Wine: Bubbling Over

Many fine sparkling white wines are giving champagnes a run for their money and at a fraction of the cost

WE REALLY DO LIVE in the golden age of inexpensive wine, mostly because the technology for everything in winemaking has become much more advanced than it was a mere 20 years ago, but also because of the rigorous demands of a more knowledgeable wine-drinking public.

One area where we see this is in sparkling wines. It used to be that the wines of Champagne were up there on their own, floating on a plateau of perfection that all other sparkling wines could merely hope to approximate.

Champagne is still on its plateau, certainly. But the lesser mortals of sparkling white wines have closed the quality gap enormously, whether they make their wines by traditional bottle-fermentation methods or bulk-tank fermenting.

Try a Crémant de Bourgogne, for example, which is basically champagne (small “c” for the wine, rather than the region of France) made within walking distance of the boundaries of what can legally be called Champagne (big “C,” for the region) and from the same grapes. It’s very hard to tell them apart, except by price. Crémants are about one-third the price of champagnes.

Or, moving farther south, how about the wonderful Crémant d’Alsace, made by the same methods as champagnes, also, but with a different blend of grapes — and at well under half the price, too.

Where the biggest improvements and sophistication in sparkling wine have come is in Northern Italy (have you ever tried Ferrari Perle?) and in Spain, where cavas, as white sparkling wine is called, are now some of the highest quality on the low end of the market.

The tightening gap in quality was part of the subtext of a recent relatively high-profile lawsuit between Champagne Louis Roederer, the maker of Cristal, which sells for $300 a bottle, and Spanish cava maker Jaume Serra, which makes Cristalino for about $10.

Among Roederer’s charges were that Jaume Serra was trading on the Cristal name, misusing it and confusing people as to which was which. Another argument was that Cristalino sales had accelerated to the point of exceeding those of Cristal — no surprise there, considering the price difference — and that Jaume Serra had purposely been closing the quality gap, a further indication that the cava maker was jumping into Roederer’s turf and its product name, Roederer alleged.

The judge in the case agreed with much of Roederer’s complaint and ordered Jaume Serra to change the label name, the typeface, and the label color. Now, the name Cristalino cannot appear on the label alone, but the full name Jaume Serra Cristalino in other colors and typeface is allowed

The connection between France and Spain and sparking wine goes back to the late 1800s, when the founder of another well-known cava, Codorníu, brought the grapes to Spain and started a small industry for what, until recently, was called Spanish champagne, or champagna. That name was abolished under the European Union rules when Spain joined it in 1986.

The term “cava,” which means cellar in Spanish, was adopted in its place. Some recommendations:

> SEGURA VIUDAS ARIA ($13): Made in the brut (dry) style by champagne methods and using three grapes native to Spain: Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. It has freshness, balance, and elegance, a deeper yellow than others, and thicker mouthfeel.

> EXTRA DE CODORNÍU BRUT NV ($8): Made in the same region, Penedes, and of the same grapes, this sparkler approaches a little more closely the champagne styles with nutty, yeast, and baked-bread characteristics.

> JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO NV ($10): Legal issues aside, Jaume Serra is very good for the money. Fresh, Granny Smith-apple and citrus tartness, and a little yeasty aroma, plus a clean, crisp finish.

> FREIXENET CORDON NEGRO BRUT ($10): One of the original cavas in the U.S. market, also made from the same grapes as the others, this one is slightly sweet, more like an extra-dry style, with similar apple flavor and fruitiness.

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