Learn How to Buy Sparkling Wine That Isn’t Champagne—but Is Just As Good
This holiday season I spent ample time investigating wine aisles and wine sections at larger retail stores and grocery stores. I normally go to small, local wine shops, but decided to learn more about sparkling wine as a whole to help myself better navigate through spots like Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s, Costco, and more—which actually have great wine if you know what to look for, sparklers included.
“Champagne casts a long shadow across the world of bubbles, especially where vocabulary and technology are concerned—but it's never going to be inexpensive,” says Shawn Paul, wine operations director at Foxcroft Wine Co. Think of it like this: La Croix is the darling of the sparkling water world but La Croix doesn’t define all sparkling water (even though we often refer to brands as specific titles of things stateside). But you’ll see me tossing the Wegmans brand of sparkling water or Bubly from Target into my cart as it gives me the same fizzy water satisfaction but for a fraction of the price.
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So think of La Croix like Champagne but know there are other types out there without the label; wines that bring great satisfaction for way less. Appreciate Champagne for what it is but also know that there are millions of bottles of sparkling wine made in the United States that are wrongfully labeled and called Champagne. Sorry to burst your bubble (pun intended), but Andre and Korbel are both produced in California, and therefore not Champagne by law.
Anyway, long story short, know before you go. We’ve tapped several of our wine friends to offer tips and recommendations for sparkling wines to scoop up. The best part? Bubbles, while a great celebratory wine, legit pair with anything.
Sparkling Lingo 101
Learn to decode bottles and buy exactly what you want by taking note of these simple explanations:
- Champagne: Champagne is sparkling wine that can only be made in the Champagne region of France. No exceptions. None. So if you see a bottle made anywhere outside of Champagne with a label of “Champagne,” it’s false advertisement.
- Sparkling wine: Basically anything bubbly that isn’t designated to a specific region of production by law. Within the sparkling wine world there are other regions like Champagne with protected origin.
- Méthode traditionnelle: This simply means said sparkling wine has been made using the traditional methods from the Champagne region of France—so made just like Champagne but cannot be called Champagne if not from the specific region.
- Brut: How to tell if Champagne or sparkling wine is dry or not. “Brut has a legal definition when applied to a Champagne label (actually a broad range of 0-12 g/L of sugar) but when used for other beverages doesn't necessarily indicate that you'll find the drink to be dry or unsweet,” says Paul. “Other terms like ‘Extra Brut’, ‘Brut Zero’ or ‘Brut Sauvage’ are all trying to describe how unsweet the wine will come across—but keep in mind that dryness is somewhat relative, just like sweetness.”
- Low and Zero Dosage: Wines containing 3 grams or less of sugar per liter. A call out on labels as Brut Bature, Brut Zero, and Low -or No-dosage.
- Pét-Nat: short for Pétillant Naturel; a naturally sparkling wine that’s often cloudy, interesting and contains sediment due to the fact that it doesn’t go through a second fermentation process like the tradtional method. Co2 is trapped and naturally makes bubbles. Pét-Nat is also listed as Ancestrale Method, better known as the oldest method of of winemaking that’s very risky and unpredictatble.
Different Types of Sparkling Wine…
True, Champagne is the king of bubbles but as noted above, these specific bubbles are only produced in the Champagne region of France and “not a general word for sparkling wine,” explains Paul. Obviously that means there are lots of other bubbles out there to try. “Champagne is amazing and when it's great it's really, really great—but it's not the only game in town and anyone who's been following wine over the last decade or so has seen spectacular values develop in non-Champagne sparkling wines from Italy, Spain, Austria, the United States, and even England.”
Paul notes Crémant de Bourgogne or Loire, Cava and dry Lambrusco wines some of “the greatest values in the world of bubbles” and he’s not wrong. Have you ever popped open a bottle of fizzy Lambrusco on a hot summer day, accompanied by salty, cured meats? If not, please do so and get back to me.
Crémant is like Champagne’s fun sister, cut from the same blood, but cheaper and made in specific parts of France (like Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Savoie, Bordeaux, and so on). “These are produced all over France from grape varieties that work best for the region,” Paul notes. “The secondary fermentation and less ageing in the bottle create complex flavors and aromas very similar to Champagne at a substantially lower cost.” Coming in at a whopping $9.99, don’t overlook Blason de Bourgogne Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Reserve from Trader Joe’s.
“How I love thee Cava, let me count the bubbles,” says Inez Ribustello, an advanced sommelier and owner of Tarboro Brewing Company. “Crisp with the perfect trifecta of fruit, minerality and acidity, there isn’t another like you with your price tag,” she confesses to me, in an open love letter to the oh-so-affordable Spanish sparkline wine. Ribustello suggests keeping an eye out when shopping for a few of her favorite producers: Dibon, Bohigas, Avinyo and Gramona. I also personally vet Codorníu and Mas Codina (newsflash: score a magnum of Mas Codina cava for around $23 and impress friends at a dinner party).
Italy has many different bubbles, including Prosecco, Lambrusco and Franciacorta. “Franciacorta is excellent—basically Champagne from Northern Italy,” says Michael Kennedy, sommelier and Vitner/Founder of Vin Fraîche. “Try [Franciacorta] producers like Bellavista and Ca del Bosco, he notes. For Lambrusco, Lini 910 can be found at many stores and shops while Prosecco can be found everywhere these days. Paul notes Carpene Malvolti Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry has been a hit this year while I’ve enjoyed hanging out with Bisol on a regular basis. I was also happily suprised by Costco’s Kirkland Signature Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG for $7. Yes, I said $7. Freixenet and Parini mini bottles are also the life of any party.
Ultimately, there are cool bubbles from all over the world—from here in the United States to unexpected places like Mexico, Chile and England. And the majority of the time, they’ll be so nicely priced that buying several bottles at a time doesn’t feel naugthy.
Love Rosé? There are Rosé Bubbles Too
For many years now it's been all about rosé, including bubbles,” says Paul. Two of the three best-selling sparkling wines at Foxcroft are rosé bubbles, clocking in around the $20ish a bottle mark: Cleto Chiarli Rosé Brut Spumante "De Noir" (Emilia Romagna, Italy) and Raventós i Blanc de Nit Rosé Conca del Riu Anoia (Penedès, Spain). As for the Trader Joe's Reserve Brut Rosé? It’s a solid choice I keep around the house ($10 a pop) for impromtu porch hangs.
Or Hey…Get Adventurous
“I love some non-champagne sparkling,” says John May of Cellar Distributing. “It’s affordable, delicious, and you can always find something adventurous to try.” Turn to Lambrusco, sparkling Gamay, Pet Nats—they’re all really fun and great alternatives to Champagne,” he adds. A trip over to his abode often involves something cool and bubbly but mostly always affordable, like Pierre Mauzac Brut Nature.
Natural wine is still on the rise and there are many great sparklers in this category too. Dry Farm Wines is a fun way to explore artisanal wines that are all-natural, organic, low in sugar and most importantly, affordable (around $22-ish per bottle). Plus, a sparkling memership means three different wines show up on my doorstep each month without having to do anything. Just in time for New Year’s celebrations I got my hands on Casa di Baal Il Tocco di Baal (a funky rosé sparkling from Italy), Charles Frey Crémant Brut Nature (French bubbly) and Jané Ventura Reserva de la Música (a delicous, dry Cava).
How to Find Really Good Sparkling Wine at the Grocery Store
I’ve often dismissed grocery stores and bigger retail stores for stocking decent wine but as it turns out, that’s just a myth. Rule of thumb in finding a quality wine is to avoid the displays up front and peruse the actual wine aisles. “If you're trying to avoid the extra sugar then maybe steer clear of bottles that look like perfume or wedding confections,” says Paul. A few of his “quality bottles found at big-box stores at a decent price” include:
- Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace
- Mumm or Chandon California Sparkling
- Schramsberg, Roederer Estate, Mirabelle or Scharffenberger
- ANY sparkling wine from Gruet or Domaine Ste. Michelle
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A Note On Lower Sugar Sparklers
The wine lingo will drastically help you find sparklers with low residual (natural) sugar. “We’ve seen a dramatic rise not only in the amount of Brut Zero wines available but in the quality,” says Will Whelan, vice president of wine at Winestyr. “Wines without dosage are often a bit more lean, perhaps more zippy and focused on the palate,” he adds, plus make great pairings to oysters and hard cheeses as they “bring out that mineral edge that higher dosage levels can cover up.”
“As far as the ‘day after’ is concerned, excessive amounts of sugar are a challenge for the body to process along with filtering out alcohol,” says Paul. Alcohol aside, colorants and additives can add to the headache equation. “I wouldn't ever say that drinking a lot of low - or no-dosage sparkling wine is going to feel any better than the same style of wine with some residual sugar—it's just not that substantial a difference,” he adds, ultimately stating that “too much of anything is still going to hurt.”