Dining

Drink: Bubbly on a Budget

No need to splurge this New Year's Eve.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

As the recession lingers on and on (and on), many people are experiencing budget bummers—the looming dread of tightening the belt yet another month, foregoing those luxuries that make one say, "Mmmm!"

Sparkling wine might seem an extraneous purchase, yet it can be sanity-saving—the difference between a stellar day and a crappy one. So perhaps it's time to loosen the purse strings just a little bit and party again (while keep the spending to a low roar). It is possible to put bubbly in your buggy, even during these dark days.

Rap stars may have popularized the higher end $200 French champagnes, further putting this recession-flogged wine on a pedestal. But over the past several years, Italian Proseccos and Spanish Cavas, satisfactory substitutes for the French stuff, have increased their market share. Selection is at an all-time high, and these wines often cost under $20 per bottle.

Most French champagnes and American sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes (a third variety, Pinot Meunier, is often blended in). But Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava producers use indigenous grapes that are easier and less expensive to grow.

The Italians turn to a perfumey grape called Prosecco for this namesake bubbly. It's lightly fizzy and refreshing and can be absolutely beautiful— and, occasionally, complete rubbish. To avoid the wineries looking to make a quick buck, shopping by name or specific region is imperative. Look for those from Veneto in northeastern Italy, and the sub-regions of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.

The main reason Prosecco is less expensive stems from the way its makers create the bubbles. The costly Methode Champenoise ("in the method of Champagne"), the way most bubbles are born, involves fermenting a second time in the bottle and aging for many months. But the fizz in Prosecco is introduced using the Charmat method. The wine is pumped into a huge tank, then additional yeast and sugar are added to start the sparkling second fermentation. Then the tank is sealed to capture the carbon dioxide that creates the bubbles.

Unromantic, yes, but the cost savings allow us to guzzle Prosecco with decadent abandon. If you have a sweet tooth, look for labels reading Extra Dry (go figure: this means it's less dry). Brut Prosecco is similar to the drier Brut champagnes.

Enough of Italy and on to Spain.

Cava, named after the caves in which this sparkling wine is aged, is Spain's answer to champagne. Producers create the bubbles with Methode Tradicional (the Spanish counterpart of Methode Champenoise), yet the flavor of Cava can be earthier and less refined because they use indigenous Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello grapes. But that doesn't mean Spanish bubbly is less refreshing or celebratory; it's just different. And Cava has a nice ring to it, no? It will impress your date.

Tightly regulated under Spanish wine laws, Cava is principally produced in the Penedes region in east central Spain. You'll find both white and ros? versions, with varying degrees of sweetness (from driest to sweetest): Brut Nature (rarely seen in the U.S.), Brut, Semi (or Demi) Sec, or Dulce (Dulsec).

A bit of exploration will go a long way toward finding an affordable sparkling wine that will dazzle your taste buds without requiring a second mortgage. So try a few, and who knows? You may find the perfect bubbly."A few producers to look for:

Mionetto Prosecco Brut, $12

Sorelle Bronca Prosecco Brut, $15

Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $15

Codorniu Pinot Noir Brut Cava, $14

Segura Viudas Aria, $12

Cristalino Brut Cava, $12

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