When we talk about bubbles and wine, the conversation inevitably always begins with champagne, heralded by many as the greatest sparkling wine in the world. I’m talking about the real deal, of course — the fancy, elegant, complex sparkling wine that can only come from Champagne, France — not that $6 bottle of flavored Andre or $8 Korbel labeled as California “Champagne.”
I can count on two hands the total number of times I’ve drunk real champagne. As probably expected, each time was in correlation with some sort of celebration — a wedding, graduation party, or welcoming in the New Year, and I’ve been lucky enough to never see a bill. But while I very much enjoyed the champagne then, as much as I still would now, I don’t frequently find myself cheers-ing with champers. Even if it really is the world’s greatest sparkling wine, priced at a minimum of $40 for a decent bottle, good champagne is just too expensive and unreachable for me.
So instead of pricey top-of-the-line champagne, I often turn to wines like prosecco, cava, and sparklers from off-the-beaten path, which provide me with a similar bubbly experience, but get along better with my penny-pinching pockets. My bargain-seeking habit is probably why, when on a frugal fizz quest early last fall, I found myself in Valdobbiadene, a small Italian town in the area where prosecco is made, and not wandering through elegant tasting rooms in the Champagne wine region.
It was a warm, not-quite-autumn evening and I was sitting outside a café in the town’s center. I sat alone with my thoughts, a fresh glass of fizzy prosecco, and a small bowl of potato chips, all of which cost me less than three euros. As I tuned out the foreign chatter occurring around me, I began to wonder why a daily glass of bubbly wasn’t more of a ritual here in the states. Why do we only turn to sparkling wines for special occasions? And why did I have to travel halfway across the world to learn the value of affordable everyday fizz?
When I returned home, I delved deeper into cheaper bubbly alternatives. Fortunately, the category of affordable sparkling wine is almost as big as the world of sparkling wine itself. Every wine-producing region on earth makes sparkling wine, so finding both quality and value in bubbly wines is easy.
You don’t even have to leave champagne’s native country to find some of the most interesting and best-valued bubbly wines there are. Beautiful sparklers are made throughout all of France, including ones made in a similar way as champagne, which will be marked with crémant on their labels.
Although made outside of the designated Champagne area, this style of bubbly wine has been made using the same traditional method. After a first fermentation process, the wine undergoes a second, which is when the carbonating magic begins.
More yeast is then added to the wine in the same bottle from which you eventually pour it into your glass, and then it is tightly corked. Over a long period of several months, the bottles are slowly turned. The yeast inside continues to break down any residual sugars left in the wine, which releases carbon dioxide. Because the gas is held captive in the bottle, the wine has no choice but to embrace the resulting bubbles.
When the winemakers determine that all of the unused yeast rests in the neck of the bottle, and the process is complete, they flash freeze it. The remaining frozen plugs of yeast sediment are then removed and a strong cork is inserted to preserve the sparkling wine until it is liberated by a lucky consumer, releasing the tiny streams of bubbles and fizz.
Although they are made in the exact same way, crémants from France are more affordable than champagne because winemakers don’t have to follow the same strict laws. The sparkling wines of Champagne cannot be made from any grapes other than chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot meunier. However, in bubbly wines from Alsace, Burgundy or the Loire Valley, the use of pinot gris, riesling, cabernet franc, or chenin blanc is allowed. Unlike the familiar yeasty, bready characteristics of champagne, these other grapes can contribute livelier floral aromas and fruitier flavors to these lighter bubbly wines.
Some of my favorites outside of France are Spanish cava and Italian processo — both entirely accessible and affordable — and sparklers from California and other areas of the world make great inexpensive options as well.
Cava, Spain’s answer to sparkling wine, is produced in the Penedes region in Catalonia, close to Barcelona. It’s the closest you come to champagne outside of France. They’re both made using the same traditional method, with a second fermentation that occurs in the bottle.
Their energetic fizz may be the product of the same process, but cava and champagne are indeed two individual wines, grown with different grapes in unlike terroir. With soft bubbles and crisp, citrusy and green apple flavors, cava finishes lightly and cleanly, unlike the off-putting, dry, yeasty funk often found in a glass of champagne that isn’t always appealing if you aren’t used to it.
Another wise bubbly option, also perhaps my favorite, is prosecco, a striking sparkling wine made in Italy. Unlike champagne and cava, the second fermentation happens in pressurized stainless steel tanks, using a more modern process known as the Charmat method. This method brings out more fruit-forward aromas like apple and pear. There’s a consistent lightness and easygoing grace that amounts to luminous joy in a glass of this wine. And, because the Charmat method is usually more economical than the traditional method, prosecco is also light on the wallet.
Proseccos can be found in stores and will be categorized by their levels of sweetness as brut, dry or extra dry. The backwards thing is that “dry” actually means sweet, “brut” always means dry, and falling between the two is “extra dry.” Somewhere along the way, the actual meanings must have been lost in translation.
Whether you choose a crémant, cava, or prosecco, be aware of what direction you’re pointing the bottle when it comes time to open it. Yes, it is entirely possible to shoot out somebody’s eye or launch a cork into a light bulb, especially if it’s not the first bottle of the night to be opened and consumed. Just the other night, a cork barely missed my friend’s eye, grazing her cheek as it flew full-force out of the bottle.
I’ve found the easiest and most reliable method of opening a bottle of pressurized wine is to hold the cork in one hand and the bottom of the bottle in the other. Twist the bottle, not the cork, and it should open with ease and without any injuries. A bottle of sparkling wine should open with a whisper and not a bang, as the old adage goes.
Sparkling wines are all too often the hallmark beverage of celebrations. But I give you permission to indulge in a glass of any of these kinds of affordable bubbly any day of the week, or if you prefer, everyday. Have a glass with pancakes or potato chips, while catching up on your favorite show, or for really no reason at all.
The following bottles of bargain bubbly are all under $20 and make great alternatives to expensive champagne. From all over the world, they exude good quality and character, and it won’t dent your pockets to indulge in them.
FRENCH SPARKLING WINE
Burgundy, France, 12% ABV, $19.99
Very precise and elegant, with creamy aromas, this is a crémant that has character. Flowers and lively fruit in the mouth, with flavors redolent of champagne, and a clean, refreshing finish.
Loire Valley, France, 13% ABV, $16.99
With bubbles that last long after being poured, this straw-colored sparkling wine has funky yeast aromas, with unique floral flavors and a lingering fruity finish.
Loire Valley, France, 12% ABV, $14.99
From the region of Vouvray, famously known for its white wines, this golden bubbly one smells of sweet raisins and honey but has an unexpectedly dry and crisp finish.
Loire Valley, France, 11% ABV, $10.99
An impressive sparkling wine made with an unusual blend of ugni blanc, chenin blanc, and chardonnay. Nice and bubbly, with a clean palate of apple and melon flavors coupled with a lingering taste of citrus.
Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, Italy, 11.5% ABV, $19.99
From one of my favorite proseccor producers, this wine has a bouquet of white flowers, and pleasant lemon and pear flavors. An enjoyable sparkler, with elegant bubbles and a dry finish.
Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, Italy, 11.5% ABV, $19.99
Herbaceous and almost smoky on the nose, and hints of apples and pears in the mouth, with a refreshing and savory finish. “The cool, fun bubble,” said a friend while tasting it.
Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, Italy, 11% ABV, $19.99
Fresh with nice complexity, this extra dry prosecco (remember, that means it falls somewhere between sweet and dry) has ripe pear aromas, with herbal and mineral notes on the palate and leaves a lingering green apple crispness in your mouth.
Penedes, Spain, 11.5% ABV, $7.99
For those who don’t want much sweetness in a wine, this brut is dry and fresh, with plenty of bubbles and mineral and green apple flavors.
Spain, 11.5% ABV, $7.99
A simple but great-value sparkler, this Spanish cava has unique herbal aromas, lemon and pear flavors, zingy acidity, and a peppery finish.
Sonoma County, California, 12.5% ABV, $16.99
A bright and festive American sparkler. This rosé bubbly has a bouquet of raspberries and orange peel, with tart cherry flavors and a creamy finish. Blend of 90% pinot noir and 10% chardonnay.
Bairrada, Portugal, 13% ABV, $11.99
Vintage bubbly is normally pricier, but this bargain from Portugal shows that great sparkling wine can be made anywhere in the world. Tropical fruits and citrusy aromas lead into toasted, bready flavors.
Illustration by Claire Jelly