Nothing says “let’s have a party and make some bad decisions” like a bottle of bubbly. There is a reason it’s the No. 1 beverage of choice when you want to celebrate a victory, christen your new yacht or get laid. Simply put: Bubbles are fun and can instantly turn an average Tuesday night into something special.
Wanting to share all the special fun of bubbly with my friends, I broke out my most coveted bottle for a toast to ring in the New Year. Imagine my shock and sadness when the glorious bottle of aged, grower Champagne was collectively poo-pooed: I was told it tasted like cheese and bread. I didn’t fully understand that those descriptors were a bad thing until I looked at one person across the table who had scrunched up their nose and let out a pitiful “eww.” Instead, my New Year’s comrades gleefully drank, and raved about, some bottle of beer that supposedly tastes like peanut butter and jelly. I took their word for it.
That night, I realized two things: I did not have to share my bottle of Champers with anyone (yay!); and these people have never had real Champagne. This is, of course, no fault of their own. Between the weird almond crap they give you at the polo matches, the cheap shit you get at Sunday brunch, and the endless amounts of Prosecco everywhere, it isn’t any surprise that the real deal was an assault on their senses.
So, with Valentine’s Day right around the corner—and all the hot tub- and Champagne-induced hanky-panky that comes with it—this is a good time to let you know what your options are. Perhaps I can spare you from ending up with a funky, cheesy bottle of eww.
If you’re new to the world of sparkling wine, or you just want to stay up to date with what the rappers are drinking, here is some serious insider info. First and foremost: Not all sparkling wine is created equal. There are several different grapes that are used, and several different methods of creating carbonation. I won’t bore you with all the technical specs, but there is one little nugget of information that is crucial to being savvy about bubbles: Champagne is a place. Prosecco is a place. Franciacorta is a place. Cava, Crémant and Pétillant-naturel are styles. Calling all sparkling wine Champagne is like calling all cars Bentleys, or referring to all vineyards as Napa. It simply isn’t the case. Luckily, navigating the sparkling waters can be fairly easy.
Cava is the wine God’s gift to bubbles on a budget. This little gem hails from Spain and is made in the same time-consuming way Champagne is (known as Méthode Traditionnelle), but with a Korbel price tag. Trust me when I tell you this is the best bang for your buck out there. Look around town for a beautiful bottle called The Lady of Spain by Paul Cheneau, and you’ll start looking for any excuse to celebrate.
Prosecco has one job: to make your brunch more fabulous. Never was there a better mate for orange juice, or any juice, for that matter. Just a touch sweet, Prosecco is the OG sparkling wine in the famous peach Bellini cocktail, because Italians know this cheap and cheerful offering shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Are there quality examples of Prosecco out there? Sure, but they are becoming harder and harder to find among the sea of mass-produced cases in the supermarket. Keep this value-driven option for your morning buzz.
However, if you are looking for some praise-worthy bubbles from Italy, look no further than Franciacorta. This is Italy’s version of Champagne, and it’s every bit as sophisticated and elegant as its French counterpart. There just happens to be some of this beautiful fizz at Desert Wine Shop on Highway 111. Grab it; chill it; and send me a thank-you note.
Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., we are no slouch in the sparkling wine department—if you know where to look. Sure, we put out our fair share of garbage, but we also have some shining examples that will rival the best bubbles out there. The Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs (which means it’s made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes) is still one of the best bottles on the market. If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, I am absolutely in love with Gruet (pronounced grew-ā). The sparkling rosé is 100 percent pinot noir and comes from New Mexico. It’s around $15 a bottle, so be prepared to have your socks knocked off.
Do you have hipster friends visiting from L.A. that you desperately want to impress? Grab a bottle of Pétillant-naturel (or, as the kids say, Pét-nat); pop off that crown cap; and get ready to taste the wine equivalent of kombucha. These wines can be made anywhere, with any grape, and are usually unfiltered and foggier than San Francisco in July.
One of the biggest buzz words in the world of Champagne is the term “grower.” It’s what all the cool kids are drinking. What does this mean, you ask? Well, in short, it means that the wine is produced by the same people who own the vineyards. This is somewhat of a rarity in Champagne, because for years, it was easier and more profitable for these little family-owned operations to sell their grapes to the big Champagne corporations (think Veuve Clicquot, Moet, Roederer, etc.) than make, bottle, label and market the fruits of their own labor. Thanks to innovative importers who want to show what these little families can do, we now have the awesome ability to taste Champagne from tiny parcels of land, created by the same people who lovingly tend to the vines all year. Pretty cool, right?! One of my favorite examples is called Champagne Coquillette, which I happily found at Whole Foods in Palm Desert. Other personal favs include Gaston Chiquet and Vilmart et Cie. If you’re on a tighter budget but still want the French stuff, look for a Crémant d’Alsace like the Lucien Albrecht. The label looks like Cristal, but your card won’t get cut up at the register. Winning!
These are all easy-drinking, light and refreshing examples of sparkling wine that will never elicit an “eww” or a scrunched nose—I promise. Now go grab a bottle of fizzy bubbly, and do something naughty.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she’s not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.