There was a time when Champagne pretty much defined our perception of sparkling wine. These days, not so much. In recent years, consumers everywhere have become wiser to the world of festive bubbly. We're learning to distinguish between a panoply of alternative and generally more affordable offerings, from humble Italian prosecco to the often excellent Champagne-style cuvées from such places as California, New Zealand, Spain, Canada and, yes, even France (where the word crémant denotes fine sparkling wines made outside the Champagne region).
Consumers have also clearly grown thirstier for value when craving the sound of a popping cork. In a milestone that surely was no cause for cork-popping celebration in Champagne, earlier this year the authority overseeing sparkling wine in Italy reported that sales of prosecco, a bargain alternative, had overtaken those of bona-fide Champagne – 307 million bottles globally last year versus 304 million for France's luxury froth. Northern Italy's big bubbly posted phenomenal sales growth of 38 per cent in the U.S. for the 12 months ending Aug. 16, according to market tracker Nielsen.
In fairness, prosecco's progress came as Champagne producers grappled with the impact of a global economic downturn that depressed demand for luxury goods. And more than one market-research firm has projected that Champagne will soon rebound from that mess. But even within the Champagne category, a growing number of consumers are exploring new, relatively more affordable wines. These include trendy so-called "grower" Champagnes, small-production offerings made by farmers that used to sell most or all of their crop to the giant blending companies that produce such familiar high-volume brands as Moët & Chandon and Mumm. Look for the designation RM (récoltant-manipulant, or "grower-producer") on the label or shelf listing to identify one of these often-excellent, offbeat wines, generally priced well below the $60 starting range for high-profile big brands.
And new sparkling wines from around the world continue to gain traction. In British Columbia alone, several excellent established wineries are in the process of adding bubblies to their mix, recognizing that Canada's cool climate is ideal for retaining the crisp, high-acid grape characteristics that are a signature of the best fizz, including champagne from brisk northern France. Among them: Joie Farm, Meyer Family, Quails' Gate and Poplar Grove. I can't wait.
Here's a short selection of some of the more interesting, price-is-right bubbles that have graced my tasting glass in recent days (and there will be more recommendations, both in print as well as on my Twitter account, as the holidays draw near).
Delouvin-Bagnost Tradition Brut Champagne (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $47.95
Four generations into its tenure as grower-producers, the Delouvin family turns out 100,000 bottles annually. That might sound big but it pales next to the millions sold by larger houses. This bone-dry white transported me, figuratively speaking, back to Paris's famous Poilâne bakery (a favourite hangout merely for the heady aroma) with its farmhouse-bread essence, which mingles marvellously with the rich apple-like fruitiness in the wine. Highly recommended and, sadly, currently available only in Ontario.
Château de Bligny Blanc de Blancs Champagne (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Another trendy grower Champagne, this dry white shows remarkable depth of flavour for the money, with a rich profile of succulent orchard fruit, brioche pastry and roasted nuts, all orbiting around a suggestively sweet, succulent mid-palate. Available in Ontario.
Fiol Prosecco (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.60
Terrific bubbles for the dough. And, coincidentally, there is a subtle note of fresh bread here, which is more customary of expensive sparkling wine made in the Champagne style rather than prosecco, which in virtually all cases is refermented in large tanks rather than individual bottles. Dry and smooth, it shows bright orchard-fruit flavours, silky texture and elegant, restrained effervescence. Very handsome packaging, too, with an abstract black-and-white label depicting five squiggly vertical lines. Available in Ontario.
Benjamin Bridge Brut Sparkling 2009 (Nova Scotia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $47.95
Here's a freshly baked apple-pie love letter from Nova Scotia. More tangy than a salt spray coming off the rocks of Peggy's Cove, this creamy Champagne-style brut delivers aromas of baked orchard fruit topped with lemon zest and, yes, wet rocks. $44.50 in Nova Scotia.
Cattier Brut Champagne (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $43.25
You might want to think of this brand as a "baby Jay Z." The great U.S. rapper (whom many may know best as the husband of brilliant singer Beyoncé) made headlines recently as the new owner of a Champagne brand called Armand de Brignac, which sells for $300 a bottle. The maker of Armand de Brignac? None other than Cattier, which produces this attractively priced alternative to Jay Z's baby. It comes across like a French baguette: yeasty, light and long, with a pleasantly chalky texture that offsets the juicy lemon-curd-like fruit.
Flat Rock Cellars Riddle Sparkling 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Embrace the beer-bottle crown cap – it's how all Champagne rests in France's cellars to develop bubbles and flavour (before they're sealed and shipped out with mushroom corks). Though bone-dry over all, this fine sparkler comes with a suggestively sweet core reminiscent of cooked apples with a dab of butter. It's a pastry shop wine with good flavour depth and excellent balance. Available through flatrockcellars.com.
Freixenet Elyssia Gran Cuvée Brut Cava (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
The maker of Spain's largest sparkling-wine brand produces this premium version, a light but flavourful cuvée with bright notes of pear, lemon and honey and razor-sharp acidity.
Santa Julia Organic Brut (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.85
There's an autumnal quality to this surprisingly rich, dry, toasty bubbly, with flavours of bruised apple and brioche along with a pleasant sherry-like oxidized tang.
Mionetto Prosecco DOC Treviso Brut Prestige Collection (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.99 in B.C.
Drier than most proseccos, this premium brut offering from producer Mionetto's Prestige Collection offers up frothy effervescence and rich fruit characters of pear and yellow apple and finishes with an invigorating chalky texture. Various prices in Alberta, $16.99 in New Brunswick. (It's currently unavailable in Ontario, where Mionetto's fine, slightly less dry regular DOC Treviso sells for $17.95.)
Cono Sur Sparkling Rose (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.90
Pale salmon-pink in colour, this big-value rose from Chile is deftly balanced, combining a sweet strawberry core and dry, chalky texture. Available in Ontario.
La Marca Prosecco (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
La Marca has garnered extensive coverage in U.S. publications, more than most of its prosecco counterparts. It's partly a testament to the huge distribution power and clout of California wine giant E & J Gallo, which – hush, hush – controls the brand. Well rounded and subtly sweet, it offers flavours of fresh and baked apple backed by a refreshing acid spine. $19.99 in B.C., various prices in Alberta, $19.98 in Saskatchewan, $19.99 in Manitoba, $17.99 in New Brunswick, $19.98 in Newfoundland.