How's this for a sign of the times? To toast the launch of Bentley's Azure T superluxury convertible (starting price: $350,000 U.S.) at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, organizers broke out - what else? - the bubbly. Care to guess the brand? Dom Pérignon? Cristal? Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame?
None of the above. The sparkler in question came not from a luxury Champagne house in France, but from Gloria Ferrer, a California property founded by Freixenet, the Spanish firm best known for the popular $14 brand in the black bottle. This is, after all, a recession.
Maybe that's a little unfair. Bentley may have intended the homegrown ersatz Champagne to resonate with an L.A. audience, even if most of the prospective "ultra-high-net-worth" customers in southern California - rap stars and movie moguls - tend to brake only for Cristal.
But the car event served as a reminder that sparkling wines from places other than the hallowed Champagne region of France are in many cases fine substitutes for the only wines that can legally be called Champagne. During economic downturns, they may even be more, how do the French say, à propos.
Crémant, the name given to top-quality sparkling wines in France made outside the Champagne region, are in fact on a recessionary roll. Wine Spectator magazine recently reported that while Champagne sales have dropped off at such high-end U.S. retailers as Sherry-Lehmann, crémants are up 60 to 70 per cent.
Crémant is made in several regions across the country, most notably Alsace and Burgundy, but also in Bordeaux, the Loire, Limoux, Die and Jura. The wines tend to range in price across Canada from $18 to $30, about half the cost of regular Champagne brands.
Curiously, Champagne producers like to boast of two differentiating features in their wines. One is the region's soil, a grey-white Jurassic clay composed of fossilized sea shells that is said to give the wines their "mineral-like" character. The other is technique, the so-called methode champenoise, or "traditional method." Bubbles in quality sparkling wine are the byproduct of a secondary fermentation in which yeast added to the still wine feeds off sugar to produce dissolved carbon dioxide. (El cheapo bubblies are industrially carbonated, but the less said about those the better.)
In Champagne, that bubble production has always been accomplished slowly and meticulously inside individual bottles. This contrasts with the more economical method that employs pressurized tanks and assembly-line bottling. Bubbles produced using "bottle fermentation" tend to be much smaller and more delicate.
Today, virtually all great sparkling wines, including crémant, are made using bottle fermentation.
"Crémant would be my top choice," says John Clerides, owner of the Vancouver independent store Marquis Wine Cellars, when asked for the top buy in non-Champagne bubbly. Among his favourites: Albert Mann Crémant d'Alsa ce ($29.90). "It's delicious, absolutely delicious."
Across the country, including at provincial stores in British Columbia, look for Blasons de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne ($24.99), Antech Crémant de Limoux ($22.99) and the organic Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Exception Brut ($29).
Prices for the best California sparkling wines have soared over the past 15 years. Some, such as Roederer Estate, Mumm and Chandon, happen also to be outposts of heavily advertised Champagne brands, with all the built-in premium that that implies. But there's no denying the quality of Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($29.99 in B.C.; $22.20 in Quebec; also available in some private wine shops in Alberta and Manitoba) and Roederer Estate Brut, which is available in Quebec ($28.30) and is being released Saturday in Ontario through Vintages stores ($28.95).
Ontario and British Columbia also produce good Champagne-method bubblies. A top example from Niagara is Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut ($29.95), to be released in Ontario on Saturday. In British Columbia, look for Steller's Jay Brut ($26.99 at VQA stores) as well as the excellent and rare See Ya Later Ranch Brut ($27.90 at Marquis Wine Cellars). Other good Niagara producers include Château des Charmes and Jackson-Triggs.
New Zealand, another cool-climate region well-suited to sparkling wine production, is coming on strong. Prices are pretty much in line with those of Canada.
Typically big Australian brands, including Jacob's Creek and Seaview, have made strides in recent years and often come at hard-to-resist prices. One new brand on the scene here, Wolf Blass Yellow Label Sparkling Brut ($17.95 in Ontario), is quite good and, though few fans of the popular brand will know, brings Mr. Blass full circle. The German-born namesake of the brand started in the Aussie wine business decades ago peddling an inexpensive bulk bubbly called Pineapple Pearl, which he once dispensed using a gas-pump nozzle in a marketing stunt.
A remarkable buy from Down Under is the eco-oriented Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay ($12.80 in Ontario), which eschews the glossy foil capsule of most bubbly bottles.
But for reliability and extreme value, no category beats cava, Spain's counterpart to crémant. Produced in the country's northeast, cavas essentially are Champagne-style sparkling wines made typically using local grapes such as macabeo, xarello and parellada.
It is, it can be said, an accepted truth among wine cognoscenti that Segura Viudas Brut Reserva (about $15 across the country) is among the world's great wine bargains. Its parent brand, Freixenet, may be ubiquitous, but it too represents great value. I'm particularly fond of the rosé, Freixenet Cordon Rosado ($12.95 in Ontario), with its fresh red-berry fruit, substantial body and impressively fine mousse.
Another monster bargain from Spain: Codorniu Brut Clasico ($12.10 in Ontario; $13.24 in B.C.; $13.97 in Newfoundland; $14.29 in New Brunswick).
The big, noteworthy exception, stylistically, in the world of fine sparkling wine is prosecco. Produced in Italy's northeastern Veneto region, this wine, based on the local white grape of the same name, undergoes carbon-dioxide fermentation bulk-style in pressurized tanks.
Not that most consumers seem to care that the bubbles are more Pepsi than Pol Roger. Prosecco has been booming. And quality has been improving (with the exception of a brand called Rich endorsed by Paris Hilton, packaged in single-serving cans and offered in two fruit flavours).
One excellent brand available widely in Ontario is Giovello Prosecco ($14.95). It comes in an eye-catching blue bottle. If only Bentley had thought to tie in the glass colour with its Azure convertible. They could have saved a few extra bucks pouring prosecco instead of Gloria Ferrer at the launch.