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Sparkling Wine for Modern Times

November 18, 2021

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Lizzie Munro


Sparkling Wine for Modern Times

November 18, 2021

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Twelve back-pocket bottles under $35 prove just how freewheeling and robust the world of bubbly wine has become.

Even before COVID-19, there was always something a little hypocritical about the ritual of the annual holiday sparkling wine roundup. All year long, the industry would drive home that familiar refrain about liberating the style from its age-old holiday pigeonhole and appreciating it like any other form of wine. But without fail, come the first whiff of autumn, that logic went straight out the window.

What else could we have expected? No matter how persuasively the industry argued, the style’s associations with celebration and luxury remained hard-wired into our brains. Such has been the outsize cultural influence of the world’s most famous and widely imitated sparkling wine. There’s no need to clarify which one, since it has forever been synonymous with the entire category. But if Champagne’s centuries of aspirational marketing spin still loom large in the collective subconscious, the region’s monopoly over all things bubbly is finally imploding.

Maybe the pandemic helped to accelerate a shift that had already been a while in the making. After all, the past two years have given us few reasons to feel festive—and yet even under quarantine, sparkling wine sales continued to skyrocket. Take it from someone who spent a year in lockdown writing a whole book about the stuff. Bubbles can be whatever we want them to be—especially now that we have more fizzy options at our disposal than ever before.

Evidence of this shift is all around us. Just pop into your neighborhood wine shop and poke around. You’ll quickly discover that the sparkling universe we inhabit today has grown every bit as vast as the world of wine itself, spanning an eclectic mix of growing regions, grapes and production methods, from Savoyard crémant to Czech pét-nat. 

With this liberation, the once-obligatory Champagne toast can now be swapped with any number of low-key options, whether sealed under a cork or a crown cap. Priced under $35 per bottle and broken down into four user-friendly categories, the following selections have been deliberately tailored to an impromptu, choose-your-own-adventure approach to the holidays. Though varied in style and aesthetic, they’re the sort of all-purpose bottles you won’t regret keeping in rotation over the weeks ahead and well into 2022—whatever it may bring.

Not Above a Spritz, But Great On Its Own

Mongarda Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut

The glut of anonymous industrial versions makes it easy to forget that Prosecco is an actual place—one where sparkling wine has been produced on a human scale for centuries. Located in the classic Conegliano-Valdobbiadene zone, the family-run Mongarda estate is one of a growing number of producers working to reclaim Prosecco’s soulful side. An unusual blend of glera (the region’s key grape) with the obscure verdiso and bianchetta, their entry-level brut pays homage to the heirloom varieties that once flourished in the area’s vineyards. Bright, floral and softly bubbly, it’s a classic example of Prosecco’s past pointing the way to the future.

  • Price: $17

Sidónio de Sousa Branco Bairrada Brut Nature

Located in a remote corner of northwestern Portugal between the chilly Atlantic coast (near one of the world’s prime surf spots) and the hillsides of the Dão, the Bairrada region has recently enjoyed a vogue for tannic, long-lived reds based on the nebbiolo-like baga grape. It was here, however, that Portugal produced its first Champagne-method sparkling wine in 1890, a tradition that continues today. This clean, citrusy blend of Bairrada’s native bical, maria gomes and arinto grapes packs more complexity into a sub-$20 package than anyone could reasonably expect.

  • Price: $16

Jo Landron Atmosphères Méthode Traditionnelle

In addition to owning one of the most impressive mustaches in French wine, Jo Landron of the iconic Domaine de la Louvetrie has secured his legacy as a driving force behind the current Muscadet revival. Though he built his reputation on his transparent, site-specific Muscadets, Landron also tends a few hectares of biodynamically farmed folle blanche, pinot noir and chardonnay to produce his crowd-pleasing Atmosphères bottling, a perennial Punch favorite. Channeling the same acidity and mineral aspect found across his still wines, it’s consistently one of the best bargains to be found.

  • Price: $23

Gives Champagne a Run For Its Money

Bruno Dangin Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée Blanche

For the sake of clarity, giving Champagne a run for its money doesn’t necessarily mean imitating Champagne, but in this case it’s impossible to avoid the comparison. Sourced from 30-year-old pinot noir vines in the tiny abbey of Molesme, just below the border with Champagne’s Aube subregion, this is a textured, savory blanc de noirs that even experienced tasters would mistake for grower Champagne. Bearing the mark of the same chalky limestone soil, it’s zingy and alive with crunchy red apples, plus a signature whiff of pastry dough thanks to 30 months of lees aging.

  • Price: $28

Lambert de Seyssel Le Petit Royal Blanc de Blancs Mousseux

Once upon a time, the unassuming Savoyard hamlet of Seyssel enjoyed considerable renown for its Champagne-method “Seyssel mousseux,” a supposed favorite of Queen Victoria during her frequent visits to the local spas. Those days are long gone, but today vigneron Gérard Lambert of Lambert de Seyssel has revived the historic Royal Seyssel sparkling wine label, originally launched in 1901. A mix of the area’s indigenous molette and altesse grapes—70 and 30 percent, respectively—his entry-level “Le Petit Royal Blanc” instantly conjures its Alpine origins: It’s at once brisk and floral yet textured, with the same glacial purity that is a hallmark of all Savoie whites.

  • Price: $22

SoloUva Franciacorta Brut

Between the thought-provoking wines he produces with Nico Danesi under the Arcari + Danesi label and his more affordable “SoloUva” line made in collaboration with Andrea Rudelli, winemaker Giovanni Arcari has made it his life’s mission to re-imagine Franciacorta not as Italy’s answer to Champagne, but as an expression of the hillside vineyards of Lombardy. His chardonnay-based SoloUva (or “Just Grapes”) blanc de blancs offers a minimalist take on the metodo classico style of production, using frozen grape must of the same vintage to kick-start the secondary fermentation. Round yet racy with a dollop of ripe yellow pear, it represents a radical rethinking of the Champagne method to reflect the particularities of Franciacorta as a place.

  • Price: $34

Not Your Average Pét-Nat

Anima Mundi Penedès Camí dels Xops Metode Ancestral

Ever since Catalonia emerged as an epicenter of Spain’s natural wine movement, the classic cava country of Penedès has been re-energized as a creative laboratory for sparkling wine’s avant-garde. One of a growing cohort of winemakers who, through their mastery of traditional-method winemaking, are elevating pét-nat to brave new heights, the Anima Mundi project’s Agustí Torelló brings a classical elegance to this ancestral-method blend of macabeu and xarel-lo, two of the signature grapes of cava. Bracing, linear and bone-dry, it’s a testament to the category’s ability to transcend the usual “party wine” stereotypes.

  • Price: $25

Milan Nestarec Danger 380 Volts Pétillant-Naturel

Even five years ago, no one would have pegged the Czech Republic as a potential hot zone for new-wave winemaking. But that unlikely transformation is due to a small band of winemakers based in Moravia who have gathered under the banner of the Autentisté (Authenticists) movement. Advocating old-fashioned methods and a return to terroir, winemaker Milan Nestarec, one of the movement’s most vocal leaders, has emerged as the enfant terrible of Central Europe’s fringe. Fittingly, his wines bear some of the strangest names ever printed on a bottle (“WTF,” “Royale With Cheese”), but his formidable skill as a winemaker elevates everything he touches beyond fad. A blend of three white grapes of vaguely Austro-Hungarian ancestry—Müller-Thurgau, neuburger and muscat—his floral, frothy Danger 380 Volts pét-nat walks a perfect tightrope between crushable and complex.

  • Price: $35

Renardat-Fâche Vin de France Pétillant En Blanc Aussi

Along with Limoux and Gaillac, France’s other historic strongholds of ancestral-method winemaking, the Alpine region of Bugey specialized in the style centuries before anyone ever heard the word “pét-nat.” Longtime Punch readers will already be familiar with Renardat-Fâche’s beloved Bugey-Cerdon, a longtime standard-bearer for the area’s signature semisweet sparkling pink wine. Now in its second vintage, the recently released En Blanc Aussi offers a chardonnay-based counterpart to the OG rosé. Citrusy and slightly yeasty, with a bright pop of fennel pollen on the finish, it skews slightly leaner and drier while remaining every bit as drinkable, clocking in at just 10.5 percent ABV.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2019

Sparkling Red and Red-ish

Vigneto Saetti Rosso Viola Lambrusco Salamino

Leave it to a founding member of Emilia-Romagna’s natural wine renaissance to deliver what may very well be the platonic ideal of old-school, artisanal Lambrusco. These frizzante, or gently sparkling wines, derive their bubbles naturally, via the ancestral method of rifermentato in bottiglia, or refermentation in bottle, as opposed to the more common use of massive stainless steel tanks. Once widespread in the region, the shift to bulk production in the 1960s and ’70s left the style on the brink of extinction, but a push to reclaim it in the 1990s ushered in a modern wave of retro-minded examples like this blackberry- and licorice-infused benchmark.

  • Price: $23

Mirco Mariotti Frizzante Fortana Sèt e Mèz

Italy’s Emilia-Romagna is rightly known as the birthplace of fizzy red Lambrusco, but the area has always had a more complex tale to tell. Case in point: winemaker Mirco Mariotti’s singular frizzante rosé, a wine that speaks more of the salty Adriatic coastline than the fertile plains around Modena. Composed of the obscure fortana grape and derived from 100-year-old vines planted in beach sand just a stone’s throw from the sea, it’s got a subtle spice and tangy strawberry brightness that conjure Jura poulsard, but with the saline, tidal-pool aspect recognizable in Italy’s assorted array of zippy coastal whites. 

  • Price: $22

La Vignereuse Broco Lee Braucol Pétillant-Naturel

In 2012, winemaker Marine Leys arrived in the Southwestern French region of Gaillac, a tiny bastion of ancestral-method winemaking (or méthode gaillacoise, to locals) that many consider, along with the area of Limoux, to be one of the birthplaces of sparkling wine. There, she apprenticed under the natural wine legend Florent Plageoles, a historic keeper of the area’s traditional styles and native grapes. Highlighting the braucol variety’s bright and juicy side, this thirst-quenching pét-nat straddles past and present, bringing a modern sensibility to bear upon a bubbly tradition that stretches back to the 16th century. Somewhere between a light red and a dark rosé, its twinge of fresh cranberry, cinnamon spice and soft effervescence make it an excellent holiday season go-to.

  • Price: $27
  • Vintage: 2019

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