Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.
The news that Prosecco outsold Champagne - 307 million bottles worldwide compared with 304 million - may flabbergast some fizz fans, but it’s really no surprise. Prosecco is as hot as a cold, sparkling white wine can be, with sales in 2013 up more than 24% over 2012.
That 307 million stat, by the way, came from OVSE, an Italian wine “observatory” (essentially an industry research group, though you have to like the idea of white-coated scientists spending their time watching bottles of Prosecco through massive mountaintop telescopes), so perhaps one should take it with a grain of salt. Regardless, it’s hard to argue with Prosecco’s overall appeal.
Sometimes it’s worthwhile taking the classic approach. If you’re a cowboy, skip saddling up an emu—just ride a dang horse. If you are a lion, do not attempt to browse the tender shoots of the mokukutu bush—just chomp the neck of a zebra and have done with it.
Similarly, when Valentine’s Day comes along, why try to wow your honey with some oddball concoction when bubbly works so well?
The choices are vast but the basic equation is simple: If you want actual Champagne, from the Champagne region in northern France, prepare to pay more. Champagne runs from $30 or more a bottle, on up to a couple of hundred dollars a bottle for top wines.
For more affordable wines in a similar mode (i.e., made the same way, and with the same basic grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) look to California sparkling wines. There are many good, affordable choices in the $20 to $25 zone.
And if bargains are what you’re after, both Prosecco (from Italy) and cava (from Spain) produce terrific sparkling wines in the under-$20 price range—possibly not the price point to pop the question with, but good value if your evening is going to involve drowning the sorrows of a gang of embittered single friends.
Here, some excellent possibilities:
Among the great divides in the world - red states vs. blue states, vegetarians vs. carnivores, the Yankees vs., well, pretty much the world - there is also the great split amongst wine with bubbles. Essentially: There is Champagne, and then there is everything else.
Champagne is the victim of its own success when it comes to names, much like Xerox or Kleenex. You can say, for instance, “I need to blow my nose, please pass me a Kleenex,” and people will no more bat an eye than if you’d asked for a glass of water. Say, “I need to blow my nose, please pass me a nasal tissue,” and they’ll say something like, “Ew!”
Ditto Champagne. Ask for Champagne, and people will happily pass you a glass of whatever kind of wine with bubbles is at hand. Ask for a glass of sparkling wine, and you sound odd. They will say, “Um, perhaps you’d like a nasal tissue to go with that?”
Ostensibly, it was on today’s date back in 1693 that Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, invented Champagne, popping the cork on his newly effervescent liquid, slugging it back and dancing around saying things like, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”
One hates to be the rain on the Champagne-party parade, but unfortunately, the Dom P story is just that - a story. The fellow did exist, and he did make wine, but he very likely spent a lot more time worrying about how not to have bubbles in his wine rather than the other way around. (Especially since bottles back then were weaker and would often blow up if a wine started to re-ferment inside them; cellar workers often wore iron masks, somewhat like catcher’s masks, to protect their faces from exploding bottles.)
To add insult to injury (if you’re French), the truth is that the process of inducing a secondary fermentation in wine to add bubbles was actually first documented by an Englishman, Dr. Christopher Merret, in 1662. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to imagine blinged-out nightclub goers popping corks on super-pricey bottles of something called “Christopher Merret” - Dom Pérignon is probably safe there - but in honor of the estimable Dr. Merret and his invention, here are a few terrific (and affordable) sparkling wines for the late summer. August 4 may not really have been the birthdate of Champagne, but it’s still a perfectly good day for drinking anything involving bubbles.
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