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Among the many sobering statistics available to today's Americans, none are more jolting — at least to this American — than the numbers on consumption of sparkling wine vis-à-vis the French. They enjoy bubbly about 47 times a year, on average, or nearly once a week, while we manage just three or four times: Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, somebody's birthday. We tend to pop the cork only on special occasions, in other words; the French make a habit of it. Of course, they also make a good deal of the world's stock of sparkling wines, so this must help boost their tally. Still.
In my own small way, I have been trying to right this imbalance. I buy, for $2.99 each — a pittance — those splits of Spanish cava (from Segura Viudas) that add a bit of effervescence to an everyday dinner for two. I also serve sparkling wine at every conceivable gathering, regardless of the time of day, though the sad truth is that the enfeeblement of the dollar has made authentic French champagnes uncomfortably expensive.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, from American sparkling wines of various characters to European bottlings, such as cava, that are made in the méthode champenoise (with the second fermentation occurring in the bottle) but whose labeling cannot mention that fact, per the rules of the European Union. There are even French sparkling wines, made in the traditional way and quite competitive in quality and appeal with champagne, that fall under this bureaucratic ban. These are called crémant wines and, costing a half to a third of what their pedigreed cousins do, are among the wine world's great bargains.
Some of the better-known of these little-known wines come from the Loire Valley — St. Hilaire is a fairly big name in this country — but one of the most convincing comes from Burgundy, a northerly viticultural region not far from Champagne itself. The wine is Louis Bouillot's crémant de Bourgogne Grande Reserve Brut, costs in the $15 to $17 range, and in its bright, lemony crispness is comparable to a good blanc de blancs from Champagne. Very similar in sunshiny character is the Aimery Sieur d'Arques "1531" crémant de Limoux, produced near Carcassonne in the south of France, from chardonnay, chenin blanc, and Mauzac grapes. Did I say "sunshiny"? Mais oui!