5 Affordable Sparkling Reds For The Holidays

What you need to know about pouring sparkling red wine for the holidays

They're a festive sight to behold, running the gamut from pale garnet to ruby to deep amethyst. They're equally fun to drink, be they elegant or exuberant. And price-wise, they're practically a gift compared to most Champagnes.

Red bubblies bring holiday cheer like few other wines; here's what you need to know to pour them like a pro.

The Basics of Red Bubbles

First off, forget your auntie's Riunite on ice. In terms of both quality and diversity, sparkling reds have come a long way since the heyday of that particular porch pounder. As Mariette Bolitiski, wine director of American Cut in New York City, explains, the Lambrusco now being made by some of Emilia-Romagna's best estates "can be very heady all the way down to completely mineral driven; there's such a range."

That's true of the category in general: If northern Italy's dessert styles remain the best known—not only Lambrusco amabile or dolce but also the strawberry blast that is Piedmontese Brachetto d'Acqui—many other examples hail from all over the world, be they unabashedly sweet or dry enough to "drink like a red table wine but with bubbles," in Bolitiski's words. In France, both Beaujolais and the Loire Valley produce some vins mousseux rouges; Austria yields some Sekt made from Zweigelt. Shiraz is merely the most common grape used for red sparklers in Australia, where winemakers also experiment with everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Petite Sirah and Chambourcin, much as their U.S. counterparts do. Regardless of origin, a good sparkling red should "express aromatics indicative of the varietal" just like virtually any other wine, Bolitiski says.

Pairing Red Bubbly

What's more, like most other bubblies, it generally "shines with food," according to Sam Bogue, wine director for San Francisco's Ne Timeas Restaurant Group. Take Lambrusco. Whereas a "lighter style like Lambrusco di Sorbara, with tangy cherry and rhubarb flavors, is fantastic by itself as an aperitif," something with "a little more richness and plummy, blackberry notes, such as Lambrusco Grasparossa, moves you into cheese and charcuterie" (Emilia-Romagna is, after all, salumi central).

To accompany traditional feast-day centerpieces—think roast meats—Bolitiski looks to French grapes: "Dry sparkling Cabernet Franc and Gamay work really well with duck. And once you get into fuller styles, like sparkling Shiraz [Syrah], you could have prime rib or Berkshire pork chops—those richer, fattier cuts call for wine with more tannic structure, as well as a lift of acidity."

The Sweet Stuff

As for dessert, Bogue says, "Brachetto d'Acqui has just got to be the default pairing." Not only does it possess sufficient residual sugar to complement sweets, but it's "also low alcohol, and that light weight helps clean your palate between bites." Bolitiski agrees, suggesting caramel pot de crème "finished with a little sea salt for balance," and "nuttier, firmer, cave-aged sheep's-milk cheeses" will work too. She adds that you should serve it (and other sweet sparkling reds) at about 50 degrees and the dry styles at about 55, in white wine or even Burgundy glasses. "The shape of the bowl allows for aromatic expression. While flutes look nice, they don't allow for the aromatics to develop."

Five Red Sparkling Wines to Try

Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile "Centenario," Emilia-Romagna, Italy N.V. $11

This frothy, fruity treat, a virtually opaque violet red, comes in waves of cranberry sauce, blueberry compote and raspberry candy, even hinting at the Purple Cows (vanilla ice cream-grape juice floats) of bygone soda fountains—but with enough juicy acidity to balance the sweetness.

2010 Domaine des Terres Blanches Ancestral Rouge, Loire Valley, France $18

Bolitiski likes pétillant naturel (naturally effervescent) Cabernet Francs like this one for their "high-toned red fruits and florals."

2011 Frank Family Vineyards Sparkling Rouge, Carneros, Napa Valley, California $45

Sheer, brilliant cerise in the glass, this Champagne blend (68 percent Pinot Noir, 32 percent Chardonnay) made in the méthode Champenoise is dry and gracefully acidic, offering up sour cherry and green strawberry notes, plus a touch of candied black olive, which would show handsomely alongside smoked salmon.

2014 Southold Farm + Cellar Counting Stars, North Fork of Long Island, New York $28

"I've been thrilled with this 100 percent Petit Verdot coming out of Long Island," Bogue says. "Being a Bordelais variety, it has boldness and structure to it, and it's the most tannic sparkling red I've tried, so it has the ability to hold up to and cut through fattier proteins." Try it with duck, lamb or baked ham.

2013 Vigneto Saetti Lambrusco Frizzante Salamino di Santa Croce, Emilia-Romagna, Italy $19

Organic farming and "hands-off production methods" make for what Bogue calls "an earthy, savory Lambrusco that's a little different, with some barnyard funk and not a lot of sugar."