I was dining in a small restaurant with a limited menu, and an even more limited wine list. An elegantly dressed woman ordered a Champagne. The waiter brought her a tall glass of bubbly, and I wondered what Champagne it was. Later, I asked him what he had served. “A Prosecco,” he responded. I was surprised that the guest hadn’t realized she was not drinking Champagne.
At a time when increasingly wine-knowledgeable Americans lead the world in per capita consumption, I puzzled over her inability to differentiate between an inexpensive Prosecco and a far more costly Champagne. But then I thought about the word which has become like “Coke” or “Kleenex,” almost a generic term embracing the entire category of sparkling wines. Her choice would have been more realistic if she had requested a sparkling wine. The term ‘Champagne’ is, in fact, limited by international agreement to sparkling wine from the eponymous French region. Champagne is a sparkling wine, but all sparkling wines are definitely not Champagne.
It’s the holiday season leading up to New Year’s Eve and bubblies in many guises are integral to celebrations. There are many options for those who want just bubbles. The list includes Prosecco from Italy, which has become extremely popular in recent years, and can be priced in the low teens as well as mid-fifties, depending upon the vintage and the producer. Other alternatives are Cava from Spain and sparkling wines from all over the world, including less celebrated regions of France which too are barred from using the word Champagne.
A few American wineries which had used that now embargoed honorific before the French got huffy about it remain grandfathered in to enjoy the prestige and profit from the advantage it brings. That list basically includes low priced sparklers such as Korbel, Barefoot, Andre and Cooks. Others tiptoe around the restriction by using labels which say California Champagne, or from (their) Champagne cellars.
Sparkling wines from Franciacorta, Zardetto and Barone Pizzini are high on my list. California has dozens of fine examples, led by Domaine Chandon , Mumm and Roederer, three houses founded by French owners. For very special occasions, I yearn for Taittinger Comtes des Champagne which can cost anywhere from $180 to more than $400, depending on the vintage. Taittinger and other French producers, such as Palmer, also market fine, non-vintage bubbly for about $30, occasionally less. My taste is toward Taittinger Blanc de Blancs , meaning 100% Chardonnay, which sends the price soaring.
There’s a fine Spanish sparkler, Segura Viudas Gran Cuvee Reserva with a list price of $14 which is about what that woman paid for a single glass of Prosecco. In a retail store she could have purchased an entire bottle for that sum, minus the stemware, service and ambiance, of course. At home base in the Catalan region of Spain, Segura Viudas makes even more expensive caves as does Gloria Ferrer, its sibling in Napa. That firm offers sparklers at prices from the high teens to roughly $75 for top of the line bottles.
The best quality French and American sparkling wines are based on three grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Those are also the basic grapes for sparkling wines from Provence and the Loire and other French regions. Different varietals join the mix in Provence where other wineries use Chenin Blanc Prosecco is built on Glera, an indigenous northern Italian varietal. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco does not mature in bottles, seldom ages and should be consumed within three years of release. Cavas get their spirit from ancient indigenous grapes such as Macabeo and Parellada harvested by hand from old vines, and often blend in a touch of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to add richness, finesse and complexity. The better Cavas employ the traditional methode champenoise. Greek producer, turn to ancient varietals such as Moschofileros, Debina , and Athriri for bubbly pleasures. Tselepelos makes a very drinkable sparkler, Amalia Brut, which is 100% Moschofilero.
In addition to those already mentioned, here are some notable sparkling wines for current and future occasions.
United States: Look for Schramsberg and Iron Horse from California, Gruett from New Mexico, a sparkler which always surprises dubious fans of better known growing regions. In the Finger Lakes of New York, Dr. Konstantin Frank Champagne Cellars delivers high quality wine produced in the traditional methode champenoise format. Pleasant Valley, also in the Finger Lakes, was founded in 1860 and was the nation’s first sparkling wine producer. It uses the charmat process, which requires far less labor and aging time. Clinton Vineyards in the Hudson River Valley region, makes a unique sparkler using the French-American hybrid, Seyval Blanc.
Italy and France: Prosecco is made in the Dolomite mountains in the Veneto region, about 24 miles north of Venice. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco does not ferment in the bottle, and it grows stale with time. It should be consumed as young as possible, preferably within three years of its vintage, although high-quality Prosecco may be aged for up to seven years. Among the many Italian Proseccos, I suggest a low priced basic sparkler, Lunetta which retails for $12.99, and a more upscale Ferrara, which retails for $25.99. Generally, French sparklers are based on the same grapes used in Champagne, although Tejo of Portugal makes bubblies based on Chenin Blanc. Winemakers in Sardinia do very well using Vermentino. In this ever changing world of wine there are many options and many choices for consumers.