OK, Valentine's Day is behind us, and wedding season is a ways off. Must be time to ... break out some bubbly.

I love champagne, the kind that comes from the region of that name (nasty contretemps have ensued when others used that word on their bottles). But the reason that worldwide shipments of champagne fell nearly 10 percent in 2009 goes beyond the relatively steep prices in a sputtering economy.

My theory is that champagne sales have gone flat (sorry, but hey, I could have said that "the bubble burst") because people have discovered that there are a raft of wonderful alternatives. Not only are most of them less spendy, but they also afford us a chance to explore and experiment, an especially big trend among Millennial quaffers.

We can even look beyond the impressive arrays of proseccos from Italy, cavas from Spain and sparkling wines from California. How about New Mexico or Oregon, Austria or Australia? There are delicious options from all those locales and beyond.

And yes, I said New Mexico, where the Gruet winery makes a bold and lively brut in the $15 range and an elegant blanc de blancs for around $25, with grapes grown at 4,300 feet.

To the north and west, there are seriously tasty bubblies ranging from $15 (Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle) to $45 (Oregon's Argyle).

Down South Africa way, Graham Beck has it going on with its brut and demi-sec in the $16 to $18 range. Other worthy offerings from the Southern Hemisphere include Argentina's Alma Negra Sparkling Chardonnay ($20) and the Bitch red sparkler (this is a real wine) from Australia, an eminently quaffable bargain in the $10 range.

But my favorite non-French wine with teeny-tiny bubbles comes from Schloss Gobelsburg (about $25 and a Surdyk's exclusive retail-wise). Made from grüner veltliner (75 percent), riesling and pinot noir (15 percent each), this Austrian bubbly has a creamy texture and lean finish, with lively fruit flavors and a touch of yeastiness.

All of these elements bring out sparkling wine's foremost attribute, and an underutilized one at that: an amazing affinity for food, including some especially difficult matchups.

The acidity and bubbles play beautifully off fried chicken or fish, not to mention Marilyn Monroe's favorite pairing, potato chips. Raw seafood, in the form of caviar or sushi, absolutely dances with sparkling wines. Most Asian dishes marry well with it, too. Strawberries, popcorn, ham, eggs, lobster, mushrooms, almonds, duck ... the list is nearly endless.

And whether it's to be served that night or not, sparkling wine makes a great gift for a party host. No wedding or Hallmark holiday required.

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com Read Ward on Wine at startribune.com/blogs/wine.