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Cheap Sparkling Wines Buying Guide

Cheap Champagne -- does such a thing exist? Officially, Champagne is sparkling wine produced according to a traditional method, known as methode Champenoise, first adopted in the Champagne region of France. Laws that govern the labeling of wines in the European Union are quite strict, and while many producers follow the methode Champenoise, this process alone does not technically produce Champagne.

Only sparkling wines that are produced in Champagne, adhere to this process, and meet rigid quality standards may be called Champagne (with a capital "C"). Other bottles of bubbly, although similar in appearance and perhaps in effect, fall into the category of sparkling wine. If you're not prepared to shell out a minimum $20 for a bottle of the real stuff, you'll have to make do with Champagne-style sparkling wine.

Some sparkling wines produced in California may be legally labeled champagne (lower-case "c"), but in general, sparkling wines bear names that are identified with their country of origin, such as Cava from Spain and Asti or Prosecco from Italy. French sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region are distinguished by the terms "Mousseux" or "Cremant." But does Champagne by any other name taste as sweet? Looking past the label is one of the best methods for keeping cash in your pocket and off the counter. Still, you'll want some assurances that the bottle of budget bubbly you're buying is worth drinking.

The best cheap sparkling wines we found are Roederer Estate Brut (starting at $19) from California and Cupcake Vineyards Prosecco (starting at $14) from Italy, followed by Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut (starting at $14), from southern France, and California's Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut (starting at $14). All four deliver satisfying flavor, mouth feel, and finish. One cheap variety that doesn't appeal is Korbel Brut (starting at $10), owing in part to its tart, sour aftertaste.

In addition to our top picks, frugal consumers might consider other such as Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry (starting at $10), a Cava from Spain produced according to the methode Champenoise; Barefoot Bubbly Extra Dry (starting at $9) from California; and Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose (starting at $18) from France.

What We Looked For

Bottle or Tank Fermentation.

The making of the best sparkling wines begins with grapes picked early in the season, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels are higher. The fruit then proceeds through two fermentations, the first resulting in a base wine that is combined with base wines made from other grape varietals to form a cuvee, which undergoes a second fermentation. This is when bubbles of carbon dioxide are created and the wines begin to diverge in terms of taste and quality.

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In the traditional method, fermentation occurs in the bottle after the addition of yeast and sugar. Alternatively, producers use large tanks for the second-stage fermentation. Much of the sparkling wine produced in Italy is tank-fermented, as are most cheap sparkling wines produced in the U.S. The length of this secondary fermentation varies and affects the quality and price of the resulting sparkler. In general, tank fermentation is faster than bottle fermentation and tends to produce lighter, fruitier, less costly wines. Another means of producing bubbles calls for injecting carbon dioxide into the base wine through a process similar to that used for soft drinks. This approach creates large bubbles that dissolve quickly and is generally considered to yield lower-quality results.

Brut or Extra Dry.

Champagne and sparkling wines are rated by level of sweetness. "Brut natural" refers to wines with less than 3 grams of sugar per liter; extra brut contains up to 6 grams of sugar per liter; brut has up to 12 grams; and extra dry is a touch sweeter than that. The sweetest sparkling wines are sec, demi-sec, and doux. These days the most popular is brut, which provides a balance between dry and sweet; extra dry is also common. Most of the best budget sparkling wines we researched settle in the brut realm. Although the label on Cupcake Vineyards Prosecco doesn't explicitly indicate the sweetness level, it's listed as containing 1.5 grams of residual sugar per 100 ml, or 15 grams per liter, placing it squarely in the "extra dry" style.

Sparkling Wine Reviews

In our research we relied heavily on retail sites such as Wine.com and Wine Access, which compile customer reviews and expert ratings from outlets such as Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits. We also consulted the enthusiast social networking site Snooth, community tasting notes on Cellar Tracker, and blogs such as Serious Eats. Oftentimes our information came from roundups of the best sparkling wines by expert sources and mainstream media such as The New York Times, rather than reviews of individual wines.

The comments we read online indicate that experts and consumers tend to favor products that closely imitate the qualities of real Champagne. Sparkling wine reviews are generally laudatory in regard to our top picks. Remember, though, there's no substitute for personal taste. Use reviews and tasting notes as a guide, but trust your own palate. You can certainly find an inexpensive bubbly that satisfies on a $20 budget.

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