Other Bubbles

Food and Wine Editor Bonnie Graves shares her 12 favorite sparking wines for a memorable holiday party

Don’t get me wrong, I love “real” Champagne above all other fermented beverages.

We all owe a sizable debt of gratitude to that intrepid French monk Dom Pérignon whose inadvertent discovery of the technique now called méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle allegedly caused him to cry out, ”come quickly, I am tasting stars!”

While other, cheaper processes for introducing carbonation into wine have long since been invented, the Champagne region’s costlier method remains preferred as it results in a much finer finished wine. The high caliber of Champagne’s products has also led to a raft of international legislation aimed at protecting place of origin; while there are a few “California Champagnes” still actively marketed in the U.S., it’s increasingly rare for sparkling wines made outside the boundaries of Champagne’s AOC in France to be misleadingly labeled. That doesn’t mean, however, that high quality bubblies aren’t made outside of Champagne, no matter what those French marketers would have you believe. Many international wine-producing regions make superb sparkling wines, either with the traditional triumvirate of Champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, or with their own indigenous favorites.

With the holiday season around the corner, we’ve put together a recommended case of “other” bubbles — a dozen unique sparkling wines from a variety of origins and at a variety of price-points that are toast-worthy classics. Most are widely available in the SoCal market or from your favorite online retailer so do a little research and stock up early – your family, friends and pocketbook will all thank you for it.

Domaine Carneros Brut
(Carneros, California — 2005), SRP $20
Winemaker Eileen Crane’s talent shines in this classic blend of 2/3 pinot noir and 1/3 chardonnay from the very good 2005 vintage in cool-climate Carneros, as does the influence of Champagne Taittinger’s trademark finesse and delicacy. With Domaine Carneros, one gets the ripeness of California fruit with the historicity of Champagne — a winning combination at an attractive price.

Roederer Estate Brut Rosé
(Anderson Valley, California), SRP $27
Oh how I love the Roederer Estate Rosé! As pink bubbly grows in popularity with consumers, Champagne Roederer’s American property shows why the north coast of California is so fine for growing pinot noir and chardonnay. Aromas of pomegranate and ripe strawberry finish in a refreshingly crisp and completely dry finish that is compatible with a wide range of foods. Easily the best value rosé sparkling wine made in California.

Gruet Brut, “Blanc de Noirs”
(Central New Mexico), SRP $14
Here’s a wine that showcases why tasting blind frees us of our preconceptions. If you didn’t know this was from high-altitude vineyards in New Mexico of all places, you’d swear you were drinking something very French and very pricey. Founded by Gilbert Gruet and family members Laurent and Náthalie in 1986 who recognized the region’s potential while traveling the American Southwest on vacation from France, Gruet consistently produces top-notch wines that over-deliver given their modest price. I especially like their Blanc de Noirs bottling, made from 100% pinot noir grown near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico on steep hillside plots.

Soter Brut Rosé, “Beacon Hill”
(Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon — 2005), SRP $50
Pinot noir expert Tony Soter built Etude Winery in Carneros before turning his talents northwards to Oregon, considered by many including yours truly, to be the real epicenter for American pinot noir. His expertise with the grape is reflected in this fantastic rosé bubbly, one of my very favorites produced outside of Champagne. It’s deep and rich with notes of rose petal and allspice. Fantastic stuff.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
(West Sussex, UK — 2001), SRP $40
Every spring, I judge a blind tasting competition put on by all the Consul Generals based in LA. And every year, the Italians win by submitting ringer Barolos and either the Brazilian or British wines come in last place. Not so this year when I was shocked to taste this delicious traditional blend of estate-grown chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier from the United Kingdom. Made using traditional methods and bottle-aged for three years before release, the quality of this wine and the overall warming of the British climate may just rewrite the English wine story. 

Mionetto Prosecco Spumante, “Extra Dry”
(Valdobbiadene, Italy), SRP $13
No longer the best kept secret of bubbly, prosecco is increasingly popular throughout the U.S. Produced in the Veneto region surrounding the city of Venice, prosecco is also the name of the grape that goes into this lightweight but incredibly refreshing sparkler. This is one of my go-to products for great party wine value and is delicious either on its own or mixed in with your favorite liqueur for a special holiday cocktail. I particularly like it with St. Germain elderflower liqueur and a tiny splash of frambroise. Yum.

Banfi, Brachetto d’Acqui, “Rose Regale”
(Piemonte, Italy — 2006), SRP $20
I have never met someone who’s tasted this semi-sweet sparkler and didn’t love it. A gorgeous, purple-toned bubbly from Piemonte in Italy’s Northwest, this wine smells like candied plums and is one of the few dessert wines that I like paired with chocolate. It’s also a savvy choice to serve with a cheese and fruit board, as it complements a wide variety of textures and aromas well. Serve this as an apéritif at your holiday party and your guests will be searching for a pen to write down its name.

Bjana Brut (Brda, Slovenia), SRP $15
Not easy to find but too cool not to include! Made from chardonnay and rebula (ribolla gialla) grapes grown in the Brda region, this wine blew me away when I was lucky enough to tour Slovenia last fall. Winemaker Milan Sirk is unassuming and soft-spoken but the caliber of his sparkling wines speak for themselves. I love the addition of Brda’s native rebula grape, which adds a gorgeous orange-blossom aroma and ochre palette to the wine. It’s kind of like the lovechild of Champagne and Grand Marnier for lack of a better description. Worth seeking out to try, as it’s an absolute steal for the price. 

Juvé y Camps Cava, “Reserva de la Familia”
 (Peñedés, Spain — 2004), SRP $50
Arguably the finest cava currently made, this reserve bottling from respected producer Juvé y Camps is bottle-aged for four years before release and can age like the priciest of Champagnes. Made from Spain’s own trio of preferred grapes for bubbly, the wine is 40% macabeu, 20% xarel-lo, 40% parellada. That’s Catalán for delicious. This wine is exceptionally crisp with an aroma profile of lemon curd, brioche and cardomom. 

Altenburger Brut Rosé Sekt 
(Burgenland, Austria), SRP $28
Sparkling wines from Germany and Austria are typically labeled as “sekt” and have traditionally been under-imported here in the U.S. The intrepid folks over at winemonger.com are working on correcting that market imbalance and this absolutely delicious bubbly from Austrian winemaker Markus Altenburger will have your taste buds singing. Made from two indigenous grapes, blaufrankisch and zweigelt, this rosé is wonderfully reminiscent of violets and black cherries. So very very tasty — order a case while you can because if you order just a single bottle, you’ll be mad at yourself when it’s gone.

Cloudy Bay, “Pelorus”
(Marlborough, New Zealand — 2005),  SRP $25
Proving that there’s more to New Zealand’s famous Marlborough region than just sauvignon blanc is this bubbly from legendary winery Cloudy Bay.  A blend of chardonnay and pinot noir that also includes some aging in small French casks, unusual for most sparkling wine production, the Cloudy Bay Pelorus is richly creamy with tones of spiced cashews and baked apples.  Tastes like a high-end Champagne at a fraction of the price!

Wölffer Brut, “Blanc de Blancs”
(N. Fork of L. Island, NY — 2005), SRP $35
What? Sparkling wine from the Hamptons crowd? Don’t be misled.  This is “real” sparkling wine, not a vanity product, made from sustainably farmed chardonnay planted in 1988. I have sampled Wölffer Estate’s wines over the years and their quality has consistently improved vintage over vintage. To taste, this wine offers the best of what a blanc de blancs, 100% chardonnay bubbly should deliver — crisp, racy acidity with vibrant citrus aromatics. This wine is really delicious and is under-priced for the quality it offers.