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Buzz seeks low-priced wine that sparkles

Sommelier Marnie Old offers advice for finding low-cost champagne substitutes.


Hey Marnie, can you recommend a good cheap Champagne? It's that time of year.

Marnie: Yes and no, Buzz. There are lots of affordable, delicious sparkling wines for the holidays. However, only the French make true Champagne, and you won't find any in your price range. Champagne is a place name that is also a wine "appellation," like Bordeaux or Barolo. Only wines from this northern French region that meet rigorous quality standards can be sold as Champagne.

Buzz: But I've seen commercials for California Champagne.

Marnie: I forgot about that, but you're right. That's a case of deceptive, but legal, advertising - a holdover from a time when generic bulk wines were permitted to co-opt the names of famous appellations, like Chianti or Burgundy. International trade agreements now protect the names of region-specific products, from Asiago cheese to Valencia oranges, and most vintners honor them. But American law lets domestic producers who don't export use such names when their original meaning has already been diluted, such as calling any old wine with bubbles a Champagne.

Buzz: What makes French Champagne so special?

Marnie: Well, the type of grapes and where they're grown are certainly part of what makes Champagne taste unique, but there's also the laborious and time-consuming "Champagne method" of production. The French pioneered a technique where wine goes through a second fermentation in bottles, then ages for at least 18 months in contact with the spent yeast afterwards. The result is a refined wine of creamy texture with a decadent, toasty flavor reminiscent of baked goods.

Buzz: Only the French do that?

Marnie: No. They made the first sparkling wines, and still do it best if we judge on quality alone. But this traditional method is used elsewhere too, and often the wines are cheaper. In California, most sparkling wines over $16 are made this way, as are all Spanish Cavas, with those labeled "Reserva" seeing just as much aging as French Champagne.

Buzz: It sounds like I better "reserva" bottle at the state store.