Seeing out a year filled with mostly grim headlines and ushering in a new one that threatens more of the same doesn't exactly put one in the mood for Champagne. And given the noxious associations that now spring to mind at the mere mention of the word bubble, a glass filled with millions of gaseous orbs might seem thoroughly repellant at this point. But tradition obliges us to consume something effervescent come New Year's Eve, and if economic necessity requires that it be on the cheap side, some reasonably impressive choices are available. But don't bother with the Champagne aisle: Its prices are still tailored to a world in which the Dow is at 13,000 and there is a McMansion in every lot. Fortunately, Spain, Italy, the United States, and other parts of France offer good, inexpensive sparkling wines that can either put you in the festive spirit you seek or serve as the balm you need.
Cava is Spain's answer to Champagne and is made the same way—the bubbles come from a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle. Cava is produced mainly in Catalonia from three grapes in particular: macabeo, xarel-lo, and parellada (though chardonnay is increasingly prevalent). Among the cavas that I've tasted recently, I liked the Sumarroca Cava Brut Reserva ($12) for its bright citrus flavors and mineral-rich, almost austere dryness—a quality I happen to enjoy and one that seems especially apt this holiday season. It is a cava that is probably best drunk as an aperitif. Brimming with grapefruit and almond notes, the Dibon Cava Brut Reserve ($11.50) is another one worth seeking out; while also dry, it is a little sweeter and rounder than the Sumarroca and a more obvious crowd-pleaser. The same house makes a commendable sparkling rosé: The Dibon Cava Brut Rosado ($16), a blend of trepat and pinot noir, emits an inviting whiff of strawberry, earth, and spice aromas and displays some real red-wine intensity on the palate. The Cristalino Cava Brut ($7), with its mouth-puckering citrus fruit, vigorous acidity, and good persistence, is a great value for the money and another example of why Spain is a thrifty oenophile's nirvana these days.
Prosecco is an increasingly fashionable Italian sparkling wine, and conveniently, prosecco is the name of the principal grape used to make it. A specialty of the Veneto region, prosecco (the wine) is vinified through what is known as the Charmat method, in which the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank rather than the bottle; this is a quicker, less costly approach than the méthode Champenoise. The beauty of prosecco is that it is a wine completely without artifice or vanity. It is not meant to be aged and promises nothing more than simple pleasure, which good prosecco delivers in abundance. The Nino Franco Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut NV ($18) is an invigorating bubbly marked by lime, peach, and floral notes, with the kind of silken texture that can make a bottle disappear in a hurry. The Bisson Prosecco dei Colli Trevigiani 2007 ($18) has a pronounced banana scent, which could be a turnoff depending on how you feel about bananas. But it also offers attractive pear and chamomile aromas, leading to a dry, refreshing Prosecco with a pillowy froth.
The Champagne region might be synonymous with French bubbly, but fizzy wines are made throughout France. The Loire Valley is an especially popular source. Two of the Loire's best sparklers come from the Vouvray appellation, where the multitalented chenin blanc grape yields sublime dry, semisweet, sweet, and sparkling wines.
The iconic Domaine Huet crafts benchmark wines in all four styles. The 2002 Domaine Huet Vouvray Brut Pétillant ($34) has quince, peach, honey, toast, and macadamia nuts on the nose; excellent minerality and acidity on the palate; and a radiant finish. (Pétillant means sparkling.) While no bargain itself, it is cheaper than many nonvintage Champagnes and better than most; it is also further testimony—as if any were needed—to the brilliance of Huet. The PhilippeForeau Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Brut ($26), from another legendary estate, is also superb. It is a rich, mouth-filling wine redolent of grapefruit, peach, nuts, and honey, but what really stands out is the chalky minerality. Either of these wines is a treat.