I keep seeing French sparkling wine for much less than French champagne. Are they any good?
I see you know there's a difference. Good. Eet's extraordinary 'ow a leetle bit of Francais in curly script on a gilt-edged label can convince booze shoppers they're buying champagne. Maybe it's because the Champenois spent decades and fortunes in legal fees ramming home the point that champagne comes only from France. Something that may not have got across so clearly – judging by the number of parties at which the ''French champagne'' turns out to be a sparkling – is that champagne comes from one patch of north-east France.
Sparkling wine from any other French region might look like champagne but will taste different. There's a good chance it has been made from different grape varieties. True champagne – like many of the best Australian sparklings – is typically made from pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. In France, sparklings from outside Champagne are generally made from whatever varieties are traditional to the region from which the wine originates.
The strong Australian dollar means we're seeing more of these Gallic bubblies at similar price points to mid-range and budget domestic sparklings. Because grape varieties, methods of production and quality vary so much, it's hard to generalise about French sparklers other than to say that some are excellent in their own way and some are dross dressed up with bubbles.
Happily, they are – as you've observed – a lot less expensive than champagne, so you can probably test drive more than one. Look for independent reviews and talk to bottle-shop staff. A good start might be a cremant de bourgogne (that's a style, not a brand) as this is often made from the grape varieties used in champagne and is fermented in the bottle.
Bear in mind that few, if any, French sparklings reach the glorious heights of top champagne. And, yes, champagne is marketed and hyped to the hilt, and that's built into those high prices. If you're looking to add a bit of French polish to a Valentine's Day dinner or proposal, consider this: would you give your beloved a cubic zirconia ring because it resembled a diamond but was cheaper? Some occasions, mon ami, are not meant for economising.