At the holidays, the sound of corks popping and the sweet gurgle of sparkling wine splashing into Champagne flutes sparks the celebration. But good Champagne for a crowd can be expensive, and in the thrill of the party, that exquisite vintage Champagne can go unnoticed. As for the cheap stuff, well, it's hardly worth buying.
Happily, there are some smart alternatives, namely sparkling wine, much of it methode Champenoise, meaning it's made in basically the same way as Champagne but from different grapes and from different regions. Now, none of these is going to go head to head with a bottle of Dom Perignon or Krug Grand Cuvee. But each is delicious in its own way and crushes insipid cheap Champagne with character and verve.
If you can't find the exact bottle mentioned, go with the region or style. Find out what your local wine shop has rustled up for the holidays, and give it a try.
Guaranteed not to go unnoticed.
First stop: Prosecco, which may be the best-known of the sparkling wines I'm going to suggest. It has its own regional character, hailing from the Veneto in northeast Italy, specifically from the Valdobbiadene appellation near Treviso. It's forever associated in my mind with Palladian villas and the Veneto's rolling green hills. In a good year, from an exacting producer, Prosecco, made from the Glera grape, can work as an aperitif and come to the table too. When I popped the cork on a 2011 Bortolomiol Bandarossa "Extra Dry Millesimato," I discovered an elegant, absolutely delicious Italian sparkler with a flowery bouquet, fine mousse and the taste of pears. Definitely a home run. And, very rare for a Prosecco, it comes in magnums too.
About $15 per bottle or $30 per magnum.
Alsace may be only a little farther east in France than Champagne, but what a difference in the sparkling wines made there. There's the price, of course. But this wine-rich region, blessed with grand and premier cru vineyards, produces some remarkable sparkling wines. Alsace may be best known for exceptional riesling, gewurztraminer and Tokay pinot gris, but some of the best houses also produce some lovely sparkling wines with some of the same grapes. I'm particularly taken with Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose from Lucien Albrecht (an estate founded in 1425!). Made from pinot noir, it's a ravishing rose-petal pink in the glass, with a fresh, appealing perfume of wild strawberries. Perfect for smoked salmon or trout, or, if you're lucky, some caviar on toast points.
About $18 per bottle.
Cremant de Jura
The Jura in eastern France (between Burgundy and Switzerland) is known more for its unique vin jaune and vin de paille. But growers there also pick slightly unripe chardonnay grapes to produce this lively sparkling wine. Domaine Rolet, one of the largest growers in the region, makes an excellent Cremant de Jura from chardonnay blended with 15 percent each pinot noir and poulsard (obscure grape alert — an ancient variety from the Franche-Comte). I'm a big fan of the domaine's still white wine, but even so the Cremant is a delightful surprise and every bit as intriguing, with a tropical tang, bright acidity and enough minerality to balance its appealing fruit flavors. Again, this is one that can start off the festivities but also go straight to the table.
About $19 per bottle.
Just trust me: a sparkling shiraz (syrah) from Australia is nothing like your grandmother's fizzy, sweet Cold Duck. It's dry. It's terrific with food, actually, and when made by a top-notch producer can be revelatory. I've been known to carry back bottles from Australia because the good stuff was at one time so rare here. But here's All Saints Estate's Sparkling Shiraz from the Rutherglen region, known for its "stickies," or sweet fortified wines. All Saints has slipped a smidgen of fortified wine into its sparkling shiraz, which gives it just a hint of caramel and date flavor. A nonvintage, it combines base wines from several vintages. The color is gorgeous: a deep crimson. The bubbles are fine, and the acidity and tannins of a red wine add complexity. Unusual — and festive.
About $30 per bottle.
Hungarian sparkling wine
A fan of Domaine Huet's Vouvray petillant (a term for a wine that is slightly fizzy) from the Loire Valley, I've often served it at the holidays. But when I learned that the family is also making a sparkling wine at a property in Hungary that once supplied wines to the Hapsburgs, I had to try it. Spelling the name is a bit of a challenge, but once past that hurdle, the 2008 or 2009 (whichever you can find) Kiralyudvar Tokaji Pezsgo "Henye" is a beauty. Instead of chenin blanc, the grape is Furmint, which has the same high acidity as chenin, making it an ideal candidate for sparkling (or, in this case, petillant) wine. Aged a year on the lees, it's bright with citrus flavors and has a beautiful fine mousse.
About $28 per bottle.
Central Coast sparkling wine
Flying Goat Cellars in Lompoc, whose motto is "Pinot and sparkling wine without pretense," produce an outstanding sparkling rose called "Goat Bubbles." No pretense in that, for sure, especially for a methode Champenoise sporting a bright-red wax cap. Owner-winemaker Norm Yost makes it just like a regular rose and ages it in French barrels before bringing on the second fermentation. Legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland would have swooned over its pink color. But I love its bright, fruit flavors dominated by the taste of cherries. Pop the cork, pour into Champagne flutes and enjoy with a chilled seafood platter or poached salmon. This one is ready to come to the table, too. And nobody should have any trouble pronouncing the name.
About $34 per bottle.