It's fun to pop a bottle of champagne on a special occasion, but the world of sparkling wine is much wider than one small region in France. A just-OK bottle of the classic fizz can cost $40 or more, so it's well worth seeking out delicious alternatives.
With so many options, you could throw a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bubbly) party where guests are challenged to bring a novel sparkling wine made in the traditional style of champagne—that's not actually champagne. The method involves a complicated two-step fermentation and corking process that keeps the wine in same bottle in which will be sold. There's a reason why champagne is pricey: it's not easy to make and its namesake region controls how much product is released each year.
The production of sparkling wine goes back at least as far as the 16th century, when it was recorded that Benedictine monks made it in a fortuitous mistake by miscalculating during fermentation. The unpredictable vivacity of what was sometimes referred to as "Devil's Wine" (because of exploding bottles and self-popping corks) required quite a bit of innovation. During the next few hundred years, the method was refined by winemakers, including the famous Dom Perignon, who made his mark in the Champagne region. In 1891, the first law was enacted to protect the name champagne for exclusive use by the makers of sparkling wine in the eponymous region who adhered to strict production standards from vine to bottle.
However, other fabulous sparkling wines were and still are made all over the world by similar, exacting methods. Wines made in the champagne-style have a signature rich, dry, toasty character with a crisp hint of green apple or citrus. The best champagnes and their cousins also exhibit what experts call a "chalky finish." For this type of fizz (but with international flair and a lower price tag) seek out labels that read:
Metodo Classico (Italy)
Cava and Espumoso (Spain)
Sekt (Germany and Austria)
Cap Classique (South Africa)
Espumante (Portugal and Argentina)
Traditional Method and Méthode Champenoise (USA, Australia, Chile, and others)
For diehard Francophiles, there are also twenty-three other regions with unique styles of effervescent wine. These hold their own against champagne, but are usually more affordable because of their particular processes. Many are lighter and fruitier tasting, but they all run the gamut from the honeysuckle-brightened wines of Alsace to the bigger, riper bubblies of Burgundy. Some regions use the "Charmat" method, which involves a second fermentation in a tank instead of the bottle—Italian Prosecco, for example—which yields a younger, fresher quaff that hews closely to the qualities of its grapes. Trendy Pét-Nat (Pétillant Naturel) is transferred from tank to bottle mid-fermentation, and makers often leave in the sediment (filtered out of most other sparklers), giving it that signature earthy look and taste.
If you want to throw out all the rules, some sparkling wines, such as Lambrusco, are simply carbonated—think Sodastream—making them an excellent value. Cheers to that.