Many young wine drinkers assume that sparkling wines are for special occasions only — during the holidays, to ring in the new year, to accompany an anniversary dinner or to celebrate a birthday. Believing this fallacy is their first mistake.
Their second is accepting the notion that Champagne has to be the bubbly wine of choice because of the idea that it always displays good taste and sophistication.
Sorry to rain on your parade, but there is nothing elegant about the ever-so-popular $6 bottle of flavored Andre, a notorious favorite thought to give the most bang for your buck. With its plastic twist-off cap, it fails to even provide the exciting pop you expect when opening a bottle of Champagne. As one of the best-selling brands of sparkling wine in the United States, it simply fails to perform, with lingering aromas of wet diapers and a taste that is tongue-numbingly sweet, with large but few bubbles that fade entirely too quickly in your glass.
It’s not even true Champagne, produced in California and not in the Champagne region of France, where strict rules prohibit any other region from using the name for their wine. Genuine Champagnes — the good stuff — are rarely cheap.
Unless you are willing to spend at least $40 on a decent bottle of real Champagne, you might as well bid the idea farewell and choose a lesser-known, yet still high-quality, sparkling wine. There are various options but two of my favorites are cava and prosecco — both entirely accessible and affordable.
Cava, a straightforward and simple bubbly wine, is produced in the Penedes region in Catalonia, close to the increasingly popular study-abroad city of Barcelona, Spain. It is perhaps the most Champagne-like sparkling wine, but only because they’re both made using the same traditional method. After a first fermentation process, it undergoes a second, which is when the carbonating magic begins.
More yeast is added to the wine in the same bottle from which you eventually pour it into your glass, and then it is tightly corked. Over a period of nine months, the yeast continues to break down any residual sugars left in the wine, which releases carbon dioxide. Because the gas is held captive in the bottle, the wine has no choice but to embrace it.
When the winemakers determine that all of the unused yeast rests in the neck of the bottle, and the process is complete, they flash freeze it. The remaining frozen plugs of yeast sediment are then removed and a strong cork is inserted to preserve the sparkling wine until it is liberated by a lucky consumer releasing the tiny streams of bubbles.
Their energetic fizz may be the product of the same process, but cava and Champagne don’t have much else in common and are indeed two individual wines, grown with different grapes in unlike terrains. With soft bubbles and crisp, citrusy and green apple flavors, cava finishes lightly and cleanly, unlike the off-putting, dry, yeasty funk often found in a glass of Champagne that isn’t appealing if you aren’t used to it.
Another wise bubbly option is prosecco, a striking sparkling wine made in the Italian region of Veneto. Unlike Champagne and cava, the second fermentation happens in pressurized stainless steel tanks, using a more modern process known as the Charmat method. This method brings out more fruit-forward aromas like apple and pear. There’s a consistent lightness and easygoing grace that amounts to luminous joy in a glass of this wine. And, because the Charmat method is usually more economical than the traditional method, prosecco is also light on the wallet.
Proseccos can be found in stores and will be categorized by their levels of sweetness as brut, dry or extra dry. The backwards thing is that “dry” actually means sweet, “brut” always means dry, and falling between the two is “extra dry.” Somewhere along the way it must have been lost in translation.
You don’t have to wait for the next special occasion to try either of these high-quality sparkling wines. A very chilled glass of cava or prosecco adds liveliness to any meal or event — as an aperitif, the accompaniment to a seafood dish, alongside a slice of pizza and a bag of potato chips, or even a glass by itself. A few weeks ago I even found myself sipping on a glass of prosecco at 10 in the morning, and to my surprise, it flawlessly complemented my breakfast and brought me out of my ‘not-such-a-morning-person’ mood.
It’s not likely that I will find myself spending $40 on a bottle of middling Champagne anytime soon, even for a special celebration. So what makes a simple, sparkling cava or a fruity, bubbly prosecco even more appealing is that many can be found for $15 or less. This makes them ideal, not to mention rather cost-effective, for any-day or, if preferred, everyday drinking.
Put a twist on those recurring, Wednesday-night dates with Netflix. Reward yourself after a long day you thought would never end. Or just add a little sparkle to your late-morning fried-egg sandwich. Pour a bubbling glass and, for heaven’s sake, allow yourself to lighten up a bit!
Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava
Penedes, Spain, $8.99
For those who don’t want much sweetness in a wine, this brut is dry and fresh, with plenty of bubbles and mineral and green apple flavors.
Cavit Lunetta Prosecco
Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy, $10.99
With sweet hints of ripe tropical fruit and a crisp, clean finish, this prosecco is an excellent buy. Even though it’s made by the same producer as big, cheap bottles of pinot grigio, it is more elegant than expected.
La Marca Prosecco
Trevisio, Italy, $14.99
Sweet and bright, citrusy and creamy, a glass of this wine serves as a brilliant breakfast prosecco.