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No Champagnes here.
No Champagnes here.
Alex Ulreich

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3 Unsung Champagne Alternatives That Aren’t Cava or Prosecco

They’re affordable, too

Think sparkling wine for a minute. France's Champagne, Catalonia, Spain's cava, and northern Italy's prosecco plusfor red wine diehardslambrusco likely come to mind. While these wines are all synonymous with specific regions, other great (and affordable!) sparklers exist out there just waiting to be discovered. Herein, three overlooked palate-expanding fizzies that are well worth knowing, and drinking.

First, Shampanskoye, a Champagne-inspired Russian bubbly initially produced in Soviet times and now a national source of pride. This Eastern ode to a Western love has been a steady part of Russian life for close to a century, made in four levels of sweetness, including a Brut. Next, a northern Italian wine from Verona with cold weather bite. Think, tangy juice favored with almost ripe pineapple and zesty lemon, brightened by hardy bubbles and sharp acidity that’s the precise counterpart to the area’s ubiquitous creamy, fat-flecked, unabashedly pork-y sorpressa. And last, Lambrusco’s southern cousin: a frizzante, or softly sparkling, Neapolitan wine with a near-black hue and a round, earthy body. Contrary to the well-founded Italian preference for beer with pizzaand perhaps inevitably if one considers the area’s most well-known foodthis wine tastes delicious, even to Italians, with a margherita pizza.

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: Abrau-Durso Winery
Wine: Russian Sparkling Wine, Brut, NV
From: Krasnodar Krai, Russia
Retail: $9

Instead of Champagne, Shampanskoye. Though the term is theoretically being outlawed in favor of stamping "Russian Sparkling Wine" on labels these days (in response to righteous French ire), Russia and France have a long shared history when it comes to bubbles. Tsar Nicholas II, the last man to hold that title, was said to be particularly fond of Champagne, importing 800,000 bottles annually, in a style dosaged especially for Russian tastes. At up to 330 grams per liter of residual sugar, Champagne brought in to the country was more than ten times sweeter than bottles sent to other markets. During the Revolution, and as Russia was shaped into the USSR, a new wine market was born. Hailing from wine-loving Georgia, Soviet Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin decreed the winery a state affair, its bottles rebranded as the people’s everyday drink. In order to make Sovetskoye Shampanskoye truly available for everyone, in the 1950s, the more costly méthode champenoise was overturned by a brand new Soviet method: the patented continuous-flow process, in which base wine moves slowly through a system of tanks, interacting with yeasts present in each one to produce bubble-making carbon dioxide at a fraction of the traditional method’s cost. Consequently, wine became cheaper, easier to produce, and quality diminished. Today, Russian sparklers are still made using the continuous method, in addition to méthode champenoise and Charmat.

The village of Abrau-Durso, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, is part of Russia's most esteemed wine country, with its eponymous winemaking estate founded in 1870 (the winery’s label makes gilded reference to that proud local history) by Emperor Alexander II, so that the Champagne-smitten court could lay claim to its own sparkling wines. Then, Russian "Champagne" was made with guidance from French winemakers, using méthode traditionelle to rival France’s. Under Stalin, Abrau-Durso became a state institution, continuing sparkling production with the new Soviet process. Now, the estate has been revived once again, crafting Russian Sparkling Wine in dry, sweet, and rosé styles, with flavor and price points that would make the General Secretary proud. The hearty-bubbled Brut, composed of chardonnay, riesling, and sauvignon blanc grapes, is simple, big, and toasty, with green apricot, stone, and tarragon notes. It wouldn’t be out of place with potato dumplings and cheese sauces.

Producer: Cantina Franchetto
Wine: Durello di Lessini, NV
From: Verona, Italy
Retail: $14

Just east of the Prosecco-producing towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, among the volcanic and limestone hills of northeastern Italy's Soave, lies a sharper, fizzier DOC. Durello di Lessini is made of the durella grape and owes its bite to that berry's characteristic tartness and tenacity, which are especially suited to sparkling wines. While the first verifiable mention of durella—a vigorous, thick-skinned, and late-ripening grape—appears in 1825, some believe it led previous lives as the 13th century's uva durasena and Ancient Rome's duracina grapes. It’s worth noting that in Italian dura means hard; in Durello, the grape’s traits are brought to sparkling fruition via méthode traditionelle—the hands-on, Champagne way in which a base wine undergoes a second, fizz-granting fermentation in-bottle. The result is a highly acidic, delicately fruity wine that is an ardent companion to cured meats, sharp cheeses, and the pungently vinegared vegetables of northern Italian giardiniera.

Cantina Franchetto, located in rural Terrossa, tucked between provinces Verona and Vicenza, is the small, traditionally-minded project of the Franchetto family who has lived there for more than a century. Once table grape growers, in 1936 the Franchettos turned to vinifiable ones, experimenting with ancient varieties like dall'Ora and delizia while also tending to varieties like durella and Soave’s garganega, both of which have deep historical ties to that land. In 1982, Franchetto became a cantina, literally winemaker’s cellar, producing its own juice of the grapes it grew, working continuously to this day. Its Lessini Durello is made bubbly with in-bottle fermentation, hand-riddling like the best of Champagnes, for a sharp, tangy, and complex wine with lemon, peach, and hazelnut flavors.

Producer: Cantine Federiciane Monteleone
Wine: Penisola Sorrentina Gragnano, DOC, 2014
From: Campania, Italy
Retail: $17

Campania, the southern Italian region that boasts Naples as its capital, has had global recognition for its wines since Roman days when it produced the empire’s most celebrated casks. The chocolate-y and plummy-tasting aglianico grape, dark-skinned, capable of great aging, takes to Campania’s volcanic soils enthusiastically, yielding full-bodied, bottle-aged wines in the Taurasi DOCG. But sometimes the grape’s potential for freshness is exhibited, too. In Gragnano (a word once locally synonymous with natural wine), a sub-zone designation of the Penisola Sorrentina DOC near Capri and the Amalfi Coast, aglianico is combined with piedirosso (a brightly aromatic red-skinned and -stemmed grape) and with lightness-granting sciascinoso, for a low-alcohol base wine. This blend is then made frizzante, or gently bubbly, by the metodo Martinotti, Italian fizziness produced by batch-based autoclaves. Smoky and fresh with lively acidity, Gragnano is for pizza, nuts, dried fruit, and cheeses, but, importantly, it is also poured alongside fish by the area's most regionally-minded.

Like its capital city Naples, Campania is an area of proud, tough, long-storied inhabitants who pay close attention to the food and drink born of its fertile volcanic soil and water-and forest-rich landscape. Imagine the thinking, then, along its treacherously rocky Sorrentine Peninsula, where Homer placed his Odyssey-ian sirens, and you’ll have some understanding of the commitment Cantine Federiciane Monteleonea fourth-generation enterprisehas made to Gragnano, the 50-year-old darling of its lineup. A deep dark ruby, this dense bubbly is a mix of baker’s chocolate and black fruit, with damp earth, geraniums and violets, black olives, sweet tomato jam and, even, freshly baked cheese.

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