The Avenue de Champagne in Épernay, France, is the most famous address in the world of sparkling wine. Beginning at the Place de la République, the road stretches east through Champagne country-a straight line of villas and mansions housing some of the biggest names in fizzy wine: Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger and Möet & Chandon.
For three centuries, Champagne, an area of 30,000 hectares, was the only name that counted when it came to sparkling wine. Since the 1990s its bottles-now numbering more than 300 million a year-have been protected by a European Union law that allows only those made within the appellation to carry the name.
But Champagne’s reign as king of the bubble isn’t quite as secure. Earlier this month, the second Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships awarded two of its top three prizes to Italian producers. Though Louis Roederer’s 2004 Cristal Rosé Brut took the Supreme World Champion title, Ferrari, from Trentino, won Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year and Piedmont’s Cuvage Rosé was awarded the Chairman’s Trophy. The awards also recognized producers from 16 different countries-including a handful that aren’t readily associated with sparkling wine, like Canada, China, Serbia and Montenegro.
Tom Stevenson, founder and chairman of the awards, says this shift began in the mid-1990s, when three estates in particular-Roederer in the Anderson Valley in California, Nyetimber in England and Pirie in Tasmania-showed that you can make world-class fizz outside of Champagne. A decade later, spurred on by their example, and eager to carve out a slice of the lucrative sparkling wine market, producers in Australia, New Zealand and California started making exciting bubbles of their own.
Over the past decade, production of sparkling wine has increased by more than 40%, Mr. Stevenson says. There are now more than 2.3 billion bottles produced globally every year. And though France remains the largest producer, with 465 million bottles, the market is getting more crowded-and more competitive. Italy is now the world’s second-largest producer, with 426 million bottles, Germany third (346 million), followed by Spain (239 million).
As these wines have filtered through into the market, Mr. Stevenson says, the image of sparkling wine has changed. A new generation-one that doesn’t expect all sparkling wine to come from Champagne-sees it as a wine not just for special occasions but as a drink to be enjoyed in its own right.
“This is undoubtedly a golden age for sparkling wine,” he says. “The quality of sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne has soared, and we are in a completely different place to where we were 20 years ago.”
So, does Champagne still have the edge when it comes to quality? Sparkling wine specialist Essi Avellan thinks so. “Champagne stands alone on a pedestal,” says the Finnish Master of Wine.”But world-class sparkling wines are being made even in the most unexpected corners of the world. Many terroirs can be championed with expertise, but price and image are where the other regions stumble. But the grand visions and competition for excellence is paying off promisingly well.”
Leading the pack of would-be challengers is Italy-widely known for Prosecco, a bright, clean, easy-to-drink fizz made from the Glera grape variety. But it is the dry sparkling wines from the Franciacorta and Trentino regions, made from Champagne varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, that are attracting the attention of the international wine industry. Ferrari, Franca Contea, Il Mosnel, Lantieri and Rotari are producers to look out for. These have a bright, crisp acidity that reflects the vineyards’ altitude. Underpinning this crispness is a toasty complexity.
Another country that has seen a boom in recent years is England. A national joke two decades ago, English sparkling wine is now recognized by critics as being of a very high standard. A handful of producers, including Camel Valley, Digby, Herbert Hall, Nyetimber and Ridgeview, have gained international recognition. What is intriguing about English sparkling wine is the taut acidity and the recognizable aromas, which can range from red currants to elderflower.
So, is it likely a sparkling wine region will ever really rival the quality of great Champagne? “Considering that Champagne has 300 years of bubbly history, Franciacorta having achieved what it has in 40 years, and England in even less time is nothing short of phenomenal,” says Ms. Avellan. “I think there will be room for others to shine too in the increasingly bubbly future.”
Back in Épernay, the vignerons behind their wrought-iron gates aren’t too worried. The Champenois have enjoyed their own purple patch, with outstanding vintages such as 2002 and 2012 fueling excitement across the region.
But the effervescence has spread. From Australia to California to Italy to Spain and, just north of Champagne, to England.
“We like to call it ‘Cornwall,’ ” says Bob Lindo, founder of Camel Valley winery in Cornwall, southwest England, holding a glass of his 2013 Brut sparkling wine. “And if you hear of anyone in Champagne calling their wine that, come and tell me.”