Everywhere emulated, rarely duplicated: as Champagne fans like to remind you, nothing quite attains the stratospheric sophistication of The King of Bubbles. But yes, that sucking sound from your wallet serves equal reminder that royalty don’t come cheap.
Since Russian Tsar Alexander I’s proclamation in 1814 that he would drink nothing else * to Jay-Z dropping an $11,100 tip on a $80,035 bill for 40 bottles in a NYC club this February, well, Champagne’s still on a luxury roll.
What’s a poor, non-hip-hopping working stiff to do? Relax, the world makes lots of great bubbly alternatives, some more and some less Champagne-style, virtually all more economical. In fact many people enjoy them more than the oft-austere King.
Understanding what makes Champagne Champagne helps determine how similar or far your chosen style will be. When details are in doubt (often!), use price as a guide: the closer to Champagne price, the more emulating the style. And what is that style exactly?
Yeasty, Noble and Cold
Champagne style is primarily defined by 1. yeast ageing, 2. noble grapes and 3. cool weather.
Long before you buy them, Champagne and other so-called traditional style sparklers are carbonated by a yeast fermentation within the sealed bottle: yeast eats sugar, creating carbon dioxide, creating bubbles. Once finished, although it could be removed immediately (see Prosecco), the yeast often sits–or required by law to sit–in the wine for 15 months or more, imparting a distinctive yeasty, bready, toasty, earthy aroma and flavor. That yeasty complexity, more than anything else, is the hallmark of Champagne. Aficionados love it but many people don’t, in which case you can seek out less-yeasty emulators.
The white and red grapes most often blended for Champagnes claim their own global bragging rights: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, respectively (plus related local red Pinot Meunier). They reside among international grape “nobility” for producing top-class (non-sparkling) wines worldwide on their own. Any global sparkler using Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or both aims to emulate Champagne’s royal complexity; other grapes while certainly good are deemed less “serious”.
Champagne’s climate creates other distinguishing characteristics. Far north in France, the cool Champagne region ripens grapes slowly in lean style, meaning light-bodied, brightly acidic, delicate but relatively “sharp” wines, like a tart apple not a ripe peach. Warmer climates however develop riper, rounder fruit flavors with less cutting acidity, still quite bright but generally milder.
Great Alternatives (think Thursday evenings)
So in a nutshell the Champagne category is uniquely yeasty, sophisticated and lean; small supply, high global demand and luxury image drives prices up. To explore excellent and less expensive alternatives in descending order of Champagne like-ness, that is, decreasing yeastiness and/or sharpness as you go down the list, look for:
Franciacorta (Lombardy, Italy)
Yes, it’s Italian. No, it’s not Prosecco. It’s northern Italy’s “Champagne”. Lombardy’s Franciacorta region requires the same grapes and long yeast ageing time as Champagne — a worthy emulator beyond doubt. Warmer local climate however moderates sharpness and increases easy “drinkability”. At a 20-30% discount to Champagne, this unsung treasure often becomes budget-conscious Champagne fans’ new BFF.
Crémant (French regions other than Champagne)
Problem: Pierre wants to make Champagne-style wine in France but doesn’t own any prized northern property. Solution: he makes Crémant, that is, the French category for yeast-aged wines not from Champagne. Nobody aims for duplication: yeast ageing is typically shorter, local grapes substitute for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir and climates are invariably warmer. But for big savings — typically 1/3 the price of “The King” — exploring Crémant de Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy), Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Limoux or even Crémant de Bordeaux can triple your tipple of fantastically well-made and enjoyable bubbles.
Cava (Catalonia, Spain)
Together with Crémant, Spain’s sparkler ranks among the wine world’s best values. The Cava category–produced almost exclusively in warm Catalonia–offers a twist on the classic. Very local grapes Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo (huh??) create a different earthy-fruity balance. Prices range from Champagne-level Gran Reservas with equally long yeast ageing as Champagnes to super values featuring bright freshness over any discernible yeastiness. Beware the lowest supermarket shelf! Super-cheap Cavas are primed with sugar (labeled seco or semi-seco) and from inferior grapes.
Prosecco (Veneto, Italy)
The “other” sparkling wine category is typified by Italy’s super-popular Prosecco, that is, “Prosecco-style” sparklers. In contrast to the above list, Prosecco does NOT try to emulate Champagne. Prosecco production employs fresh, simple local Veneto grape Glera on warm-weather hillsides. It’s still carbonated naturally by yeast (certainly not injected CO2 like Coca-Cola) but with NO subsequent yeast ageing and on a larger scale to create great value perfect apéritif bubbles whenever serious sophistication sounds too tedious.
* – Historical clarification: after beating Napoleon and lifting trade embargoes against French wines, Tsar Alexander I actually announced the only Champagne he would drink was the legendary 1811 Veuve Clicquot Cuvée de la Comète (“comet-blessed” that year) which as a daring marketing ploy had been illegally smuggled into Russia prior to his impending victory celebration, thus ensuring it was the first French wine to his lips.