Champagne and sparkling wine have always been celebratory libations. They work equally well for weddings, birthdays, holidays, sunsets and, of course, yacht christenings. But as with so many things, not all bubbly beverages are created equal. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, Dom Pérignon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal are easy bets, but there are many more options of equal and excellent quality.
Grapes for Champagne must originate from the region of the same name in France, and secondary fermentation must occur in the bottle, which is different from how wine is made.
With winemaking, a grape cluster is picked and placed in a bucket or shallow tub. Other clusters are picked and placed in the same container. As the weight of the grapes on top crushes the bottom clusters, the skin breaks and its “bloom,” or yeast, on the outside of the skin begins to consume the sugar inside the grape. This sugar is converted it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which escapes and, voilà, you have wine.
Champagne is different. If you drop a mixture of sugar and yeast into a bottle that just went through primary fermentation, and then put a crown cap or top on it, the yeast attacks the sugar, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But this time, the carbon dioxide remains trapped in the bottle. That’s how you get Champagne to undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle. All those spent yeast cells, or lees, are in contact with the juice, creating nuances of brioche, toast or creaminess. This process is known as méthode champenoise.
Although similar to Champagne, all other bubbly using this method must call the process something else and cannot refer to the final product as Champagne. Examples include Cava from Spain, crémant from France, Trento from Italy or sparkling wine from California.
My favorite bubbly wines include Ferrari Brut from the Trento DOC in Trentino, Italy. No, this winery is not named after the famous cars; it is named after its founder, Giulio Ferrari. Born and raised in Trentino, he began his winemaking career in the early 1900s in France. When he returned home, he wanted to produce a bubbly similar to the those of the great Champagne houses. Now owned by the Lunelli family, this winery is one of the best for producing bubbly in Italy. Made from chardonnay and aged 24 months on its lees, the wine is brilliant with notes of lemon, brioche and yellow apple.
Another favorite of mine is JCB No. 21, crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy, France. It is the creation of Jean-Charles Boisset, who owns wineries throughout France and California. Burgundy is where his family began its winemaking history. This wine is fruity, floral and shows hints of brioche. The price point is $24 per bottle, but it drinks comparable to its $40 (or more) cousins from Champagne. The rosé is quite astounding for just a few dollars more.
Yet another good choice is Schramsberg’s 2017 Blanc de Blancs from California’s North Coast. One of the most historic estates in Napa Valley, Schramsberg takes its name from a German immigrant who established the property in 1862. The Davies family purchased the property in 1965 and put sparkling wine produced in Napa on the map. Production is low, and quality is incredibly high. This is a 100 percent chardonnay-based bubbly. The grapes are sourced mostly from Napa, along with Sonoma and Marin counties. More fruit-forward than its European counterparts, the wine shows notes of brioche and toast, and is creamy with a super long finish.
Last but not least, I also enjoy Laurent Perrier’s La Cuvée Rosé from Tours-sur-Marn in Champagne, France. Founded in 1812, the winery was purchased in the 1930s by Bernard de Nonancourt, whose two daughters comprise the next generation of this family-run operation. The wines are all stunners, but the rosé is a spectacular display of what talented winemakers can achieve by blending several vintages and multiple vineyards. The house has been making this rosé since 1968 from 100 percent pinot noir grapes. The result is more red fruit in character, and the brioche notes are complemented by slight tannin—making this bottle an excellent accompaniment to a variety of foods. For a splurge, try this winery’s vintage Cuvée Alexandra Rosé.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue.