By Bill St. John
Special to Tribune Newspapers
Champagne joins history's long list of aphrodisiacs for Valentine's Day. Although it's cheaper than caviar or truffles, easier to obtain than ambergris -- all tried-and-true titillators. Champagne can cost.
A bottle of true French Champagne exacts between $30 and hundreds of dollars. Nice, if you can do it, but I want to offer you some alternatives. All sparklers, all bubblies — but from outside the Champagne district and, hence, less expensive but no less festive or sparkling than Champagne — or the two of you.
Bubbles get into wine in basically one of two ways: the costly, time-consuming, labor-intensive way known as "the Champagne method" and the same method, in a way of thinking, done in a much larger "bottle" (instead of causing a second fermentation in a single bottle, it's done in a huge tank as big as a room), the Charmat method, named for its inventor, Eugene Charmat.
While Charmat method (also known as tank method or cuve close) sparkling wine has nowhere near the finesse of sparkling wine made in the Champagne method, it delivers on what you're after: those happy bubbles.
What follows is a tour of global sparklers, some made the traditional way, others Charmat.
World tasting tour
This has become Italy's great gift to the world of sparkling wine. Named for the grape of the same name, prosecco (known also as glera) is now Prosecco, a region of the Veneto of northeastern Italy. Easygoing, sometimes ever-so-slightly sweet, its most famous place is in a glass with white peach puree to form the cocktail of Venice, the bellini.
Best bet producers: Nino Franco, Mionetto Sergio, Adami
When the Germans make a sparkling wine — either in the Champagne method or via Charmat process — they call it sekt. Most are based in riesling, making for a particular dry, incisive style of bubbly.
Best bet producers: Fitz-Ritter, Barth extra brut, Kalinda dry, Sekthaus pinot blanc
The Spanish make millions of bottles of their well-priced Champagne method sparkling wine called cava. It comes in many styles, from off-dry to bone dry, and in both pink and white. Cava may be the world's best value in sparkling wine. Some can be had for $10-$11 a bottle and, remember, it's Champagne method so the price is a terrific value.
Best bet producers: Jane Ventura, Segura Viudas (especially Reserva Heredad), Juve y Camps, Raventos i Blanc, Jaume Serra
The northern Italians in Piedmont make a delicious, frothy, slightly sweet (to sometimes cloyingly sweet) sparkling wine from the moscato grape. Its best known version is moscato d'Asti, made from grapes grown near the town of Asti. This is not a serious wine, but for folk who enjoy bubbly dessert, this is it.
Best bet producers: Martini & Rossi, Ballatore (an American imitation made in California)
Keep in mind that the French make lots of sparkling wine outside the Champagne region but, of course, do not call it Champagne. You can find delicious bubbly from the Loire Valley, Alsace and Burgundy (cremant de Bourgogne).
The Spanish and French have moved into California and set up shop in a serious way, producing some of the best Champagne method sparklers made in the U.S. My favorite remains Roederer Estate, in Mendocino County. Their three sparkling wines are marvels: the nonvintage brut; a delicious, perky rose; and the top of the line, L'Ermitage.
For my money, the best sparkling wine made in this country, however, comes from the most unlikely of places, near Albuquerque, N.M. Gruet is the name. A family moved there from Champagne and makes some astonishingly well-priced Champagne method wines, of many different sorts.
Nino Franco Prosecco Primo Franco, Valdobbiadene: Clean, bright, zesty, with tastes of melon, green apple and ripe pear; gravlax, pate, apple tart. $28
Adami Bosco di Gica Prosecco Brut, Valdobbiadene: Terrific for its delicate bubbles, snappy acidity and soft, peachy, melony flavors; pasta primavera, grilled swordfish. $18
Fitz-Ritter Riesling Extra Trocken Sekt, Rheinhessen: Like liquid Granny Smith apple with hints of citrus; snap-your-head-back acidity; smoked fish, sole meuniere, nuts and nibbles. $20
Jaume Serra Cristalino Rose Brut Cava: Rock-star rose, with gobs of strawberry and cherry aromas and tastes; a stunning pink color; bit of tasty character from Champagne method production. $10 — a steal.
Trapiche Extra Brut, Mendoza: Get this, an Argentinian bubbly; superdry, fine mousse, lean and cleansing; a dose of semillon rounds out the predominant, crisp chardonnay. $12-$15
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been teaching and writing about wine for more than 30 years.
Defining the terms
Cava: Catalan for cellar.
Sekt: Shortened term for qualitatschaumwein: quality sparkling wine.
Spumante: Italian for sparkling.
Prosecco: Named for the grape from which it's made.
Source: The Wine Lover's Companion
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