of bubbly?
Here are pointers to help you choose among the vast array of sparkling wines.
The main reason Champagne is the ne plus ultra of bubbly is the way it is made, with a second fermentation occurring in bottle to give the wine its sparkle. This method is used around the world, and often noted on the label as the "Champagne method," "traditional method" or "methode traditionelle." Other wines are artificially carbonated in the tank following the alcoholic fermentation. Italy's prosecco is the most successful of this style. Really cheap American fizz seems to inject more headaches into the wine than bubbles.
Then there are other styles of sparkling wine. Crémant wines are made in France, but outside of Champagne, using the traditional method. They are typically made with regional grapes, giving them regional character: chenin blanc in the Loire; riesling or pinot blanc in Alsace; chardonnay in Burgundy. My favorites are Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy), which is usually 100 percent chardonnay and most closely resembles fine champagne, and Crémant de Limoux, from southwestern France, which offers great fun and value for the price.
Cava is Spain's claim to bubbly fame and is arguably the best value in fizz. You can get decent cava for under $10 (Jaume Serra Cristalino and Segura Viudas are top-value brands), and cavas closer to $20 can successfully imitate Champagnes that cost twice as much.
Italy offers Franciacorta, a Champagne-method wine that is fairly hard to find in the United States and is often as pricey as Champagne. Italy's best bargain, though, is prosecco. It's a gentle fizz from the Veneto region around Venice made in the tank-fermented method. Many proseccos are all about the bubbles, but the better ones show bright red-fruit flavors. They can be a worthy introduction to any meal.
So, as you purchase and enjoy your sparkling wines to toast and celebrate this holiday season, to mark your achievements and honor those who have left us, try to register and remember those flavors for celebrations throughout the next year. After all, every day can be special.