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Perfect Party Wine: Sparkling Wine Under $20

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[Photographs: Mary Cressler]

With the holiday season in full swing, I am reminded why sparkling wines are by far my favorite. Bubbles aren't just festive—they're also among the most versatile food-friendly wines you can find. Pour sparkling wine with appetizers, dinner, and the midnight toast: your glass should never to be empty when you're celebrating with friends.

In a perfect world, I'd drink Champagne all night long, but for large gatherings I'm looking for more affordable options. Curious about the different styles of sparkling wine? Start with our guide over this way.

This time of year, with store shelves stocked sky high with bubbly both delicious and um...not, wine shopping can be a little overwhelming. Here's my guide to some new favorites and old standbys, all $20 or less.

Quick Refresher: How to Open Sparkling Wine

Take it slow, and don't be embarrassed to open a bottle over the sink or to have some glasses nearby to capture any errant bubbles. Don't point the bottle toward a glass chandelier (or anyone's face.)

Most sparkling wines have a metal wire over the cork to hold it secure against the pressure in the bottle—this is called the cage. Start by untwisting the bottom part of the cage, but don't completely remove it. It'll help you get a grasp on the cork.

Next, put one hand over the top of the cork (and cage) and press down firmly while you slowly turn the bottle with your other hand. The cork will loosen and the pressure from the carbonation will begin to push it out. Slowly let the cork come out so that the pressure releases with a sigh.

From Spain: Cava

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The easiest way to shop for good affordable sparkling wine is to remember the two C's: Cava and Crémant. When you purchase Cava from Spain, it's usually made with Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Parellada grapes, though Chardonnay and Malvasia are allowed, as are Pinot Noir, Monastrell, Garnacha Tina, and Trepat (though that last one's only permitted in rosé Cava.) These wines are made in the traditional Champagne method, which means that the bubbles are produced by a secondary fermentation in the bottle (not carbonated by a machine or in a large tank).

La Vida al Camp Reserva Brut ($18) is a deliciously fresh example made from 45% Macabeo, 45% Xarel-lo, and 10% Parellada. It awakens your senses with a citrusy scent, and has a lovely tangy and savory finish. This wine is more complex than what you get in less expensive versions, and it's a great option for a fancy holiday dinner party with roast chicken.

Think you've tried 'em all? For an unusual take on Cava, check out the Oriol Rossell NV Brut Rosé ($15), which is made solely from the Trepat grape. This deeply colored rosé is fuller in flavor and richer in texture than many Cavas we've tried, yet maintains a remarkable freshness. It has a darker fruit profile of red and blue berries, but is quite zesty. Serve it with your salty and meaty appetizers (think jamon or other cured meats and a big cheese plate.)

France: Crémant and Beyond

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Crémant is a term for sparkling wines made within France but outside of Champagne, and is made in every major region in the country. One of our go-tos for parties is the De Chanceny Cremant de Loire ($14). Made from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc, this wine has lots of tart apple notes and a hint of lime zest. Fresh and slightly creamy with bright acidity and some lingering sweet peach, we recommend popping this bottle at a festive brunch.

But don't discount sparkling wines from France if they don't say "Crémant". Consider Blanquette de Limoux for something a little bit different. The Limoux area of the southern French Languedoc is claimed to be the oldest sparkling wine producing region in the world, predating even Champagne. While they do make Crémant there (made with mostly Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc), their Blanquette (made mostly from the local Mauzac grape) is worth seeking out. These wines are typically fresh and fun with crisp apple aromas and they generally fall in the $12 to $18 range.

One of my favorites is the Domaine Rosier Blanquette de Limoux ($12). it smells like fresh green apples and tastes clean, crisp, and lively. It's great with hors d'oeuvres for parties but it's plenty tasty to drink on its own.

Domaine de Fourn Blanquette de Limoux ($14) is another refreshing choice, with more lime than green apple, and some pretty floral aromas in the background. This bright wine is a great start to the night, though you can also pair it with creamy chowders or bisques.

Italy: Prosecco and More

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Prosecco can run the gamut of sticky sweet and poorly made to wines of real quality. Most Proseccos are not made in the traditional Champagne method; instead, the bubbles are added in a large tank. The results of this less-expensive method vary from harsh bubbles that attack the palate, to smooth, fresh, and easy.

I've developed a crush on Bortolotti Prosecco Brut ($19). Aromatically, it reminds me of pineapple and mango, but it's clean, dry, and focused in flavor. The bubbles are light and frothy, not heavy or harsh, and the wine finishes dry with some toasty flavors, adding adding some finesse to the overall package.

Another one to try with prosciutto and an antipasto plate: Sorelle Bronca Prosecco ($18). This prosecco is focused, clean, and juicy—reminding us of tangy pineapple and lime—and it has some lingering minerality. We'll toast to that!

One of my favorite Italian bubbly picks on a budget isn't prosecco at all: Elvio Tintero Grangia sells for around $10 and is made from a blend of Favorita, Moscato, Arneis, and Chardonnay in Italy's Piedmonte region. This wine has lovely floral and spice aromas, a hint of melon, and just a touch of sweetness. Note: it's just a little effervescent, not full-on sparkling. I buy it by the case.

Domestic Sparkling Deals

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More and more American wineries are making bubbles (and there are rumblings of several exciting new sparkling projects to watch out for next year.) For the best values under $20 (especially among the widely-available options), I've had better luck with those made in the traditional Champagne method.

The NV Scharffenberger "Brut Excellence" from Mendocino County is an elegant example sitting at $20. Made from about 2/3rds Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir this full-bodied bubbly is aged on the lees for around two years, which results in a creamy texture and aromas of freshly baked brioche and tart lemon. If you want to drink in style for under $20, this is a bottle to seek out.

I often recommend Gruet as a source for value bubbly, especially their Blanc de Noirs. But they've outdone themselves with their new Non Vintage Blanc de Blanc Silver Label, made from 100% Chardonnay and priced at $18. This wine smells absolutely delicious—it makes me think of golden apples. The wine is creamy and classy stuff, with a hint of yeasty bread balanced by zesty acidity. Serve it with poached shrimp or seared scallops.

If you're traveling for the holidays and you're away from your favorite wine shop, it might be handy to have a few affordable bottles in mind that you should be able to find wherever you go.

Mumm Napa has a few options around $20, but their Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, can be found as low as $15. Pick it up for a party: this blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is a crowd pleaser, with bold spiced pear and apricot scents and a tart-and-tangy flavor. If you're hosting a crowd, this is the thing for your midnight toast.

Domaine Ste. Michelle, the largest producer of sparkling wines in the Pacific Northwest, has recently rebranded as simply "Michelle". The Michelle Brut, made in the traditional method and aged on the lees for up to 18 months, is fresh and bright with hints of apple and Meyer lemon. The suggested retail price is $14, but I've seen it for as low as $10, just right for making holiday brunch mimosas or serving at a big blowout New Year's party.

About the Author: Mary Cressler is a Certified Sommelier and proprietor of Vindulge: Wine Education & Consulting. She writes about wine, food, and travel on her blog, Vindulgeblog.com.

Tasting samples provided for La Vida al Camp Cava, Bortolotti Prosecco, Scharffenberger, Gruet, and Mumm Napa.

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