By its sheer brilliance, French Champagne often blinds us to the pleasures offered by many other fine sparkling wines, including German sekts, Italian proseccos, and California sparkling wines. Aside from costing half to two thirds as much as true French Champagne, these wines can offer a generosity of fruit and flavor that many find lacking in French Champagne.
To disparage these wines as mere Champagne substitutes would be a serious mistake. They have too much to offer in their own right. Well made German sekts offer tremendous fruity exuberance in every sip (but beware, for some of the most popular are thoroughly dull). Italian proseccos offer abundant fruit and charm, with an almost ethereal almond note on the bouquet. California's sparkling wines are perhaps the most consciously imitative of true Champagne -- no great sin, given the usually sensible pricing. Moreover, at around $10-$12, all these wines are a welcome step up from the budget Spanish sparklers, which are often either too bland or too musty tasting.
Listed hereafter are the pick of the current crop of sparkling wines from outside the French Champagne region. All were tasted from current stocks at local wholesale houses. Your retailer can order through the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Distribution in Maryland and Virginia may differ from that in the District.)
Henninger 1987 Jagersekt Riesling "Extra Trocken" ($11-$14, Germany): One taste will make you a fan of this producer's sparkling Riesling forever. Full, creamy, yet bursting with lively Riesling fruit from this producer's own vineyards in the Rheinpfalz. Though labeled extra trocken (extra dry), this is actually drier than many brut Champagnes. Equally interesting is Henninger's more austere 1986 Kallstader Annaberg Riesling Brut ($16), with no dosage whatsoever, and a stunning finish. (Terry Theise Selections, Kronheim)
Zardetto Prosecco di Conegliano Brut ($12-$14, Italy): Incredibly lively, light and bright, this seductive, fairly dry charmat-process (tank fermented) sparkler from the Veneto region is made from the native prosecco grape. It displays the prosecco's characteristic hint of almond in the bouquet and a touch of yeastiness from extended lees contact. (Wine Source)
Charbaut Fre`res 1986 Blanc de Blancs Cremant de Bourgogne ($11, France, a best buy): Charbaut is a respected Champagne house, and this offering from Burgundy is a near dead ringer for good quality nonvintage brut from the Champagne region. Made mostly from chardonnay and presumably from some pinot blanc (in some parts of Burgundy no one is really sure which clone is which), the flavors are toasty, yeasty and elegant, with the superb balance between fruit and crispness usually associated with true Champagne. (In D.C., stocked at Calvert Woodley)
Domaine Mumm "Cuve'e Napa", Domaine Mumm "Blanc de Noirs" Brut (Each $12-$15, California): Previous releases of Domaine Mumm have been good, if a bit coarse. With this year's release (which by now should be all that is found on retail shelves), Mumm has really hit the mark. As to the Cuve'e Napa Brut, the familiar pinot noir-dominated huskiness is still there, but with a new level of complexity marked by toasty, biscuity notes and a fine frothiness on the palate. The Blanc de Noirs, made only from pinot noir is huskier, fuller-flavored and a bit less restrained -- perhaps the better choice for the dinner table, whereas the brut excels as the aperitif. (Washington Wholesale)
Mention must also be made of the elegant Taittinger's Domaine Carneros and the more robustly styled Roederer Estate, both of which can sometimes be found discounted to just under $15. Both are superb and manage to graft the distinctive house styles of their French parents onto their riper, more opulent California progeny. (Forman)
Shadow Creek Blanc de Noir Brut ($10-$12, California, a best buy): Now backed by the financial muscle of the Moet Group, which also controls Domaine Chandon, Shadow Creek is aggressively seeking converts to its new image of high quality and value. An unqualified success, this offering is smooth and easy to approach, and manages to maintain a proper crispness over its generous fruit. Best of all, it totally avoids the austere blandness that mars many California sparklers -- including some of sister Domaine Chandon's nonreserve offerings. (Forman)
Travis 1985 Brut "Reserve" ($13, California): Big, generous and yeasty, this relatively new entrant will never stand accused of the blandness. The generous pinot blanc and chardonnay fruit is married well to the acidity, yielding a wine with power and finesse. (Wine Source)
Saint-Hillaire 1982 Blanquette de Limoux Blanc du Blancs ($10, France): The Limoux region claims to have given Dom Perignon the idea of making sparkling wine. True or not, there is no doubt that this is an extremely well made wine, very creamy and smooth, with complex yeasty notes. From the 1982 vintage, it's also one of the few moderately priced sparklers that offer the added finesse of bottle age. (Ginday)
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut ($7-$9, Washington, a best buy): Especially when discounted to $7, as it often is, this could be the best value in sparkling wine on the market. Loaded with husky pinot noir-dominated flavors, it's frothy exuberance more than makes up for what it may ultimately lack in refinement. (Forman)
Von Schleinitz 1988 Riesling Sekt Brut (Koberner Schlossberg) ($12, Germany): Bursting with apple-like Riesling fruit, moderately dry, refreshing and charming. (Terry Theise Selections, Kronheim)
Touton Rose' Brut "Tete Noir" ($10, France): Spicy notes from the mourvedre grape set this apart from the mass of mid-priced rose' sparklers. Made in Provence, home of the world's best still rose's, this captures the charm of those wines with the added appeal of tiny bubbles dancing across the palate. (Laurent Selections)
Schaller Cremant d'Alsace "Extra Brut" ($11, France): Husky, out-front flavors, with crisp acidity, dry finish. Not like French Champagne -- but not intended to be. (Kacher Selections, Washington Wholesale)
Brut Dargent "Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc" ($10, France): Crisp, fresh, and light as a cloud, this budget sparkler from the Jura captures the much of the magic of true Champagne. Light, faintly appley flavors reflect that this is 100 percent Chardonnay. (Forman)
Black Orchid Blanc de Blancs ($7.50, France): A blend of 65 percent chenin blanc, 20 percent chardonnay, and 15 percent ugni blanc, this easy-going sparkler offers much soft fruit, and a smooth, round finish. (International)
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.