Make Every Day Special With Reasonably Priced European Sparkling Wines
For most sparkling-wine lovers, nothing beats Champagne. It’s regal and elegant, de rigueur for celebrating special occasions. But there are many other sparkling wines that are perfect for large parties and everyday use and that meet everyday budgets. They make every day special.
Sparkling wines have other important qualities. They’re extremely versatile, being very good accompaniments for most foods, except red meats. And they’re ideal for cocktails. The Bellini, a combination of Prosecco and white peach puree, created at Harry’s Bar in Venice, is one of the most famous. The Alsatians mix their Crémants with the juice of other fruits. A Crémant mandarine uses tangerine juice; a Crémant orange – an Alsatian Mimosa — uses, well, you know. And there are hundreds of other possibilities.
Because their price is right, and so is their quality, my everyday sparklers are usually European wines from France, Italy and Spain. They have different aromas and flavors than Champagne because they’re made with local grapes, rather than the classic Champagne trinity of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This is part of their charm. Here are some I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do:
From Alsace, home of many of the world’s finest white wines, comes Crémant d’Alsace, currently the leading sparkling wine, after Champagne, on the French domestic market. The word crémant used to signify the least fizzy Champagnes. Today it indicates some of the best French sparkling wines made by the méthode traditionnelle (formerly called the méthode champenoise, until the term was banned by the European Union) that come from regions other than Champagne. The distinguishing feature of this production method, mandatory for all Champagnes, is the second fermentation that occurs in the bottle, the stage when bubbles form.
Crémant d’Alsace dates to the end of the 19 th century, but it wasn’t until recently, in the 1980s, that it became important commercially. Today it represents about 15% of the region’s output. (While Crémants d’Alsace are becoming more widely available in the US, it may require some searching to track them down.) Fresh, fruity Crémants d’Alsace are characterized by high acidity, delicate aromas and light body. Most are Blanc de Blancs from Pinot Blanc. Other allowable grapes include Riesling, which imparts a lively yet elegant, fruity character; Pinot Gris, which adds richness and roundness; and Chardonnay, which contributes flair and lightness. Auxerrois is also permitted. Crémants d’Alsace generally cost $12 to $20.
Recommended Producers: Albert Mann, Lucien Albrecht, Pierre Sparr, René Muré, Willm
There are two other French sparkling wines of note that offer excellent value. One is Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux, France’s oldest sparkling wine and probably the world’s oldest too. Also produced using the méthode traditionnelle, it predates Champagne by more than 100 years. Benedictine monks were making it in 1531 at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire near Carcassonne, in the Languedoc region of southern France. It’s a great-value wine from a region known for its great values. About 85 percent consists of Mauzac, an important grape in southwestern France, called Blanquette in the region. A little Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are added for extra bouquet and freshness. Superstar wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. once compared Saint-Hilaire to good-quality nonvintage Champagne — at a third the price (which is currently about $10).
The other méthode traditionnelle French sparkling wine to know, unusual in part because its grapes are sourced from all over the country, is François Montand Blanc de Blancs Brut (about $11). It’s also unusual because it’s made from Ugni Blanc and Airén grapes. Ugni Blanc, used in Cognac, is not valued for its great character. Airén is the most widely planted white wine grape that you’ve never heard of. It too is not distinguished by any particularly notable qualities. It may be valued more for being drought resistant than for its exceptional bouquet and flavors. Nevertheless, this wine is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s fruity, elegant, exotic and a very good value.
Page Two of Sharon Kapnick's Reasonably Priced European Sparkling Wines>>
Award-winning author and certified sommelier Sharon Kapnick has written about food and wine for many magazines, including Time, Food & Wine and Hemispheres, and many newspapers, thanks to the New York Times Syndicate. She wrote several entries for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.