We're suckers for Champagne, and we'll save our pennies for the occasional indulgence, but just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you have to skip bubbly altogether. You shouldn't—there aren't many more perfect pairings than sparkling wine with sushi, fried chicken, or mac and cheese. These days, Champagne starts around $33 and goes up-up-up, so we cut ourselves off at the $25 mark and tasted as many sparkling wines as we could, looking for elegant and delicious examples that (nearly) satisfied our Champagne craving for less. Here are our 15 top bottles—perfect for a classy celebration.
Look Off the Beaten Path
One of the best ways to find good deals in sparkling wine is to branch out beyond the usual suspects in terms of vineyard locations. Start out in Hungary...that's right. Hungary. The Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, and Királyleányka (pronounced Kir-aahy-le-aahn-kah) in Törley Gala Sec is grown on limestone and chalky soils just west of Budapest—around the same latitude as Champagne. This Charmat-method wine has an exotic aroma—floral, tropical—and fun, rich flavor, like apples cooked in butter. It's easy drinking and perfect for sipping with sushi or anything fried. Best news yet? This crowd-pleaser sells for 13 bucks.
While we're talking Eastern Europe, Kogl Albus Clasique from Slovenia is a deeply aromatic, serious sparkler that sells for $15. It's made from riesling, yellow muscat, chardonnay, and furmint, and goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle and aged on the lees for two years, yielding a rich wine with delicate bubbles. It's earthy and delicious, with hints of honey, herbs, and caramelized pears. This is festive dinner wine, not a party popper. Serve with roast chicken, pork roast, or a holiday turkey, and try some roasted root vegetables on the side. Remarkable wine for the price.
We also enjoyed a traditional-method sekt made from Grüner Veltliner mayde by Szigeti in Austria. It sells for under $18, and offers a lovely richness that makes it food-friendly: pair it with roast turkey or pork, or anything in a cream sauce. The wine has Grüner's toasty-grain flavors, reminding us of farro, fennel, and celery, all sauteed in peppery olive oil.
Consider France Beyond Champagne
The scent of Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut, which sells for about $14, is like apple cider donuts in a pine crate, and a bit of that nutmeg and cardamom spice comes through in the toasty-spice-cake flavor, but this elegant, creamy wine is lively and tart, with a piercing green apple acidity and a focused brightness that stands out. The bubbles are very fine on your tongue, and lots of lemon zest, poached pear, and almond butter flavor rounds it out. If you're going upscale, serve with crab cakes, but since this stuff is cheap enough for a weeknight, try it with creamy Indian dishes, Chinese takeout, or a roast chicken stuffed with lemons.
I recently asked a wine shop clerk which Champagne he'd been enjoying lately, and he steered me away from pricier bubbly toward Jean-Paul Brun's Crémant de Bourgogne Charme Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs. The wine smells amazing, all Jordan almonds and apricots, and delivers elegantly: these are lean, pure, mouthwatering bubbles, focused and bright, with an elegant, soft texture. This wine is perfect for a holiday toast, or for serving with a giant Dungeness crab. It's a little pricier than some Cremants at $23, but it's good enough to beat out bubbly that costs at least $15 more. It's the kind of stuff you could sneak into a blind tasting and trick those who're loyal to big-brand Champagne.
Our recent favorite Cremant du Jura is a little pricey, but another we've been enjoy lately is the Domaine Labet Cremant du Jura Brut which sells for around $20. This 100% Chardonnay sparkler balances fresh tart apples, ginger, and quince flavors with hints of bay leaf and a touch of smoke. The tart acid shines through this festive wine—serve it with shrimp cocktail.
A Few Domestic Options
You don't hear about sparkling Müller-Thurgau much, but Kramer Vineyards Celebrate! ($16) from Oregon is a fun version. The scent is rich with jasmine and minerals, and the bubbles are added by force-carbonation in high pressure tanks. If you like St. Germain elderflower liqueur, this juicy, off-dry bubbly will be right up your alley. It's perfect for brunch.
I'd happily drink Scharffenberger NV Brut Excellence, especially with roast turkey, but given the choice I'd shell out three bucks more to upgrade to the Roederer Estate Brut ($23), a fantastically rich blend of chardonnay and pinot noir blended with aged reserve wines for added richness. It has a lovely yeasty quality, luscious smooth fruit backed up by a bit of nutty flavor, and enough acid to keep things quite lively. Serve mini ham biscuits with this wine for an appetizer, or bring it out with the main course if you're serving roast pork, ham, or any poultry.
Mary and Tom Elke have grown pinot noir and chardonnay grapes for Mumm Napa and Roederer Estate's sparkling wines in the Anderson Valley since 1991. This year, they produced their first sparkling wine, Mary Elke NV Brut North Coast ($22) made with 40% pinot noir and 60% Chardonnay. It smells gorgeous, full of honeysuckle and quince, and the flavors are both bright and rich, with prickly acidity and lively carbonation.
Chandon makes some tasty sparkling wine—we're especially impressed with their vintage lineup; the 2006 Mt. Veeder Reserve is a gorgeous, elegant wine, though it'll cost you what Champagne costs. In the slightly lower price bracket, we like the Chandon Reserve Blanc de Blancs, often sold for around $25. It's not as focused and silky as the vintage lineup, and the carbonation feels less fine, but it offers a nice balance of floral flavors and poached pear, perfect for serving with seared scallops or crab cakes.
Italy and Spain
An easy-drinking prosecco packed with fresh flavors, Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco Superiore DOCG is about five dollars more expensive than Valdo's standard brut, but represents better value-for-the-dollar at $15. This bright, light bubbly is party-ready, bursting with poached pear and lemon zest flavors. Serve with buttery prosciutto and pieces of good-quality Parmesan, or try it with sushi or salmon tartare.
Zardetto also offers a Prosecco Superiore DOCG, the Zardetto Tre Venti Brut 2011—a single vineyard Prosecco. It's focused, round and full, with deep yellow-apple flavors and a touch of buttered brioche-like richness. Serve this $25 wine with crab or scallops tossed with linguine, brown butter, and meyer lemon.
Naverán Brut Vintage 2010 is an estate-bottled cava that sells for $15. It's made from 50% Xarello, 30% Macabeo, and 20% Parellada, but even if you haven't heard of those grapes, you've probably heard of the methode Champenoise that this goes through to get carbonated. It's appley and tart, with a bit of peach-pit bitterness on the finish. It's ready to serve with sushi, seared scallops, and aged cheeses. It spends 18 months on the lees in the bottle after disgorgement, which adds a bready character.
We also we immediately seduced by the apple-like scent of Chatel Cava Brut Reserva, which is made from the same grape varieties as the Naverán and sells around $13. The flavor is friendly and fruity—reminiscent of ripe yellow pears with a squeeze of lemon. These are perfect party bubbles, easy-drinking, easy to enjoy. Serve with goat cheese on crackers and seafood appetizers.
Totus Tuus Cava Brut has a rich, toasted-brioche scent, and is made with 40% Chardonnay along with Xarello, Macabeo, Parellada, and a little Pinot Noir. It's aged on the lees in the bottle for 20 months, which gives it a dense richness—these aren't frivolous, fruity bubbles—the winemaker even recommends decanting to let the wine get some air. Serve with bacon-studded quiche for brunch, or bring out to pair with your holiday turkey.
All wines provided as samples for review consideration.