Cheap sparkling wines are fine. They may even be surprisingly decent. So we got nothin' against 'em. But the good stuff is a-l-w-a-y-s so much better.
That said, with real French Champagne starting at forty dollars a bottle, unless it's a special occasion, I'm of a mind to look for one of those higher quality alternatives that approximates the real stuff.
This kind of search for me usually starts with Spanish Cava where they have a certain earthy sparkling wine savoriness down pat. That savory character is something we really like. In recent years if we want something a cut above regular Cava we have learned to look for terms like Reserva or Gran Reserva on the label. Now we have it that the term Paraje Calificado is even more to be desired. It is a single vineyard Cava. Now that's special!
Real French Champagne of course comes from a delimited region in northern France and that in a nutshell is why the stuff is so expensive. Cremants are French sparklers from outside of that district. Those from the Loire Valley, Burgundy and Alsace share a similar northern climate essential for high quality sparkling wine acidity. These three can even show the same almond and toast savoriness essential to real Champagne.
Italy's champagne-approximate is called Metodo Classique and unsurprisingly the three exemplars are all from the northern portion of that country. Milan's Franciacorta along with Trento and Oltrepo Pavese are all from Lombardy and they too offer the almond and toast of real Champagne. Millesimato and Riserva are key label words to look for on those labels.
As you might expect the new world is abuzz with their own very special sparklers. South Africa is known for their white wines and Cap Classique is what they call their premier sparklers. Napa and Sonoma offer up some of America's best sparklers but for true value look to New Mexico.
Before we wrap up this post two regions need special mention. With the planet warming England has become the exciting new frontier for champagne quality sparklers. They are supposed to be quite good...but pricey. Finally the French Limoux region deserves a nod here also. After all, Limoux is where it all began. They were making sparkling wine a hundred years before Champagne and they still make a fine product at a bargain price. So check out a Limoux!
And New Mexico! And Cava! And...