By Rick Riozza

Relief is on the way—and Godspeed indeed!  In our last column, we anticipated good news by reviewing the wonderful French Champagne cheer we enjoy in our dreams.  And there’s no reason to stop the cheering as we continue on to the New Year’s celebration.

Value-priced high-quality alternatives to Champagne have never been more plentiful.  Bubbly, sparklers, sparkling wine—call them what you wish, but they are always a celebratory quaff one way or another as an aperitif, toasts & cheers, or at the dinner table pairing with a range of foods.

Sparklers are now in the repertoire of most wineries around the world; and as sparkling wines have gained so much in popularity, there are an increasing number of producers who focus solely in this category.  And the prices of these bubblies are incredibly reasonable.  Last week we didn’t care about the costs of the wonderful French stuff; this week, we’re kind of looking out—perhaps, in view to grabbing more bottles at a much lower price.


Actually—throughout this past year we’ve covered and recommended a slew of very good sparklers at very good prices, and they’re still a great deal for the New Year’s pop!

A couple of months ago we reviewed the Gruet Brut Sparkling wine with its French roots and winemaker with its vineyard and production facilities in New Mexico—thus qualifying as “an American bubbly”.  And at only $16 it continues to be a great buy! “The non-vintage Gruet Brut shows lemon and sweet bready aromas on the nose. Flavors of apple and pear with a toastiness throughout. There’s also white peach and lime zest that finishes with crisp medium acidity.”

Well this time, I’ve just tried the Gruet Blanc de Blancs ($18) and it is a delicious bubbly with everything going for it!  The Blanc de Blancs offers abundant aromas and flavors recalling sweet apples, pears and citrus. The three years of aging has contributed a pronounced classic toastiness with accents of roasted almonds and minerals. The palate is creamy and long, and the style is elegant, dry and crisp, with great complexity. I   think it sells at the Ralphs in Indio and in Palm Desert.  I’ll try to get it in here in the Palm Springs store.

Another fabulous sparkler we’ve just written on is the Faire La Fête Brut. It’s one of the tastiest sparklers on the market for just under $20—indeed, it’s one of the best buys around for the quality.  This Champagne-alternative shows aromas and flavors of baked apple, white cherry, and lemon meringue, along with great mouthfeel. Encore—Encore!

By the way—Faire La Fête is in the sparkling category known in France as a Crémant. As many of us know, Champagne can only come from designated vineyards within the Champagne region in northern France; Crémant sparkling wines can only come from specific regions, too, although many are more famous for producing still wines.

Champagne and Crémant wines get their sparkle from the “traditional method”, which involves creating the conditions for a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. Bottles of Crémant and Champagne must also be aged on lees for minimum periods, which can bring extra body and complexity to the wines.   Crémant sparkling wines can be a delicious, affordable alternative to Champagne, i.e., they can taste very comparable and are so reasonably priced.  Always be on the look-out for a Crémant on the bubbly label.

As the Faire La Fête is a Crémant de Limoux (from the Limoux region in France), a very popular Crémant d’Alsace is a couple of our favorite sparkling recommendations: the Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut, and, Brut Rosé, both sell for around $22. The Brut is produced from 100% Pinot Blanc and shows refreshing touches of lime and lemon zest on the nose. The palate adds a mellow ripe-apple note, helped along by a creamy texture. The long finish is clean and dry. The very popular Brut Rosé is pure Pinot Noir with a panoply of aromas and flavors of dried fruit, apricot, citrus, orange peel, and herb notes. It’s got good acidity and of course is bolder and more lush than its Brut sibling.

So you get the idea that a Crémant is a very wise and tasty buy.  For example, a Crémant  from the Loire Valley (yes—Crémant de Loire),  is the value sparkler Louise d’Estrée Brut ($9). The nose is crisp and clean lemon, melon, citrus aromas, and flavors of ripe peach, tart lemon, and a finish of grapefruit.  The acidity is well focused and the finish is nice and full.

The Louise d” Estrée Brut can be found at Trader Joe’s, and, while you’re shopping there, look also for the Opaline Pinot Noir Brut Rosé ($8). The nose is a little black cherry, a touch of bakery bread, some mineral water, and cherry cough drops. This is a crisp, lightly fruity sparkling wine, not particularly complex, but still tasty. It starts with cherry, with a hit of minerality, and strawberry. There is a little tangerine on the mid-palate, along with soft vanilla. The acidity is well-balanced.  This light-bubbly wine is very pleasant, an easy sipper, and a good cheer!

The Opaline does have a very nice bottle and makes for a nice neighborly wine gift. The glass is prism-cut and the shape reminds one of the type of bottle they use in Provence.

And finally, if you wish to “step up” a bit at $20 a bottle, a delicious brut rosé from California that we recommend is the non-vintage Schartffenberger Brut Rosé Excellence. This crisp and classy wine owns strawberry and persimmon aromas with raspberry and white peach flavors; great balance of flavors and acidity. Tastes like a hundred bucks.  Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!—Cheers!

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