For the romantically inclined, Valentine's Day traditionally has meant sparkling wine from France and chocolate from a neighboring nation, Belgium or Switzerland.

In today's economy, that formula is made even easier by an increasingly viable option: Ignore Champagne and opt for bubbles from another French region. There's a wide array, and the money you save can be used to buy better chocolate, or even those thorny red flowers that fetch obscene prices this time of year.

Now I bow to no one in my admiration for the wines of Champagne, but they have grown seriously spendy. And I recognize that for some folks, nothing short of the real deal will do. But I'm guessing that's only because they haven't tasted the Simonnet- Febvre Cremant de Bourgogne or the Catherine & Pierre Breton Brut Vouvray "La Dilettante."

Champagne houses, particularly the large ones, have done a masterful job of marketing not only a product, but a lifestyle.

"A lot of people associate sparkling wine with Champagne because of the way it's hyped, as 'this is the way to live,'" said David Anderson, vice president and wine buyer at France 44 in Minneapolis.

Bubbles from elsewhere

So while the other sparklers from France have forever been overshadowed by Champagne -- and now find themselves competing with Italian Proseccos, Spanish Cavas and tasty U.S. offerings (many with French names such as Mumm, Chandon and Roederer) -- the vintners have steadily improved their products.

"The quality has gone up, and Champagne helps to pull that up," Anderson said. "They're representing France and want wines to be be flavorful and very place-specific. They can't use the word Champagne, but the quality level is important." (The word "Champagne" can only be used when the grapes are from the Champagne region of France, and the bubbles are bottled there according to the Champagne traditional technique.)

Bottom line: Between France, Spain, Italy and the New World, "there's some really great product out there in the $12 to $25 range."

Most of the French offerings come in at around $20 and are made from grapes other than the three staples of the Champagne region: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Exceptions price-wise: Sprightly, muscat-based Clairette de Dies from Saisons de Beauchene and Poulet & Fils and the ripe but balanced grenache-based Baron de Seillac Brut Rosé come in at $15 and under.

Exceptions grape-wise: the chard- and/or pinot-driven bottlings from Burgundy, such as the eminently drinkable Chablis-like Simonnet- Febvre, the delightful sweet/briny JJ Vincent Cremant de Bourgogne Brut and the zingy Louis Bouillot Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé. Ehrhart's wiry, tasty Cremant d'Alsace also is made with chardonnay.

The burgeoning selection of swell stuff from the Loire, on the other hand, mostly utilizes that region's signature grapes, chenin blanc and/or cabernet franc. Stellar options include the verve-acious Baumard Crémant Carte Turquoise and the starts-brawny, ends-wiry Breton Brut Vouvray "La Dilettante."

One of my favorites, the Gerard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé, actually contains chardonnay (70 percent), pinot noir (10 percent) and chenin blanc (20 percent). No wonder it's so yummy with bracing strawberry flavors and a smooth, creamy finish.

And it's pink to boot, making it an ideal option for the holiday at hand. Your call on telling your honey how much you saved, or directed elsewhere. Bill Ward •