The Grape Escape: Affordable bubbly?

Check champagne’s competitors

When nothing but the best will do in sparkling wine, and price is no object, there’s only one option: champagne, the real deal from France. The French monk-winemaker Dom Pierre Pérignon perfected the stuff during the 1660s, so it’s no surprise that they’ve got the skills. But you’ll pay a price for that: Quality champagne starts at $35 or so, and the fancy stuff can go for triple figures.

When we balance cost and value, it’s reasonable to look at the competition. The key to making fine sparkling wine is hardly a secret — even cloistered monks are bound to babble after 350 years — and fine bubbly is made around the world. Here’s a quick shopping list of more affordable sparklers.

ITALY: Look for the popular, ubiquitous Prosecco for an affordable New Year’s toast; or go for Asti (the wine formerly known as Asti Spumante) if you like it sweet.

SPAIN: Cava, the Spanish name for “bubbly,” is easy to find, affordable and comes from many producers.

UNITED STATES: Want to buy American? We make it all, from high-end bubblies to horrifying industrial swill. Many top French champagne producers make California sparklers, too. Give them a look, but pass on any domestic sparkler that’s big enough to advertise on TV.

REST OF FRANCE: French producers outside Champagne mustn’t use the name “champagne.” Look for “Cremant,” instead, for a delicious and affordable alternative.

REST OF THE WORLD: I’ve had credible sparklers from Australia, South America, South Africa, Germany, and even Bulgaria. Seek advice from the knowledgeable folks at local wine-specialty stores, and you can’t go wrong.

Whatever you choose to open on Friday night, my best New Year’s wishes to all. May 2011 be a year of peace, prosperity and joy.