Bubbles are basically always appropriate, whether savored as an aperitif before a five-course blowout at a mahogany-walled bistro or at home alongside kung pao chicken takeout. But the effervescent stuff is especially fitting on Valentine’s Day. Really, is there anything like the sound of a cork popping to heighten the holiday’s starry-eyed pursuits?
While a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Krug may be worth the splurge for some, for couples who can’t justify the whopping cost of a bottle hailing from one of France’s fabled Champagne houses (or simply prefer saving their cash for the likes of a weekend getaway), satisfying bubbly can be found in more affordable forms. Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier and general manager of New York natural wine bar La Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels, shares four inexpensive effervescent options to try.
Crémant is French-made sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method, but crafted outside the Champagne region. It not only “offers a cultural peek into a wine-producing region,” as Ganzer points out; it also has a considerably gentler price tag. Among Ganzer’s favorites are Domaine Audrey et Christian Binner’s fruity Alsatian one ($17) or the slightly earthy version from Jura’s Domaine André et Mireille Tissot ($23).
Pétillant naturel, or “pét-nat” for short, translates as “naturally sparkling,” and these wines — which can be made from white and red grapes alike — tend to be only slightly fizzy, lower in alcohol than typical wines, and alluringly unrefined. “It’s funky and fresh and rougher around the edges than a perfectly polished Champagne,” says Ganzer. He always serves one, such as the J. Quastana ‘Buena Onda’ rosé ($19) from the Loire Valley, by the glass. Another favorite is La Sorga ($15) from Languedoc-Roussillon, made with the not-oft-seen Terret Bourret grape. “Pleasant, although not necessarily a crowd pleaser, it is a great way to see a different side of the bubbly sphere,” he adds.
A Cava-Sherry Hybrid
Spain, where affordable cava is the lively go-to, is another destination that intrigues Ganzer. He finds the Colet-Navazos ($41), a collaboration between Colet Winery and Equipo Navazos of ‘La Bota’ sherry fame, especially fascinating. “It’s a uniquely Spanish project that is not technically cava and not quite sherry. It's a hybrid between the two,” he says. In this creation, a base of Catalonian-made cava is bolstered by wine from sherry-happy Jerez.
Stubborn drinkers hesitant to skimp on the word Champagne, yet who don’t want to fork over the cash that such an illustrious name demands, may find an appealing compromise in Grower Champagne. These sparkling wines flaunt the cachet of being made in Champagne, but unlike those produced by the big houses, are typically made from grapes grown in a particular vineyard from a single estate by one family. They are truly reflective of terroir — that powerful combination of natural forces that infuses wine with a distinct personality.
However, as much as the bucolic image of an overall-donning farmer lovingly tending to his grapes enchants, this small-scale, artisanal approach doesn’t always promise magnificent results. “Champagne is a labor-intensive process and there is something to be said about the efficiency a large producer can bring to the table,” Ganzer explains. To alleviate this uncertainty, he advises adopting a "buyer beware" mentality and seeking out Special Club bottlings. This collection is comprised of peer-reviewed wines that only make the cut if deemed worthy of the group’s label by a vote. “Growers only submit their best wines for this and thus, if approved, a consumer is guaranteed the best of the smallest houses — often times on the shelf for less than $100,” says Ganzer. “While it is still a splurge for most, it is a cream-of-the-crop wine by some of the most quality-minded growers in the region and makes for a truly special bottle of Champagne.”
Combine one of those with a Netflix documentary, and a hackneyed holiday gets a jolt of unconventional high-brow-meets-lo-fi romance.