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Where were you when you learned that it’s only Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region of France? This fact is widely known, but it’s a bit of an oversimplification. In France, the practices of wine regions are regulated by law. If a winemaker doesn’t follow the rules of a region, they legally can’t label their wine with that region’s name.
To be the real deal, Champagne can only use three grapes: Chardonnay, pinot noir, and petit meunier. It also must be fermented in the traditional méthode champenoise, which creates the carbonation in Champagne by fermenting the wine twice: once in oak barrels and again in the wine bottle. Whether or not it’s legally defined as Champagne, sparkling wine is fun, delicious, and easy to pair with food. Although it’s great for a party, it’s my personal opinion we should all be drinking it more often.
Best 100% Chardonnay Bottle: Ruinart Blanc De Blancs
A Champagne made from 100 percent chardonnay is called a “Blanc de Blanc,” meaning white from white. This is a white wine made entirely from white grapes. Blanc de blanc Champagnes can showcase a wide array of flavors, from baked apple and buttery bread to fine minerality and white peaches. In younger bottles, you might get some delicate white flower flavor as well.
This example comes from Ruinart, the oldest house in Champagne. Expect this wine to be very vibrant and fragrant in the glass, with bright citrus and white flower aromas. On the palate, this wine is full of fruit with an enjoyable effervescence. This light bottle is well suited for spring or summer sipping. It would be a lovely pairing with light appetizers, or throughout a meal with shellfish or other seafood.
Best 100% Pinot Noir Bottle: André Clouet Silver Brut
A Champagne fermented entirely from pinot noir or petit meunier is referred to as a “Blanc de Noir,” or “white from dark.” These bottles of white wine are made entirely from red grapes. After the grapes are pressed the skins are separated from the juices so that the fermenting wine does not extract any color or tannis from the skins. Blanc de noir wines are more robust and full-bodied than their Chardonnay counterparts. Tasters often describe black fruits and dark berries, as well as the classic yeasty flavor of Champagne.
This example comes from Andre Clouet. It’s brut nature, meaning that it’s as dry as a Champagne can be. This is also a grower Champagne.
Best Under $50 Alternative: Bellavista Alma Cuvee Brut
Franciacorta is a sparkling wine from Lombardy, Italy. In 1967, Franciacorta became the first region in Italy to specify that their wines must be produced with the méthode champenoise. This treatment sets it apart from prosecco, which can come from a variety of regions across Italy, and is generally fermented using the charmat or tank method. Although these methods will create carbonation in wine, they won’t yield the complex flavors and deep color found in a traditionally fermented bottle. If you’re looking for a substitute for Champagne, Franciacorta is the way to go.
This bottle from Bellavista is a chardonnay-led blend. It’s full of tangy citric acidity and ripe fruit, with hints of green apple and baked apple. The bubbles are fine and lively.
Best for Mimosas: Francois Montand Brut de Blanc
If you’re throwing orange juice into the mix, it’s not the time to be spending an arm and a leg on a complex bottle of beautifully made wine. Look for a non-champagne sparkling wine full of light fruit. The most important thing is to choose a wine that has a good flavor. Avoid mass-market bottles that may have unpleasant notes, and stay away from off-dry bottles; the orange juice will bring enough sweetness here.
This example from Francoi Motand is made from a blend of colombard, ugni blanc & chardonnay. The wine shows light citrus flavors that will complement the other cocktail ingredients.
Best Affordable American Alternative: Gruet Brut
This lovely sparkler may come from New Mexico, but it’s made with French sensibilities. The Gruet family started out making wine in the Champagne region of France, but grew frustrated by the limited land availability and astronomical prices. While looking to expand, Gilbert Greut caught wind of favorable conditions in the southwestern United States. The Gruet Winery released its first U.S. made wine in 1989, and has garnered acclaim since then.
The Gruet Winery adheres to many of the practices of the Champagne region, including fermenting with the méthode champenoise, which gives this bottle a lovely note of brioche in addition to tart fruit and bright effervescence. Widely available and extremely enjoyable, the Gruet Brut is priced under $20, making it possible to enjoy a delicious sparkling wine without a special occasion.
Best Alternative From France: Philippe Foreau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Brut
Want a bottle from France without the hefty price tag? There’s plenty of exciting stuff happening outside of Champagne. Try looking toward Vouvray. There, you’ll find lively sparkling wines from chennin blanc.
This bottle from Philippe Foreau is certified organic, meaning the grapes were grown without pesticides or herbicides. It’s made from 100 percent chenin blanc, a grape known for its ripe yellow fruit and occasionally wooly flavors. This bottle is full of nectarine, peach, and yellow apple, with a beautiful aroma of white flowers. Its crisp acidity and fine minerality would make it an excellent pairing for shellfish or any salty snack.
Best Grower Champagne: Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve Champagne
Grower champagnes have become exceedingly trendy in the past few years, and with good reason. These producers tend to be smaller, making fewer wines with more labor-intensive methods. The result is a unique bottle with a true sense of terroir.
Bereche et Fils is run by a father and two sons. Their wines are complex and lively. The brut reserve is made from a classic Champagne blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and petit meunier. It’s aged in old oak barrels, which gives it a round and mellow hint of spice. Pair that with racy acidity, red fruit flavors, and fine minerality, and you have a wine that will make anyone happy.
Best Rosé Champagne: Pierre Moncuit Grand Cru Cuvee Brut Rose
Has the answer to, "Would you like a little rosé Champagne?" ever been anything other than a resounding yes? What could be more fun? What could be more beautiful?
This pale pink example comes from Pierre Moncuit. Don’t be deceived by its delicate appearance! Even though it’s light and pretty, this is a serious wine. Made from 80 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Pinot Noir, this wine shows both light white fruits and beautiful texture. It would be delicious on its own, but also has the backbone to stand up to a meal. This bottle would be an excellent pairing for any light roasted meat, particularly if it’s served with a fruity component.
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Madeline Muzzi is a food writer and wine expert. In 2015, she completed an advanced course in wine at the International Culinary Center in New York City and passed the test to become a certified sommelier. She loves sparkling wine and doesn't stress out about pairings.