The Lambrusco, prosecco, and pet-nat worthy of a celebration
A wine with bubbles can soothe your troubles, or so the old saying goes. And while Champagne might get the lion’s share of the attention — from pink rosé de saignée to glorious old Champagne houses to indie grower Champagne — the truth is, the vinous wonderland of bubbly delight does not begin or end within the confines of the Champagne region. Indeed, there is an immensely pleasurable world of sparkling wine to explore beyond Champagne’s borders, perfect for drinking right now, headed into the holiday season (or any time the desire for bubbles strikes).
Sparkling wine not from Champagne represents a vast global category, with many styles and expressions. Some are household names, like prosecco and Lambrusco, while others are lesser known. “Sparkling wine that’s not from Champagne has kind of felt like it’s on the bench,” says Ed Paladino, founder of E&R Wines in Portland, Oregon, whose selection of sparkling wines is impressively immense. “These wines are ready to be explored and enjoyed.”
Nearly every wine region on the planet produces sparkling wine, offering a broad swath of styles and substyles with thousands of options to choose from (“A lot of winemakers really love sparkling wine,” says Paladino, which helps explain in part why there’s so much of it). Some sparkling wines are beholden to specific local requirements, while others offer a blank canvas for more primal, rustic expressiveness.
Below, find just a handful of styles to try from different corners of the winemaking universe (I mean this both geographically as well as philosophically), along with recommendations for a few individual bottles within each style that are particularly worth drinking right now. These are the sparkling wines that are ideal for your next holiday hang, and offer the most interesting, delicious expressions of sparkling wine’s many nooks and crannies.
Prosecco — Costadila Bianco Frizzante
For people who work around wine, prosecco has a dual reputation: It sells well, and it’s often kind of bland, boring, and uninspiring to drink. Because much of it is made bulk, most prosecco lacks much in the way of distinctness or character, and functions as a cheap plug-in for when you want sparkling wine without having to, you know, pay for it or think about it. There’s a moment where this sort of thing is appropriate — you can save me a seat at the bottomless mimosa brunch — but there is also, I assure you, another style of prosecco worth exploring for when you’re looking to drink the really good stuff.
This is the world of prosecco col fondo, or “with the bottom,” a term that refers to prosecco made with fermentation in the bottle, pouring slightly cloudy from the remaining sediment. This style of prosecco has deep roots — some have dated it as far back as the ninth century. Today there are just a few winemakers working in this style, and they’ve been embraced by the wider natural wine movement.
Costadila, a traditional prosecco producer in the Veneto region with a natural wine approach, might be the best of the bunch, and has earned a cult following at natural wine bars and shops over the last decade. Its wines are closer to a blonde Belgian Trappist ale than they are to the prosecco for sale at 7-Eleven, in a very good way. I once drank an enormous bottle of Costadila with a large group at Central Grocery and Deli in New Orleans, where the muffaletta sandwich was invented and there is no corkage fee, and it remains the greatest wine pairing of my life.
Other prosecco col fondo to try:
Bisson Glera Frizzante, $18: This is technically a “declassified prosecco,” and if you want to dive deeper into what that means you can learn more from importer Rosenthal Wine Merchant. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more charming sparkling expression of the glera grape.
Zanotto Di Collina Col Fondo, $23: Extremely cool sparkling glera from a young winemaker working in a spectrum of styles. Like a piece of toast with grilled apples and sheep’s cheese, there is a simultaneous harmony of creamy, sweet, and toasty notes.
Lambrusco — Cantina Paltrinieri “Radice”
Sparkling, food-friendly red wine from Italy: What’s not to like? But Lambrusco in America actually has some baggage, thanks to a glut of too-sweet stuff that became a sort of wine cooler alternative in the 1970s. One brand in particular, Riunite, was the late 20th century’s equivalent of Yellow Tail Shiraz, massively imported by the millions of bottles and heavily marketed to American drinkers.
Lambrusco — which refers to both a region within the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna, as well as a family of grapes — has enjoyed something of a quality focused revival over the last decade or so, and Cantina Paltrinieri is one of the really great names to know from the region. All of its wines are stellar, but I especially like the Radice bottling, which is made using the Lambrusco di Sorbara grape, looks like pink salmonberry, and tastes like drinking grapefruit LaCroix with a mouthful of Fruit Stripe gum. This wine is made in a style called “rifermentato in bottiglia” — meaning the bubbles occur naturally inside the bottle itself.
This sparkling wine style has many different names around the world, but it’s worth seeking out when you’re drinking Lambrusco because it’s different from the more common charmat method, where secondary fermentation takes place inside pressurized fermentation tanks. One style is not necessarily better than the other, and some winemakers (including Cantina Paltrinieri) actually use both styles across their range of bottles. You’ll sometimes hear the “rifermentato in bottiglia” called a “pre-1950s”-style Lambrusco, which I think is helpful for differentiating today’s Lambrusco from the grocery store stuff I was shoplifting back in the late ’90s.
Other Lambruscos to try:
Paltrinieri “Solco,” $15: This is Cantina Paltrinieri’s least expensive bottling, made using the tank-fermented method. It’s blood-red, wonderfully mineral, and could be paired with a spicy pepperoni pizza.
Camillo Donati Lambrusco dell’Emilia, $21: I am passionately in love with everything from Camillo Donati, a traditionalist third-generation winemaker in the hills outside of Parma. Camillo Donati produces a broad range of bottles, all of them delicious and intriguing, some of which are not legally allowed to be called Lambrusco due to the use of grapes that fall outside of Italy’s strict DOC regulations. I have an “if you see it, you must buy it” policy regarding Camillo Donati wines and so should you.
Ferretti Vini Lambrusco “Caveriol Ros,” $25: Ferretti is another wonderful name to know for quality Lambrusco bottlings in the traditional style. This particular bottling is a melange of Emilia grapes, and tastes “like talking to someone with cinnamon breath,” per E&R Wines. The pleasure-to-price ratio offered by Lambrusco of this caliber is unmatched.
Pet-Nat — Bloomer Creek Pet-Nat Skin Contact Riesling
Perhaps the most asked-for sparkling wine in America right now, outside of Champagne, is pet-nat, an abbreviation for the French term petillant naturel, in which the bubble-giving act of secondary fermentation takes place within the bottle, often beneath the seal of a crown cap. At natural wine shops around the country, pet-nat is among the most requested styles, second perhaps only to orange wine, in the natural-wine consumer zeitgeist.
As a term, pet-nat has no geographic denomination, and can be used interchangeably with the term “methode ancestrale.” You could call it “bottle-fermented wine” or “naturally sparkling wine” — winemakers use all kinds of label terms — but it’s undeniable that “pet-nat” is fun to say and has obtained a cultural currency and linguistic stickiness. Eric Asimov gave pet-nat a full-throated New York Times treatment back in 2018; Eater has been going deep on it since 2016. As a wine style it’s been around for millennia, but the modern revival of it can be traced back to the 1990s and a small group of influential natural winemakers in the Loire Valley. Very quickly the phenomenon has gone from avant-garde to perhaps a touch overplayed — today the wine market feels flooded with pet-nat options that are perhaps chasing the trend, some good, some just so-so. But the style has become highly popular among both young winemakers and young wine drinkers precisely because pet-nat wines can also be really delicious, surprising, and fun to discover.
That’s exactly the case with this bottle of Bloomer Creek. Hailing from New York’s Finger Lakes region, this bottle is like a wine trend two-for-one, making use of riesling grapes vinified with a touch of skin contact. Taken for what it is, this is a delicious wine: rustic and wild, heavy with sediment (which is not removed from the bottle in this style of wine, as opposed to Champagne), offering flavors of Korean pear, Butterfinger, and Flintstones chewable vitamins, deeply sessionable and moreish. Bloomer Creek makes really compelling natural wines up and down the board (in particular an excellent cabernet franc), so let their pet-nat be an entry to the wider world of Bloomer Creek, and extend the same logic to other winemakers dabbling in the style.
Other pet-nats to try:
Domaine La Bohème “Festejar,” $42: A benchmark Loire Valley sparkling natural wine, made out of Gamay d’ Auvergne and yielding a ruby-red bubble. Order this to impress the cooler-than-thou at your next trendy restaurant visit, or drink it as a calibration exercise before you explore the wider world of petillant naturel.
Cho “Laurel Vineyard,” $36: Sparkling pinot noir from Willamette Valley wine duo Dave and Lois Cho, whose new label is one of the most exciting projects in Oregon right now. This wine is like a guava soda, or some sort of magical sparkling passionfruit-orange-guava, so lusciously fruity and thick.
Thomas Niedermayer “Freistil” 2019: Pet-nat is made in every corner of the globe, including the German-speaking northern Italian province of Alto Adige. Located high in the Italian portion of the Alps, this fascinating winemaker offers a sparkling peasant fizz made using PIWI grapes, hybrids that are able to withstand environmental pressures without the need for pesticides or chemicals. Many pet-nats are rustic and “funky,” but this one feels more linear and refined, and speaks to the greater potential of the style.
Cremant — Peggy et Jean Buronfosse Cremant du Jura
“Cremant” is a catch-all term used for French wines made in the style of Champagne outside of Champagne’s strict geographic borders. The term “cremant” can be used interchangeably with “methode traditionelle” or sometimes “methode Champenoise,” but it means the same thing in practice. Different climatic conditions and grape varieties across France help make this a surprisingly broad and immensely satisfying category, offering the ability to drink wines that are stylistically “Champagne-like” without the associated pedigree or cost.
The Jura region in southwest France is home to a very old sparkling winemaking tradition in the form of cremant du Jura, and many of the area’s top winemakers make their own version of it. Peggy and Jean Buronfosse trained under legendary Jura vigneron Jean-Francois Ganevat, and today literally everything they make is good, especially their cremant.
What you get here is the rigor and finesse of a Champagne-style wine paired with the utterly natural approach of winemakers like Buronfosse, meaning there is no added S02 (sulfur dioxide, a much-discussed winemaking additive), no fining and filtration, and the grapes are organic. Chardonnay, which is one of the main grapes of Champagne, is blended with savagnin, a white grape closely associated with Jura; the end result is a liquid lemon bar, all pie crust and tart curd enveloped together, waiting to be paired with whatever little fried snack (a deviled sprat? a morsel of crispy cheese?) is most readily available to you.
Other cremants to try:
Valentin Zusslin Cremant d’Alsace Brut, $27: Blink and you could mistake this for Champagne were it not for the price. Zusslin makes some of the most beautiful wines in all of Alsace, and their cremant is as classy and sophisticated as it gets. A blend of chardonnay, pinot gris, and Auxerrois, all typical of the region. Bring this somewhere chic to impress the Champagne nerd in your life.
Bruno Dangin Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noir, $27: Champagne lovers will sometimes refer to something as “tasting like sparkling Burgundy.” Well, this wine is quite literally sparkling Burgundy, part of the historic bubbly tradition from the region immediately south of Champagne’s borders, and home to the world’s most prized parcels of chardonnay and pinot. This wine is made exclusively from the latter, and is a dead ringer for the fruity, bombastic style of Champagne found throughout Champagne’s southernmost province, the Aube, just over a mile from the Bruno Dangin estate.
Domaine Labet Cremant du Jura Rose, $38: I’m convinced this is really where the action is for top cremants. Like Buronfosse, I will happily drink anything made by Julian Labet of Domaine Labet, described by importer Charles Neal as “part punk, part stoner.” His chardonnay “Les Varrons” and Poulsard “Sur Charrière” are both extraordinary, so it’s no surprise that his cremant is also outrageously good. Here is a wine without easy definition, walking the line between tradition and expression, utterly of itself.
Traditional Sparkling Wine — Analemma Blanc de Noirs 2016
If you’re a winemaker producing sparkling wine that’s not in one of the trendy styles or regions, I imagine the last few years have felt like a little bit of an identity crisis. Pet-nat gets all the headlines, and interest in small indie Champagne makers is at an all-time high. If you’re making methode traditionelle sparkling wine in the style of Champagne someplace like America or England today, what’s the hook?
The answer is simple: quality. Traditional sparkling wines made in the Champagne style may not be especially en vogue at the moment, but for drinkers looking to experience Champagne-level intensity and quality while expressing a sense of place, the time to explore is now. Out on the American West Coast there are multiple extraordinary traditional sparkling winemakers, and the same trend is underway in the south of England.
Pressed to pick one example, I’ll refer you to a house favorite at E&R Wines, the Analemma Blanc de Noirs. This wine hails from Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, and at $70 can stand dollar for dollar alongside fine Champagnes of more prestigious providence. “It’s as good of a sparkling wine as I’ve ever had from this country,” says Ed Paladino, aged on sediment for four long years for a creamy mouthfeel and sourced from fruit grown entirely on a single vineyard. A wine with bona fides like this in Champagne would sell for twice the price, but then I’m as guilty of anyone as playing the comparison game. Yes, a wine like the Analemma BdN can hang with Champagnes, but it’s also its own unique thing, and incredibly enjoyable. No comparisons required.
Other traditional sparkling wines to try:
Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, $55: There is a wine revolution underway right now in England, which is now home to a growing collection of impressive, quality-focused winemakers. Many of the best — including Tillingham, Ancre Hill, and Hambledon — are not yet available in the United States, but happily the wines of Nyetimber are, and they offer a compelling starting point for Americans interested in checking out British fizz. Clean, lovely, with ample toasted brioche and honey notes, this is better for the price than many house Champagnes, and pairs perfectly with a cheeky Great British Bake Off binge.
Las Jaras 2019 Sparkling Wine, $42: Las Jaras duo Joel Burt and Eric Wareheim call this wine “methode untraditionelle.” The end result lands firmly in the sparkling wine category (you can read more about the method here), resulting in an age-worthy sparkling carignan that’s ready to party now but could just as happily stay in and cook (perhaps from Wareheim’s book with co-author Emily Timberlake). Look for notes of pink Starburst and grapefruit peel over Polar lime seltzer, paired with stirring label design by noted optical artist Jen Stark.
Sea Smoke “Sea Spray,” $100: California winemakers Sea Smoke farm both biodynamic and organically on an estate vineyard in the hills above Santa Barbara, California, and focus on high-quality pinot noir that grows in a layer of marine fog. Extensive aging is typical for Sea Spray, and select years are finished without additional dosage (added sugar). For me this is the closest wine in America can get to hanging with the great grower Champagnes, like a fine Marie Courtin or Benoît Lahaye lost off the 101, wandering into the California hills.
Jordan Michelman is a freelance food and wine journalist in Portland, Oregon, and the co-founder of coffee publication Sprudge and Sprudge Wine.