Champagne by Any Other Name
The fact that a sparkling wine is produced outside of the Champagne region of France doesn't mean that it's inferior. It's just a little different. Some sparkling wines are made with the exact same grapes and by employing méthode champenoise. They will be different by virtue of their place of origin — Napa Valley does not have the soils and weather of Champagne — and the blending choices of the winemaker. Many experts have failed to recognize the difference between well-made sparkling wines from inside and outside the Champagne region.
French but Not Champagne
Even in the Loire Valley (so close to Champagne), they can't use the Champagne name on the labels of their sparkling wines. The region known, in part, for its use of Chenin Blanc grapes in Vouvray uses the same grapes for its sparklers. The effect is refreshing and creamy.
The eastern regions of France, including Alsace, are known for blending Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris for their crisp sparkling wines. French sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne are labeled “crémant”.
It used to be called Spanish Champagne. Then in 1970 the European Union banned the use of the term outside of Champagne. From then on Spanish sparkling wines have been known as Cava. The word is Catalan for cellar, referring to the underground cellars where the wines are aged.
Using atomic spectrometry to measure metal concentrations in the wines, researchers at the University of Seville in Spain correctly identified bottles of Champagne versus bottles of Cava 100 percent of the time. The measurements reflected the trace metal content in the soils where the grapes were grown. This technique could be used in the future to detect wine fraud.
To qualify as a Cava, the sparkling wine has to be produced according to méthode champenoise using specified grape varieties. The list includes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are used in the best wines, but producers still use the “big three” indigenous grapes: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. The bottles must be cellared for a minimum of nine months, aging sur lie, to qualify for the Cava designation.
Cavas are usually light and crisp and inexpensive. Look for:
Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut
Segura Viudas Aria Brut
Fleur de Nuit
Italy produces oceans of sparkling wine, and one of the most famous is Prosecco. It's made from a grape of the same name in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Prosecco comes both fully sparkling (spumante) and lightly sparkling (frizzante). They're crisp and dry and inexpensive. They've become very popular, and you see more and more of them on restaurant wine lists.
The more familiar Asti (in the past known as Asti Spumante) comes from the Muscat grape. Its second fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks in a modified version of the charmat method, and its taste is semisweet to sweet. Asti Spumate's cousin is Moscato d'Asti, which differs from the former in that it is frizzante instead of spumante, sweeter, lower in alcohol, and is corked like a still wine. Both should be drunk young and fresh.
Lambrusco is another Italian option. Most Americans know it as pink, semisweet, and frizzante, but white and dry versions do exist.
Sparkling Wine in the United States
California and New York produce more sparkling wine than any other states. In California, particularly in the cooler climates of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier can flourish, perfect for sparklers. Many producers have no French ties, such as Gloria Ferrer and Schramsberg. While California gets most of the attention, sparkling wine has been a mainstay of New York winemaking since before the Civil War when French Champagne makers were recruited by local wineries.
Some sparkling wine recommendations from around the United States:
Château Frank Brut (New York)
Argyle Brut (Oregon)
Domaine Carneros (California)
Gruet Brut (New Mexico)