Forget Champagne. When hosting a brunch or entertaining a crowd it's just too expensive. But don't forget the bubbles. Other, less-costly sparkling wines can be just as festive and fun.
The best source of value-priced sparkling wine is Catalonia in northeastern Spain. Called cava (Catalan for cellar), the wine is made by the Champagne method, with the second fermentation in the bottle, but with primarily local grapes--Macebo, Paralleda, and Xarello.
Because these grapes are fairly neutral tasting, lots of cavas seem nondescript. The best examples, though, display crisp apple and citrus-fruit flavors with a nutty, earthy undertone. Tasty on their own, they're also good when you're adding fruit juice. My current favorites include Mont-Marcal 2000 Brut Reserva ($11), Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($8), and Segura Viudas "Aria" Brut ($10).
Prosecco from northern Italy is another good choice. Made primarily with grapes of the same name, it is produced by the Charmat method, in which the second fermentation occurs in pressurized tanks rather than individual bottles. Even when labeled brut, Proseccos tend to be quite fruity. I like Zardetto Prosecco di Conegliano Brut ($11) and Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco ($12).
France produces some good sparklers outside the Champagne region. From the Loire Valley, try Marquis de la Tour Brut ($9), a refreshing blend of 50 percent Chenin Blanc and equal portions Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And from Limoux, where the process of fermentation in the bottle was invented by Benedictine monks, Saint-Hilaire Blanc de Blanc Blanquette de Limoux 2001 ($12) tastes of autumn fruit.
Most of the good California sparklers, though less expensive than Champagnes, are still priced fairly high. Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir ($18), Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs ($19), and Scharffenberger Brut ($18) are three fruit-filled ones that stay below $20. And although the Domaine Ste Michelle bubblies from Washington state can sometimes seem metallic, the current Ste Michelle Blanc de Blancs ($13) is crisp and clean.
From Australia, Seaview Brut ($10) tastes fresh and fruity though a bit heavy. And from South Africa, Graham Beck "Robertson" Brut ($15) offers excellent value.
But to my mind the finest value-priced bubbly now in local shops comes from New Zealand. Lindauer Brut ($12) tastes of apples and pears. It's more fruit-forward than good Champagne, so it lacks yeasty complexity, but it offers vibrant flavors for not much money--just what you want for a summer party or brunch.