Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on March 9, 2016 1 Comment Is there any other sound in the world which signifies success and celebration quite as clearly as the fat ‘pop’ of a Champagne cork bursting out of a bottle-top? For centuries, Champagne has been enjoyed and drunk heartily by those who know that sparkling wine represents all that is fun, frivolous, and aspirational in society, ever since Father Dom Perignon (supposedly) began selling his apparently defective fizzy wine to English aristocrats as a new type of alcoholic beverage. Sparkling wine is astoundingly popular today, and over the past economically uncertain decade, sales of fizz have increased while sales of non-sparkling reds, whites and rosés have slumped somewhat. It seems that the aspirational pull of bubbles in a tall glass outweighs the tightened budgets experienced across the world, and it is almost remarkable that really, only one region has continued to reign supreme over all others in global sales of fizzy wine, which is of course Champagne. Are You Drinking The Best Champagne? This is surprising for many reasons, and not only because Champagne is–as a rule–considerably more expensive than similar wines, produced using identical methods and from almost identical grape varietals found in neighboring regions of France and elsewhere around the world, but also because recent poor vintages and an apparent drop in quality of Champagne wines has had no negative impact on overall sales figures. Such is the power of a successful brand; people will continue to buy Champagne at inflated prices partly because the name itself is synonymous with quality and celebration, and people will continue because they are unaware of any real alternatives, or are unfamiliar with other sparkling wines which can offer the same (or better) tasting notes and general enjoyment at a fraction of the price. Lesser Known Examples The vast majority of Champagnes are made from a carefully balanced blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grape varietals, which together, bring the classic clean, sharp flavors of the black grapes with the creamy, biscuit-like nature of the Chardonnay in the glass. Overall, it is these blended Champagnes which people go for, as they are more widely available and associated with the largest, most successful wineries. However, the Blanc de Noirs Champagnes of smaller wineries–which are made from a blend only of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and no Chardonnay–are beginning to be noticed more and more, and are beginning to detract the attention away from the traditional blended numbers due to their stronger, more vibrant character, and lower price tags. Often, the lesser known the winery of the Champagne region, the more characterful the wine, as the smaller producers have more to prove, and less emphasis on uniformity and reliability than the huge, world-beating labels. The Prosecco Effect Surely the big success story in sparkling wine of the past decade has been Prosecco, the Italian fizz that has picked itself up from being a cheap-and-cheerful bit of bubbly to a serious contender on the global wine lists, thanks to a more stringent set of laws governing its method of production and standards of excellence, as well as increased interest in its differences from Champagne rather than its similarities to its more famous cousin. Prosecco is, in general, a more light-hearted drink which pairs more happily with a wider range of foods, while maintaining its air of sophistication and celebration. At a fraction of the price, good quality, interestingly soft and fruity Proseccos have become the go-to fizzy wine for people around the world for everything from celebrations to lunchtime drinks. However, there are other Italian sparkling wines out there for those seeking a little different, including the fabulous Franciacorta DOCG wines, which are wonderfully crisp and dry, and are made using the same methods you’ll find in Champagne, and have a similar blend (Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Blanco) and yet don’t have the often slightly unpleasantly yeasty character of Champagne wines. Further north, you’ll find the appellation of Asti DOCG, a low-alcohol sparkler which is packed full of soft, peachy flavors and is a perfect end to many a meal. Other Countries, Other Styles Over in Spain, the key sparking wine is Cava, named after the cellars and caves in which it is traditionally fermented (apparently, the humidity levels in the natural geological features help bring out the best flavors), and like other international fizzy wines, Cava was regarded as a poor man’s Champagne for a very long time. Again, this demonstrates the power of the Champagne brand, but Cava’s poor reputation was also due to the fact that before a decade or two ago, there were no real rules governing its production, and the standards of wines bearing the name ‘Cava’ were somewhat unreliable. However, thanks to new laws and regulations, Spain’s producers of sparkling wine have really upped their game to compete on the international market, and results have been extremely promising. No longer the butt of cruel jokes, Cava is being regarded as a serious player in the global sparkling wine debate, and again, for less than half the price of a bottle of Champagne, truly excellent, exciting and flavorful examples can be found at most reputable wine stores. Sparkling wines have always been associated most strongly with cooler and damper climates, and it is because of this that some of the most interesting modern examples have been coming out of Northern Europe and the colder regions of the Americas. Even England, which has had a largely unsuccessful wine industry over the 20th century, has begun winning awards for sparkling wine thanks to renewed interest in German, Austrian and Alsation wine styles which are far more suiting of the country’s climate and terroir. The best English sparkling wines are really something else — stony, flinty and crystal clear numbers which bring out the best of the white grape varietals used in their blend. So, when next arranging a celebration, a party, or a fun meal with friends, don’t worry about shelling out for a bottle of Champagne’s big sellers — look elsewhere, save a bit of money and discover something a bit more interesting.