By Eric Asimov, The New York Times
The world may not offer much to celebrate right now. Nonetheless, it’s a great time to drink sparkling wine.
Champagne, of course, sets the standard with its capacity for elegance, grace, subtlety and depth. But many other types of sparkling wine are available now as well, from unexpected places and a diversity of styles, making this summer a great time for a joyous exploration of the sparkling repertory.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that humans are fascinated with fizziness. From a child’s pleasure at blowing bubbles to our lifelong enjoyment of soft drinks and beer, to the purely adult satisfaction of watching Champagne beads float upward in a glass, we are taken with what sparkles.
The pleasure is visual; it’s aural, as in the seductive sound of a pop and pour; and it’s tactile. Bubbles from a good sparkling wine feel great in the mouth.
I recently scoured the online selections of Manhattan wine shops, looking for moderately priced bottles of sparkling wines other than Champagne.
Why omit Champagne? Mostly because of its price. While it’s possible to find bottles as cheap as $25 or $30, most good Champagnes these days start at roughly $40.
I decided that I wanted both to look for less expensive bottles and to explore the rest of the sparkling wine world. So I picked 12 sparkling wines other than Champagne, up to roughly the $40 point at which good Champagne starts to be available. The most expensive bottle among my 12 cost $41.
These bottles are not at all intended as Champagne replacements. They each offer their own personalities and pleasures, which can be enjoyed without reference to that overpowering presence among sparklers.
Champagne, by the way, has been having a tough time through the pandemic months. With bars and restaurants closing, and people not feeling particularly festive, sales have dropped sharply.
Buy Champagne if you like, by all means. There’s much to explore, from the best of the big houses to new names among the small grower-producers. But to look beyond Champagne is not to turn your back on it. It’s rather to open yourself to additional sparkling expressions, many of them distinctive in their own rights.
Several of the bottles I selected fall into the pétillant-naturel category, which has gained tremendously in popularity over the last decade, primarily from its association with natural wines. Pétillant naturel, or pet-nat, is most likely the oldest form of sparkling wine. Indeed, it’s often referred to on French labels as méthode ancestrale.
By this method, the wine is simply bottled before it has completed its fermentation. As it finishes in the bottle, the carbon dioxide, a byproduct, has nowhere to go and so produces the bubbles.
Champagne, and many sparkling wines made the same way as Champagne, employ two fermentations to produce the bubbles. A still wine is made and then bottled with the addition of something sweet, like unfermented grape juice, and yeast. This produces a second fermentation in the bottle, along with the sparkle.
One other production method, often called Charmat after its inventor, Eugéne Charmat, involves the bulk production of sparkling wine in tanks. Good wines can be produced using this method, like Tajad Frizzante from Le Vigne di Alice, a Prosecco-like wine I recently wrote about, but none are among these choices.
You won’t see any Proseccos here, either. As popular as the wine is, I have not found many interesting bottles recently, although I do recommend the Tajad Frizzante.
Here, then, are a dozen excellent summer sparklers, arranged in order of ascending price. Remember, these are just 12 of many worthy bottles. For additional options, please consult past articles on bottles under $20, cava or pétillant naturel.
AT Roca Clàssic Penedès Reserva Brut Nature 2016 $22.50
AT Roca makes cava but does not use the official designation, believing that it has become an indication of mass production rather than of good quality. Instead, AT Roca uses the “Clàssic Penedès,” an identification for sparkling wines with strict regulations, including a requirement for organic viticulture. This new producer, founded in 2013, uses the classic trio of cava grapes, macabeu, parellada and xarello. The wine is lively, fine and maybe too austere to drink alone, so serve it with ham, oysters or, as they do everywhere in Catalonia, with pan con tomate. (José Pastor Selections/Llaurador Wines, Fairfax, California)
Terres Dorées de Jean-Paul Brun FRV100 Rosé Sparkling Wine NV $22.99
Jean-Paul Brun is one of my favorite Beaujolais producers, rigorous in his methods yet playful in his manner. He’s got a light hand with sparkling wines, as well. This pet-nat is made entirely out of gamay. As the label says in the fine print, it’s “medium-dry,” meaning gently sweet, and just 7.5% alcohol. It’s well-balanced and perfectly refreshing, a joyful wine for a summer lunch out of doors. The name FRV100? If you give the individual letters and the number 100 their French pronunciations, it comes out “effervescent.” (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
Raventós I Blanc Conca del Riu Anoia de Nit 2017 $23.99
Rosé sparkling wine is not that easy to make. Balance is hard to achieve and, as I was reminded in the course of selecting these 12 bottles, rosé sparklers can often seem overpowering, dull or fatiguing. But Raventós I Blanc manages, year after year, to nail it with its elegant, graceful de Nit, which offers just a hint of color and floral fruit to remind you it is a rosé. The wine is made with xarello, macabeu and parellada, with the addition of monastrell, also known as mourvèdre, which accounts for the color. Raventós, like AT Roca, no longer uses the cava designation. Instead, it uses Conca del Riu Anoia, which it hopes one day will signal top-quality sparkling wine from Catalonia. (Skurnik Wines, New York)
La Taille aux Loups Montlouis Brut Tradition NV $24.99
Jacky Blot has been making great wines in the Loire Valley for years. His whites and sparkling wines are bottled under the Taille aux Loups label, and his reds under Domaine de la Butte. They are all serious, superb wines. This one is pure chenin blanc, made using the Champagne method and fermented in older barrels. It’s creamy, elegant, precise and lovely, one of the best sparkling chenin blancs. Blot also makes an excellent chenin blanc pétillant naturel, Triple Zéro. (Skurnik Wines)
Aphros Phaunus Portugal Pet-Nat Rosé 2018 $25.99
The definition of rosé is expansive, yet if this wine were not labeled as such, I never would have guessed it. It’s pale gold in color, the result of a brief maceration of the juice of red grapes with their skins. This process qualifies it as a rosé even if the color suggests otherwise. Regardless, it’s fresh, vibrant, dry and peachy. Aphros, an excellent small producer, uses roughly equal amounts of alvarelhão and vinhão, two Portuguese red grapes that are little known outside the country — unless you live in the Spanish region of Galicia, where alvarelhão is called brancellao. (Skurnik Wines)
Arnaud Lambert Brezé Crémant de Loire NV $25.99
Arnaud Lambert is one of a new generation of vignerons who have revitalized the Saumur region of the Loire Valley. This bottle is made from organic grapes grown in silt and clay over limestone bedrock. It’s 75% chenin blanc and 25% chardonnay, but the chenin dominates with its characteristic rich texture and floral, citrus and slightly honeyed flavor. Lovely and stylish. (Becky Wasserman & Company/Grand Cru Selections, New York)
J. Brix Cobolorum Santa Barbara County Kick On Ranch Riesling Pétillant Naturel 2019 $26.99
J. Brix offers specific instructions for opening this bottle of unfiltered pet-nat: Stand it upright until the sediment collects on the bottom and chill at least 12 hours before opening. Let me add an additional caution: Open carefully out of doors or over a sink, because even after you follow the directions, the exuberant bubbles still want to escape in a foamy gush. When the wine does finally calm down, you have a tangy, spicy, citrusy delight. J. Brix, by the way, stands for Jody Brix Towe; he and his wife, Emily Towe, are the proprietors of J. Brix. Cobolorum, we are told, means goblin, appropriate for this mischievous bottle.
Domaine de Montbourgeau Crémant du Jura Brut Zéro NV $26.99
The Jura region of France is a reliable source of Champagne-style sparkling wines that are subtly different from Champagne. This one, from the excellent Domaine de Montbourgeau, is a fine example. It’s rich and creamy, yet precise — bone dry and still rounded and lush. In most Champagne-style wines, producers add a dose of sweetness just before sealing the bottle to balance the often searing acidity. But if the wine is balanced without the dosage, as this one is, it can be omitted. Hence the designation, Brut Zéro. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
Von Winning Pfalz Riesling Sekt Extra Brut NV $27.99
I’ve never had much luck with German sparkling wines, often finding them overly tart and acidic. But Anne Krebiehl, author of “The Wines of Germany,” an excellent book published in 2019, believes the category has great potential, especially those sparklers made of riesling, like this one. Von Winning often ferments its wines in small oak barrels, unusual with riesling, and it wouldn’t surprise me if barrels were used for this sparkler. It’s toasty, creamy and substantial, yet dry, refreshing and balanced. (Skurnik Wines)
Chepika Finger Lakes Catawba Rosé Pétillant Naturel 2019 $33
Beginning with the 2016 vintage, Nathan Kendall, a Finger Lakes winemaker, and Pascaline Lepeltier, one of the world’s top sommeliers, have been producing naturally made pétillant naturels in the Finger Lakes. Their project, Chepika, explores the region’s heritage, making wines of native American grapes, like Catawba, on which the region’s wine industry was initially built. Each year, the wines have gotten better and better. This one is the best I’ve tried yet, both fruity and stony, with a deliciously tart berry flavor. It’s set on a knife’s edge between texture and flavor, tense and thoroughly refreshing. “Chepìka,” they say, is taken from the Lenape word for “roots.”
Ferrando Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante 2012 $38.99
Erbaluce di Caluso comes from extreme northwestern Italy, right about where the Piedmont region borders on the Valle d’Aosta. Ferrando is a superb producer best known for its Carema wines, which are essentially Alpine nebbiolos. This dry white, made of the erbaluce grape, is spicy and complex, with lingering flavors of apricot. The bit of age mellows the power of the effervescence. The wine is made using the Champagne method, but it’s a far cry from Champagne, and well worth trying. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant)
Cruse Napa Valley Deming Sparkling Valdiguié 2019 $41
If you cannot imagine a wine tasting like watermelon (with a touch of refreshing bitterness), try this one. Michael Cruse makes superb sparklers. His Champagne-style wine, bottled under the Ultramarine label, is one of California’s best. This pétillant naturel is a rosé, a salmon-orange color, made of the red valdiguié grape. Valdiguié is originally from southwestern France but has a long history in California, where it was long referred to as Napa gamay, causing confusion with actual gamay, the grape of Beaujolais. Valdiguié can make pretty good wines in its own right. Aside from this one, Blue Ox, another new and very good producer, has made an excellent Champagne-style sparkler from valdiguié called Wages of Fear. Oh, by the way, this wine goes really well with watermelon.