Sparkling Wines Under $20

(Originally published December 2002)

With the holidays now in full swing, it's a good time to remind ourselves that you don't have to pay an arm and a leg for some celebratory bubbly. There exist many worthy sparkling wine options under $20, running the full range from dry to sweet, crisp to lush. Sparkling wine is not easy to produce and the labor-intensive processes employed to make the good stuff will ensure that prices never sink too low. Hanes will not bore you with the differences between the Charmat process (used to make most bulk sparkling wines) and the more involved fermentation process developed in Champagne. Suffice it to say that the previous method is easier and cheaper and the wines reflect this.

First, it should be noted that you are not going to find much actual Champagne from the Champagne region of France for under $20. That said, prices are fairly stable, especially for basic non-vintage brut bottlings, so finding quality bottles in the $20-$30 range is eminently possible (almost said Eminemently possible). From casual browsing in stores it appears that more producers are exporting their wares to the U.S. market, providing us with a broader range of choices and helping to keep prices affordable. So, rather than simply settle for the banal Veuve Clicquot "Yellow Label" option, take a flyer on some names you don't recognize or that a trustworthy store salesperson recommends. Chances are it'll be a nice surprise.

Staying first in France, a good option for inexpensive sparklers are those from the Loire Valley. The most basic bottles are labeled "Crémant de Loire" while others may note the specific area of origin, such as Vouvray or Saumur. On the whole, these wines are made from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and/or Cabernet Franc with others grapes used according to producer dictates. Usually these are not the most elegant or finely nuanced sparkling wines but rather offer highly competent command of all the basic stuff you want out of a sparkler -- dry, pretty bubbly mousse, not overly acidic, with adequate depth of fruit. Almost all Loire sparklers are made by the méthode champenoise, i.e., the production method used in Champagne. Lousy suck-ups, always trying to make their stuff sound so impressive...

There are also some sparklers made in the French regions of Alsace and Burgundy but these can be hard to find. If you do come across any and the price is right, Hanes urges you to try some -- if the store is stocking them chances are the wine buyer is a real wine geek who knows what s/he is doing.

Outside of France, Hanes has a soft spot for the sparkling wines of Spain and Italy. Both countries produce large amounts of relatively inexpensive sparkling wine that often get overlooked because of an erroneous assumption that the wines aren't good or that the wines must be sweet. Not so, kind folk, not so at all.

From Spain comes a great value known as Cava, which is the appellation of origin for this wine. Most Cava is produced in the regions of Cataluña, particularly Penedès. Being the classy acts that they are, Cava producers also employ the méthode champenoise. These wines are usually bone dry with tight bubbles and a light mouth presence. Most Cava is produced from the Macabeo (Viura), Xarel-lo and Parellada grapes, all indigenous to Spain. When most people think of Cava they usually think of the big industrial producers Cordoníu and Freixenet but your attention should go to the smaller houses where the true quality resides. Producer names Hanes has enjoyed include Avinyó, Juvé y Camps and Marques de Monistrol but there are many more around.

Whereas Spain's sparklers are almost uniformly dry, those from Italy can be either really dry or really sweet. As a result, you need to exercise a little more judgment when making a purchasing decision. So, don't get drunk before you go to the wine store to purchase some bubbly.

Prosecco is the name of the sparkling wine product produced in Italy's Veneto region. It is also the name of the grape used. These wines are generally inexpensive and made on the whole in the Charmat method. They are dry and crisp but tend to be on the very fizzy, if not foamy, side of things. Given these aspects, Hanes recommends Prosecco mostly as a good choice for mixed drinks using sparkling wine such as mimosas where the dryness counterbalances the sweetness of the fruit juice while the fizziness is strong enough to keep the heavier juice percolating.

Asti spumante is, well, asti spumante. Found around the town of Asti in Piedmont these are perhaps the world's quintessential sweet sparkling wines. Made from the Muscat grape, it brings the foam and the sweetness heavy and hard. These are of no interest to Hanes. Sorry 'bout that. Of interest to Hanes are Moscato d'Asti wines, which are not as foamy and offer more subtle florality and detailed fruit and citrus flavors. If you are looking for a wine on the sweetish side as an aperitif, then Moscato d'Asti should be on the short list. However, these wines are not the best when used as a sparkling mixer for mimosas, etc.

Also from Piedmont in Italy is a sweet red sparkler called Brachetto d'Acqui. It's soft, fluffy and basically like having a fizzy bowl of strawberries and cherries in your mouth. It is made from the Brachetto grape, to which Aleatico and Moscato Nero can be added (up to a maximum of 20%). Prices usually hover around $20. They are best as a dessert bubbly, with dark chocolate desserts.

The United States is a fairly large player in the sparkling wine arena. Sadly, even given the fact that production occurs domestically, prices are sketchy and value is not guaranteed. Most of the decent product is priced between $20 and $30 with the stuff under $20 often lacking finesse and depth of flavor. The nicest U.S. bubbly that Hanes has allowed to pass his lips are from Roederer Estate, "J" (Jordan Winery), Iron Horse and Domaine Carneros. These Californian wines will probably cost you more than $20. You're on your own below $20 -- buy some damn Cava.

As for the U.S. outside of California, Hanes hasn't tried much. He has had some Finger Lakes sparklers and let's just say that New York State is not the heir apparent to Champagne. Supposedly Oregon makes some OK sparklers but Hanes hasn't seen any to sample.

One cannot present a hasty overview of cheap sparklers without mentioning in passing one of the freak shows of the sparkling wine class. Yes, it's sparkling Shiraz from Australia! These red sparklers are explosive in both their "mousse" and fruit-driven flavors. These are not sparklers for solemn events or wedding toasts (OK, maybe your fourth wedding) but everyone should try a couple during their time on this mortal coil. They can be hard to find so if you do see any, snag a bottle and think of a friend who needs some cheering up. Most shouldn't break the $20 barrier. Please note that Australia also makes some "normal" sparkling wines that are also worth a shot.

As for the rest of the world, sure, there are sub-$20 sparklers to be found. But it's so random that Hanes cannot provide meaningful guidance. Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, Argentina... who knows?

Soooo, if you want some inexpensive fizzy wines to add some "spark" (ouch!) to your holidays Hanes counsels that you stick with the Loire Valley, Cava or Prosecco. If you're needing the bubbly in quantity most of these wines should be cheap enough to buy a bottle to try before committing to a large purchase. These are also wines that can fairly often be found by the glass at restaurants and thus save you some coin when the family is toasting Aunt Edna's 86th birthday at the local bistro or trattoria.