3 Champagne Alternatives for the Festive Season
There is no better time than the holiday season to savor a bottle of bubbly while celebrating with the ones you love. Champagne will forever be the reigning king of sparkling wines worldwide. Yet price tags for the father of fizz lean tend to weigh heavily on wallets. While we fully support the treat yo’self mindset, there are other more reasonably priced sparkling wines to help elevate your celebrations. Here are three Champagne alternatives to really make your festive season pop.
The Winemaking Behind Great Champagne Alternatives
Champagne is undoubtedly an exquisite sparkling wine. Thanks to its proprietary production method, these wines are loaded with refreshing acidity, layered complexities, and tantalizing bubbles. Known as the traditional method, méthode traditionnelle, or méthode Champenoise, the intricate winemaking process involves a secondary fermentation in bottle. In short, it looks like this:
Base wine is made – grapes are picked early to preserve acidity levels, then vinified to create a dry, still wine with neutral flavors and high acidity.
Blending – base wines are blended to improve balance and maintain a certain house style.
Second alcoholic fermentation – the blend is bottled with a small portion of liqueur de tirage (mixture of wine, sugar, yeast, yeast nutrients) and the bottle is closed with a crown cap. A slow secondary fermentation within the bottle increases alcohol by 1.2-1.3% and generates CO2, giving the wine its sparkle.
Yeast autolysis – yeast dies after fermentation and wines age on the lees (spent yeast cells) which yields autolytic characters like bread, biscuit, and toasty notes in the final wine.
Riddling – the bottles are slowly rotated and turned by man or machine to move the lees sediment into the neck of the bottle.
Disgorgement and corking – the neck of the bottle is frozen in a brine solution to keep the sediment together. Crown caps are removed and the pressure from the CO2 in the bottle ejects the frozen sediment. The bottles are topped up with the liqueur d’expédition (wine and sugar), a.k.a. the dosage, to balance acidity, aid flavor development, and adjust sugar levels accordingly. The wines are corked and then potentially laid down for further bottle aging before sale.
The traditional method skyrocketed Champagne to fame. However, there are other sparkling wines made around the world with this exact winemaking technique. Hence, they’re the ideal place to start when in search of Champagne alternatives.
In the world of sparkling wine, Franciacorta is a somewhat undiscovered gem. This Italian sparkler is made in Lombardy, a region encompassing the famous city of Milan situated between the Alps and the Po River Valley. While Franciacorta is well-known in Italy, only 11% of production is exported internationally. Serious efforts have been put forth in recent years to advance the presence of Franciacorta on the world stage.
Made in the metodo classico, the Italian nomenclature for traditional method, the first Franciacorta was created relatively recently. Franco Ziliani and the aristocrat Giudo Berlucchi dreamt up the idea of a metodo classico wine in their region. They released their first vintage in 1961 following a brief period of trial and error. Their success led other producers to follow suit and the Franciacorta DOC was established in 1967. Years later, the denomination was upgraded to DOCG status in 1995.
Even though these first sparkling wines were produced in recent decades, their foundation of excellence began in the vineyards during the Middle Ages. Wine production had a major influence on the local economy. By the 11th century, records indicate a greater focus on higher quality, specialized viticulture. Historic documents also indicate a “fizzy” wine being made in Franciacorta as far back as the Middle Ages.
Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and Pinot Blanc are the main grapes behind Franciacorta. Most vineyard plantings and blends are Chardonnay dominant, as this international grape variety accounts for 80% of the region’s vineyards. Currently, producers are also experimenting with a variety called Erbamat. This rare grape is native to the Brescia area and has shown promise with enhancing acidity levels. Chardonnay provides fruit, elegance, and richness to the wines of Franciacorta. Whereas Pinot Nero offers structure and depth. Winemakers are utilizing Pinot Blanc increasingly less, but it brings finesse, floral and citrus aromas when included.
- Satèn: a trademark of Franciacorta; soft, creamy sparkler made only with white grapes
- Rosé: must have a minimum of 35% Pinot Nero
- Non-vintage: Minimum 18 months on the lees
- Rosé and Satèn: minimum 25 months on the lees
- Vintage: Minimum 30 months on the lees
- Riserva: at least 60 months
Basically, Crémant is French sparkling wine made in the traditional method but produced outside of Champagne. It’s one of the great Champagne alternatives because it’s way more affordable. Plus, Crémant is produced in eight appellations, one of which is in nearby Luxembourg. What Crémant offers in affordability does not detract from quality. Styles and grapes permitted for this French sparkling wine vary by appellation— making Crémant one of the more interesting bubblies to consume based on sheer diversity alone.
Although certain regulations differ from one AOC to the next, there are a few non-negotiable rules all Crémant producers must follow:
- Grapes must be harvested by hand.
- Whole bunch pressing is required with limited must extraction (100 liters of juice from 150kg of grapes)
- Wines must be made in the traditional method.
- 9-month minimum aging requirement on the lees.
Out of the eight appellations available, Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, and Crémant de Loire are the most important.
Crémant d’Alsace accounts for around half of France’s total Crémant production and a quarter of Alsatian wine production. These French sparkling wines tend to be snappy and fresh. Pinot Blanc dominates Crémant d’Alsace, though Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir may also be included. Rosé styles must be made from 100% Pinot Noir.
Crémant de Bourgogne
If interested in a richer, rounder style, look to Crémant de Bourgogne. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay star in the regional Crémant. Other grapes permitted include Gamay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Aligoté.
Moreover, these styles of Crémant de Bourgogne will be especially promising Champagne alternatives thanks to their extensive aging requirements:
- Eminent: Aged for a minimum of 24 months on the lees
- Grand Eminent: Aged for a minimum of 36 months on the lees
- Only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are permitted (plus 20% maximum Gamay for rosés)
- Minimum 10% alcohol
- Brut only
Crémant de Loire
Produced mainly in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine in the stunning Loire Valley, Crémant de Loire delivers fruit forward sparkling wines with a refined elegance from the region’s cool climate. Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are the main varieties used. While Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grolleau, Grolleau Gris, Arbois, and Cabernet Sauvignon may also be thrown into the mix.
Other Crémant Appellations to Explore
- Crémant de Limoux from the Languedoc
- Crémant de Bordeaux
- Crémant de Jura
- Crémant de Savoie
- Crémant de Die
Finally, Cava provides jubilant Champagne alternatives with their own authentic Spanish flair. Made in what’s known as the método tradicional or método classico in Spain, Cava mostly comes from Catalan vineyards around the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. However, Navarra, Rioja and Valencia are also permitted to produce this sparkling wine. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were added to appellation regulations in recent years, but the main traditional Spanish grape varieties behind Cava are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. For rosé styles, Garnacha and Monastrell (Mourvédre) are utilized.
In Spain, Cava was first produced by an adventurous man named Don José Raventós, the head of bodega Codorníu. Don José regularly traveled Europe selling his still red and white wines. On one of his fateful trips, he visited Champagne and returned to Penedés inspired to create a sparkling wine of his own. Don José produced Spain’s first traditional method sparkling wine in 1872 using imported equipment from Champagne. Soon other Spanish winemakers were getting in on the fun.
When phylloxera devastated the rest of Europe, Penedés was no exception. In 1887, many of the vineyards of the region were destroyed, though luckily many Cava firms were able to survive. Replanting of native Spanish varieties on American rootstock allowed Cava to develop a distinctive personality separate from that of Champagne. Cava has a style and identity truer to Spain and representative of the Spanish landscape.
And just in case you want to pop your bubbly in style, learn how to safely saber a bottle of sparkling!