It's French, it's sparkling, it's not Champagne

Few words in wine are more misunderstood than Champagne.

Literally, it references a region of northeast France, about an hour from Paris, and the sparkling wines made there. Despite vigorous trade battles waged by its winemakers to limit anyone else from using their precious name, Champagne is effectively a generic in many peoples' minds — like Kleenex, though far tastier.

This is major fodder for confusion. It is hard to find a bigger fan of sparkling wine than Erik Liedholm, wine director at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar in Bellevue, Wash. Yet he often finds patrons demanding Champagne when a different sparkler might be more appropriate. "Oftentimes, they're not actually looking for Champagne," he says.

High prices for honest-to-goodness Champagne have solidified sparkling wine's reputation among American drinkers as something for a special occasion — when in fact it is a perfect companion to nearly any meal or occasion.

Bubbly's other reputation in this country is even more of a shame. While New World options for sparkling wine abound, they remain overshadowed by the lousy reputation of some rather cheap offerings that continue to grace convenience store shelves across the land. (Hint: One rhymes with "books.")

The French have never suffered from such silly beliefs. They remain awash in good sparkling wine produced in many other places besides Champagne — many made using the same grapes and methods as found in Champagne. Since 1992, these bottlings have been barred from using "methode Champenoise" on their labels, but they have flourished nonetheless.

Made like ChampagneThe most frequently encountered, and often most Champagne-like, wines are known as crémant, which signals French sparkling wine made very much in the same style as Champagne. These are usually identified by region — notably crémant d'Alsace and crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy). The grapes in these wines vary, though many use combinations of the same principal grapes used in Champagne: pinot noir and chardonnay.

It doesn't stop there. Sparkling wine can be found throughout the Loire Valley, where bubbly versions of the beloved Vouvray and Sancerre appellations are crafted. In extreme southern France, near the town of Limoux, residents claim their own winemaking pre-dates Champagne.

Liedholm is currently keen on a lightly sparkling semi-sweet rosé wine made by Alain Renardat-Fache in Bugey, near the Swiss border, using methods even older than those in Champagne. It blossoms with the smell of strawberries, a perfect way to start a meal. "The happiest wine on earth," he says.

Thankfully, these not-quite-Champagnes are starting to flood our shores. Boisset America imported 24,000 cases of its Charles de Fère label this year, with more on the way.

And did we mention they're really affordable? Most of this French bubbly can be found for under $15, about half what you'll spend on an honest-to-goodness Champagne.

"It's especially great if you're having a crowd come in, because the average person really cannot tell a very fine Champagne from a sparkling wine," says Jack Farrell, president of Haskell's, a chain of wine shops in Minnesota and Florida. "Real Champagne is expensive, and it's always going to be expensive."

Not all these sparklers may be to drinkers' tastes. Some are made from still wine that is far less elegant than that used in Champagne — and the quality of still wine determines the quality of the bubbly that results after a second fermentation creates carbon dioxide in the bottle. Some can be rustic and overwhelm drinkers with huge yeasty smells that, if more subtly incorporated, help make Champagne so gorgeous.

But these truly can be everyday wines, especially for a nation that adores carbonation. "Beer is sparkling, and there are people who drink beer watching TV, mowing the lawn," Liedholm points out.

With the holidays soon approaching, this is the perfect time to try a few — without a hint of guilt, and without waiting for the stroke of midnight. We recently tasted nearly a dozen.

Lots of optionsOn balance, the most praise came for crémants, especially with folks keen on that brut taste of most Champagne.

We saw promise in crémants from Louis Bouillot, a rapidly growing Boisset label. It hails from Burgundy, which not only grows the same grapes as nearby Champagne but once has its own robust sparkling wine industry. The standout is the Bouillot Perle d'Aurore rosé ($11), made from pinot noir, bone dry but with a lovely balance and pretty berry on the nose.

The René Muré crémant d'Alsace ($16), which adds in Alsatian grapes like pinot blanc, also fared well, with some dustiness and, one taster swore, a bit of honey. "A good table wine," said another.

Reviews were mixed on another Alsatian option, the Marquis de Perlade NV ($10). I found it clunky and too bubbly, but I was quickly outvoted. "Very elegant," said one taster. "Smells like ambrosia salad," offered another.

The Loire offered some good, cheap options, including the Charles de Fère NV Tradition ($9), from 100 percent chardonnay, and Bouvet NV brut ($11), which offered enough nice hints of bread dough and melon to be a good apertif wine, though the cage holding on the cork snapped — twice.

Other regions were less consistent. One wine from the Jura was just plain lousy. And while many wine shops are eager to sell blanquette de Limoux, it's often so yeasty I actually cringe when I see it on the shelf.

But that's what experimentation is about. Think beyond Champagne this year. If you can't resist, buy one special bottle for New Year's and stock up on France's other, more humble sparklers.

And if you really don't feel like French wine, don't miss next week's column, when we look at even more obscure bubbly from around the world.