- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

I am not big on skimping when it comes to food and wine. I’ll go out of my way for a specific kind of apple, even paying an extra $1 per pound if need be.

I’ll call around town in search of a wine I enjoyed in a restaurant, and when it turns out to be $25, I might even buy it. When broken crackers come spilling out of the box across my cheese plate, I put them out for the birds and open a fresh box.

But when it comes to serving champagne to more than a modest dinner party (in my apartment that would be a table of six), I love to skimp. Why not? There are many alternatives to French champagne that are not only affordable, but good. Why spring for a $35 bottle of Veuve Clicquot because, guess what? As long as you’re pouring, no one need guess the widow in yellow wasn’t invited to your party.

Before I knew anything about sparkling wine, I, too, would seek out that yellow label at a party, and I always carted Clicquot when going to a friend’s home for a special event. Then someone poured me a glass of the Italian sparkling wine prosecco. Life would never be the same.

I liked the subtler body and lighter taste of prosecco, and I was surprised to learn that it also was affordable. At $10 to $15, it was about a third of the price of Veuve Clicquot, and I liked it more. It was friendly and playful. I didn’t feel the need to take it as seriously as I did pricier champagne. Nor did I feel guilty if I mixed it into a cocktail.

Technically, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, using the methode champenoise (champagne method) can be called champagne. There are many, but in the United States, it can be difficult to find a bottle for less than $30, although good sales can help tame the price.

The good news is that there are many sparkling wines other than French champagne. Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia and the United States, as well as other regions in France, produce some very good sparkling wines; a good number can be found for less than $15, and many are perfect for holiday gatherings.

With that much choice, there is ample reason to serve something bubbly at your next party. Sparkling wines also are perfect for mixing into cocktails. Because many are light and not terribly complex, it isn’t a crime to add a splash of liquor or a bit of fruit juice. Go ahead, play a little.

Here are some terms you will see on bottles of sparkling wine from around the world. They will help you understand how the wine might taste and what its price will be.

Blanc de blancs is a French term meaning “white of white,” and it refers to wines made entirely from chardonnay grapes. This term is used by French sparkling-wine producers outside of Champagne and also by many American producers. A blanc de blancs is usually quite light and delicate.

Blanc de noirs means “white of red” and refers to wines made from pinot noir grapes. The grape skins are removed after the juice is pressed, leaving a darker pigment to the wine, often rendering it almost pink or dark amber. Blanc de noirs is often sweeter than other sparklers, with more pronounced fruit flavor. As with blanc de blancs, the term blanc de noirs is used by both French and American producers.

Brut means a wine is very dry (not sweet). Specifically, a brut has less than 1.5 percent residual sugar.

Cava is sparkling wine from Spain, the world’s largest consumer of sparkling wines. Freixenet, one of the most recognizable brands of bubbly in its trademark black bottle, is one of the least expensive and decent bottles of sparkling wine widely available.

Cavas are made in the French style, although not exactly the methode champenoise. Most cavas are made from chardonnay grapes. Generally the wines are light and crisp, without much complexity. You will find drinkable cavas for about $10.

Cremant is a variety of sparkling wine from France’s Loire Valley.

Prosecco is Italian sparkling wine made from the grape of the same name. It comes from the Venice region in Northern Italy, and there are many producers that export to the United States, so you can get to know several of them and pick your favorite.

Prosecco is usually quite dry and light and often has a slight citrus flavor. Most prosecco falls in the $10 to $15 range. It usually is creamy and tends to have less effervescence than champagne.

Availability of specific producers’ wines can vary from state to state, but a few winemakers are well-distributed. Here is a list of widely available sparkling wines that I tasted recently with the help of a few grateful friends. We sipped for drinkability, comparative value and, of course, fun. It was a demanding task, but we made the best of it. You can do the same, whether on New Year’s Eve or any eve.

Domaine Ste. Michelle is a producer in Washington state. Its blanc de noirs is a beautifully hued sparkler with a hint of sweetness. It would be a great choice for a festive occasion and will not run more than $10.

Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut is a fresh-tasting Spanish cava that would be a good choice for mixed cocktails. It retails for about $7.

Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Mionetto comes from a producer that has been making prosecco since 1887. This is Mionetto’s flagship wine. On its own, it pairs well with food, and it is another good choice for mixing into cocktails. A bottle usually costs between $10 and $12.

Gruet Brut comes from a small winery in New Mexico. Gruet was founded in the 1980s by the children of a well-established champagne-producing family in France.

Gruet Brut was the winner of my modest tasting. It has fine bubbles and a rich complexity and is not too acidic. For something a little more creamy and fruity, try Gruet’s blanc de noirs. Both wines are less than $15.

Michel Freres Cremant de Bourgogne 2000 is from the Chablis region in France and is made in the traditional methode champenoise. It is quite crisp, with a little more acidity than some of the other wines we tasted. In this way it is similar to true champagne except that it costs a more modest $15. As with the other wines we liked, it was just what the new year ordered: a good time and a good price.

Here are some recipes for sparkling cocktails for New Year’s Eve or other occasions.

Mionetto cobbler

2 3/4-inch square chunks fresh pineapple

2 lemon wedges

2 orange wedges

3/4 ounce maraschino liqueur

4 ounces sparkling Mionetto Prosecco Brut, chilled

Pineapple for garnish

Muddle pineapple and lemon and orange wedges with liqueur (that is, mash together) in the bottom of a bar glass or measuring cup. Add ice and Mionetto Prosecco Brut. Stir gently and strain into a prosecco or other stemmed glass. Garnish with a thin strip of orange peel. Makes 1 serving.

Sparkling cosmo

Sugar

2 ounces cranberry juice

4 ounces sparkling Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut, chilled

Pour sugar onto a small plate. Wet rim of martini glass and dip into sugar. Pour cranberry juice into glass and top with sparkling wine.

Makes 1 serving.

Ritz fizz

2 to 4 ounces Freixenet Carta Nevada, chilled

Dash of fresh lemon juice

Dash of blue Curacao

Dash of nut liqueur of choice

Lemon twist

Fill sparkling-wine flute with Carta Nevada. Add lemon juice, Curacao and liqueur and stir gently. Garnish with a lemon twist. Makes 1 serving.

Poinsettia

3 ounces Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs

2 ounces cranberry or cran-raspberry juice

ounce Triple Sec

Into a sparkling-wine flute, pour Blanc de Noirs, cranberry or cran-raspberry juice and Triple Sec.

Makes 1 serving.

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