Buying Bubbly

Champagne is the most alluring of all wines — and the hardest to understand.

It has an intimacy all its own, and it creates intimacy between people. But it plays a hide-and-seek game when it comes to figuring it out. To put a finger on what you’re tasting is no easy task.

The region that’s called Champagne, a little slice of northeast France about the size of Rhode Island, zealously guards its name and reputation, allowing no sparkling wines made outside of that region to use the word “champagne” anywhere on their labels. They’ve been to court to protect themselves several times.

As good and exceptional as champagnes are today, there are many “sparkling wines” from other areas of France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and, in this country — particularly in Michigan — that have closed the quality gap so effectively that it takes a lot of expertise to tell some of them apart from their French counterparts.

Since those wines cannot use the word “champagne,” even when describing the methods by which they’re made, they are labeled “méthode traditionelle” (“traditional method” over here), which signals that they are as close to champagne as you are likely to find.

What the champagnards, as they are called in France, haven’t been able to do is to keep other regions of the world from employing identical methods and identical grapes as champagne. And many of those other regions are making some remarkably good sparkling wines.

Take the Domaine Carneros Le Rêve ($85), for example, a top-of-the-line American sparkler from the Carneros region of California, owned by the French champagne house of Taittinger. While it’s nothing like its French parent, which makes deep and rich champagnes, it’s very much like many other lighter-style champagnes, such as Pommery or Deutz, and the quality and prices are indistinguishable.

Here are several sparkling wines (left) from places, other than the Champagne region — made with the same grapes, with equal quality, and at half the cost.

Scharffenberger Brut NV* ($19)
Gold-greenish, citrus flavors, crisp mineral flavors. California.

Tabor Hill Grand Mark NV* ($16)
Mineral and lean. Lemon and melon notes. Lake Michigan shore.

Ferrari Perle Brut Metodo Classico ($32)
Top Italian, same champagne methods. Green-apple and pear notes.

L. Mawby Cremant NV* ($22)
Brut, same champagne methods, yeasty hazelnut, edgy fruit flavors, balance. Leelanau, Mich.

Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs ($22)
All pinot noir, pink hues. Dry and fresh. California.

*NV =Non-Vintage