Before you instinctively reach for that bottle of $60 French Champagne this frantic holiday period, ask yourself this: Is it all just about the pop and fizz? If so, you might want to save the expensive stuff for a quieter occasion that will allow you to savour its subtle complexity and opt for something simpler to kick off a Christmas gathering or the commotion of the New Year's countdown.
Effervescence comes in a variety of styles. Two of the best-value Champagne alternatives conveniently also begin with the letter C: crémant and cava. Crémants are made in the same exacting way as Champagne – refermented with yeast and sugar in individual bottles to produce graciously fine bubbles. But they come from outside the Champagne region, including such places as Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux and the Loire Valley, often made with grapes other than the big two of Champagne, pinot noir and chardonnay. One variant of crémant in the south is called blanquette de Limoux, made with enticingly apple-like mauzac.
Cavas, from Spain, are made in the same way too, though usually with local grape varieties macabeo, parellada and xarello that often manage to deliver the earthy-mineral backbone for which Champagne is known.
I generally prefer these styles to fashionable prosecco, the cheap-and-cheerful Italian sparkler made from the fruity prosecco grape. Most proseccos form their effervescence quickly, in bulk tanks prior to bottling, a more industrial method that tends to yield frothier foam and simpler, often slightly sweeter flavour.
"Prosecco is the sassy darling, but cava's the real deal," says Leslie Sbrocco, the California-based founder of Thirstygirl.com. Also an author and the host of San Francisco's Check Please!, which has earned three Emmy Awards, Ms. Sbrocco loves sparkling wine as much as anyone I know. She even recently acquired a tattoo on her calf depicting a flute-style glass of pink champagne, with bubbles floating up her leg. "People say, 'Why didn't you get your husband tattooed?' and I say, 'Listen, things can change, but I will always love bubbles,' " she jokes.
Like me, she's a fan of Seguria Viudas Brut Reserva Cava ($14.55 in Ontario): "I think that's just such a killer deal." Codorniu is another of her favourite cava brands and Mionetto prosecco ($11.95 in Ontario) ranks among her top Italian bargains.
Then there's the catch-all category simply labelled sparkling wine. Standards are all over the map, but it's fair to say some of the best are made in Canada as well as California and New Zealand. Look for those designated "traditional method" or "methode traditionelle," which tend to cost $20 to $35. They may not be bona fide Champagnes, but if anyone brands you a miser, tell them Charles Dickens based Scrooge on a real-life vintner from Edinburgh named Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie. Cheapness and wine – it's a holiday tradition.
Summerhill Pyramid Cipes Brut, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95 in B.C.
Summerhill's pyramid-shaped cellar, which proprietor Stephen Cipes believes has the "sacred geometry" to clarify and enhance the qualities of good wine, is a Kelowna landmark. I'll say this much: The sparkling wines are pharaoh-worthy, all organic and among the best made on this continent. The turbulent effervescence in this blend of riesling, chardonnay and pinot blanc creates a festive Jacuzzi in the glass and the texture is creamy, offering up lemon meringue and rich doughy flavours. summerhill.bc.ca.
Carles Andreu Brut Nature Cava, Spain
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $15.95
Bubbles get no drier than this, a wine that received no "dosage," the sugar customarily added for balance. I love the bracing style, and it's rendered beautifully here, offering up green-apple flavour and a texture that puts me in mind of tiny pebbles I once accidentally chewed as a boy. Available in Ontario.
13th Street Cuvee 13 Sparkling Brut Rosé, Niagara
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Attractively salmon-pink in colour, this offering from a Niagara fizz leader suggests flowers and chalk on the nose. Bone-dry, it starts with berries and lively effervescence, then the chalk returns along with razor-crisp acidity on the long finish.
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
Round and concentrated with pear, apple, lime and a rich, yeasty quality, it's lively, showing a prized touch of biscuit common to sparkling wines aged on the lees. It's $27.99 in B.C. and $21.65 in Quebec.
Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad Cava, Spain
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
This high-end Spanish cuvée offers up impressive depth, with juicy lemon and tangy minerals leading the way. It's $31.99 in B.C. and $37.99 in Nova Scotia.
Laurens Blanquette de Limoux le Moulin, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Lore has it that France's first sparkling wines were crafted in the 1500s in the southern city of Limoux. This is a beauty, with pinpoint-fine bubbles and nuances of lemon curd, bread dough and mineral. Available in Ontario.
Piera Martellozzo Blu Giovello Prosecco, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
The telltale hint of prosecco sweetness is kept in check by refreshing acidity, and a less-characteristic but very welcome nuance of bread dough that mingles with pear and lemon. Good value. Available in Ontario at a sale price of $13.95 till Jan. 1.
Freixenet Cordon Rosado Brut, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
This cherry-pink offering from the world's largest sparkling-wine maker delivers more than the price might suggest, with hints of cherry, strawberry and herbs on a deliciously dry, chalky frame. The price is $13.97 in B.C. and $15.99 in Nova Scotia.
Codorniu Cava Classico, Spain
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.75
Bone-dry, with lively effervescence, it coats the gums with chalky texture while delivering bright citrus and a hint of roasted nuts. Also available in a three-pack of 200-millilitre bottles ($10.95 in Ontario).
Hungaria Grande Cuvée Brut, Hungary
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $11.95
The complexity is impressive for the money, with sweet apple, fresh bread, lemon and honey flavours culminating in a dry finish. The price is $12.60 in Quebec and $13.45 in B.C. Also available in cute 200-millilitre bottles.
Santa Julia Uno, Argentina
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $14.95/4 pack of 187-ml bottles
The single-serving, nightclub-friendly bottles join a trend led by Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. Lightly frothy, silky and big on lemon pie, the wine starts suggestively sweet but finishes dry and balanced. The twist-open cap barely hisses. You could sip it secretly during your child's Christmas choir recital. Newly available to Ontario.