Genie In The Bottle

It’s that time of year again, when even the most dedicated malt drinkers among us are likely to sample other festive staples – either by choice or due to the needs of pleasing a house full of guests and family alike. Topping this list is the Christmas – or pre-Christmas if you’re like me and like to get started early – fizz that isn’t going to eat up your entire budget for Christmas lunch.

There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt going on about “£10 Champagne.” Can you possibly get a drink that isn’t French paint thinner, at 10 quid a bottle? And what are the best alternatives if you don’t care to chance it, or if your budget is even tighter?

The most frequent reply to this quandary I’ve seen, is for punters to reach for Cava, the now well-known sparkling wine from the land of sunshine and bullfights. Unfortunately, what actually makes it into the shopping trolley and home onto people’s tables, isn’t necessarily going to be what you’d expect – or bring the maximum drinking pleasure. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few pointers about fizzy wines, Cava, and how to get the most out of our long obsession with Champagne.

Fizz By By Name, Fizz By Nature

Choosing a bottle of bubbly doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Not all of us have the wherewithal or connections to have expensive vintage Champagne tucked away for that special occasion. Nor are we all likely to find that the average bottle of supermarket Cava is just as enjoyable – and versatile – when it comes to uncorking the liquid treasure within. But the world of wine has blessed us with far more choices than this. All around the world, there are producers making quality sparkling wine, and frequently selling it on to us as prices well below that of the famous “grand marque” Champenoise houses.

They’re not all made by the same method, or with the same grapes, or even, as we’ll talk about below in more depth, intended to the same style. And this is a good thing, really, as long as you know what you’re in the market for and what you’re getting once you peel back the foil, pop the cork, or crack the crown-cap.

As means of illustration and so we don’t disappear into the bubbles as we blather on about sparkling wine manufacture, let’s look at our first case in point. Specifically whether Cava, the sparkling wine from the Catalonia region in Spain, is a worthy substitute for more pricy Champagne.

The short answer was unfortunately, and with my sympathies to the Catalonians, no. The longer answer is that while there are some good examples of Cava out there, you have to be almost as knowledgeable or lucky, as you do with picking good value Champagne. The even longer answer lies in three (perhaps four) principal stumbling blocks for quality sparkling wines from spain, which explain the first two.

So Cava. What’s it anyway? A heart it’s a sparkling wine made in the Catalonian area, in a variety of methods, and with a somewhat confusing list of grapes. It was developed in no small part and certainly into its modern market identity as Spain’s answer to its northern French cousin’s fabulously profitable and popular sparkling wine – Champagne. Not unlike Rioja was conceived to emulate and draw upon the English and world interest in red Bordeaux. Unlike Rioja, it’s been more of a mixed success in my opinion. Certainly, it’s the budget tipple of choice for British drinkers unwilling or unable to trade up to Champagne, but it doesn’t always produce what are in my opinion, the finest sparkling wines that can be found in the same price range. So, let’s start there, with the ‘whys.’

The first is the terrior. Even at the higher elevations, most of Cava’s growing region is simply too hot and dry for high quality sparkling wines to be produced, wines which need cool marginal climates to both preserve the all important freshness and sharp acidity that make Champagne so refreshing, and a relatively long and slow growing season to create concentration and complexity of flavours in the grapes. Of course, we’re still comparing apples to oranges, as traditionally Cava did not rely on the same holy trinity of grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier as does Champagne, so exact growing conditions are not necessarily what we’re looking for here.

This brings us to the second issue however, that I believe gets in the way of truly great Cava: The grapes. For Cava, the traditional grapes used have been Macabeo, Parellada, and the exotic sounding Xarel-lo. Only relatively recently have producers turned to adding increasing amounts of Chardonnay, in part I suspect, in response to the international demand for wines that are more like those of Champagne. Sadly, while capable of making interesting wines, none of the three primary Cava grapes produce quite the same levels of quality base wines as do especially, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And finding the right, cool climate sites to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, tricky grapes at the best of times, producing fruit with the high acidity and crisp aromatics so essential to good Champagne – is even harder to find in Spain than it is the rest of France.

Finally, the Champenoise have been at the game for longer, and for most good producers, the almost staggering array of base wines that they have to choose from to mix into their typical Non Vintage Cuvees, are far beyond the scope of an average Catalonian co-operative or even the larger Cava houses. It is a bit like having several full strength orchestras to choose your musical selection from, versus a single four member band. This doesn’t mean that Cava can’t strike up a lively tune, but it is another reason why I suspect they rarely reach the same level of symphonic harmony that great to even good Champagne can regularly deliver.

If Not Cava Then What?

As we’ve mentioned, good Champagne is really the cat’s meow when it comes to sparkling wines. The combination of the right grapes, the right climate, and the right know-how, make Champagne when on form, impossible to beat. But there is a price to pay, and for the global popularity this right-left bank combination has landed a costly knock on the average consumer’s chin.

In the past I wasn’t so sure of this, but after a decade working in the wide trade and number of completely blind tastings (where we didn’t know the nature or origin of the wines until after we had sampled and rated them all) where a wide range of Champagnes went head to head with the best sparkling wines from around the world, I stand convinced of the region’s very special nature. This doesn’t mean that good and even great sparkling wines can’t come from other places, but even the best (as it should be in my books) express their own styles and regions rather than attempting to merely ape Champagne at a lower price.

Once we get past trying to find a “Champagne” at a third or less of the price, then we can all enjoy sparkling wines that are delightfully diverse.

It’s All In The Bottle

Sparkling wines are generally made using one of three methods, the Champenoise (or sometimes for regions outside of Champange, “Traditional”) Method, the Charmat (or tank) Method and finally and lowest down on the level of quality, by injection of CO2 (much like any other carbonated beverage). Higher quality sparkling wines tend to be made by the Traditional or Champenoise method, where a secondary fermentation takes place in the actual bottle that you hold in your hands when you buy the wine, but this is not to say that tank method wines can’t be lovely too.

This brings me to the last nail in the coffin for sparkling wines outside of Champagne, the effects of dead yeast cells on the final product. As we talked about during the tasting, great Champagne often owes a large part of its complex, bready, rich aromas to the self-destructing quality of yeast cells, a complex process called autolysis. By spending time on the dead, exploded yeast cells after undergoing the secondary fermentation in the same bottle (where the yeast is slowly, gradually, removed over time), these rich autolytic characteristics blend with the natural flavours of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. However, this process does not work so harmoniously with all grape varieties. With the grapes used in Cava, the Prosecco grape, those used frequently in German and Austrian Sekt, and to a lesser degree, the Chenin Blanc grape used in Loire sparkling wines, autolysis does not combine so well. Some producers know this, and so for this and other reasons, most Prosecco uses the tank method, rather than the bottle, for secondary fermentation, greatly reducing the role and flavour component of autolysis.

Prosecco And La Dolce Vita

A great example of a sparkling wine that will never be Champagne and yet can be in its own way, just as enjoyable to drink, is Prosecco. This is the name of the grape and the wine, grown typically in the Veneto region of Italy, to make a variety of sparkling wines. Beyond this, style, dryness and quality can vary tremendously. The best tend to come from the regions near Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (so look for these on the label) and more seriously sparkling and generally drier are wines labeled “spumante” rather than the less bubbly and often more frivolous “frizzante.” Like Champagne however, good Prosecco has bright acidity and a classy albeit more forward and fruity style. Unless you’re seeking an after dinner tipple, stay away from the super sweet and super fruity versions and steer your palate towards the Brut and Extra Dry (perversely, wines labeled ‘Dry’ are often comparatively sweet). Also look out for sparkling Italian wines from Ferrari (no relation as far as I know to the car) who makes quite possibly some of Italy’s finest sparkling wines. These are made not only in the style and with the methods of Champagne, but using either Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grown in the cool Trentino region, which unlike Spain, can produce grapes with much the same qualities as you’d find in the best regions of France. Not cheap, these are none the less, really lovely sparkling wines.

Not All That Sparkles Is Gold

Don’t forget to pick up some rose wines as well, or better yet, lusty, sour-cherry scented real Lambrusco rosso. The sparkling red wines of Italy – and western France and the Loire – can provide some delicious and superlative food-friendly gluggers that will please as well as entertain. I can’t recommend enough the delightful biodynamic wines of Camillo Donati from Les Caves de Pyrene. This is Lambrusco as nature and the Italian love of all things tasty intended, and such a far cry from the disgusting stuff you find on lower supermarket shelves and in the back of elderly maiden aunts drink’s cupboards as to make you wonder how they could bear the same name.

Cremant de Loire

Produced from grapes typically grown in the regions of Samur, Touraine, and Anjou, the main variety is generally Chenin Blanc though a wide variety of others may be part of the blend. A lot is made in the classic, in-bottle secondary fermentation method, and despite my reservations about this (see above), Chenin Blanc based wines generally come out better than many of the others. In any regard, it can be a lovely, inexpensive sparkling wine. The best should emphasis the fresh bright acidity of the region with the almost honeyed (yet dry) richness of the Chenin Blanc grape. It’s a grape that gives some very good new world wines with a sparkle in their step as well, and as we’ll see below.

Cremant (or Blanquette) de Limoux

Sparkling wines from the region near the Languedoc, these wines are made using Mauzac Blanc (also known as Blanquette) often blended with a bit of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. When made in the Champenoise Method, they can be richly yeasty and applely. Good examples are very pleasing with an unique style very much their own. An interesting note: Wines here in the Traditional method (as employed by the Champenoise) have been being made here since 1531, making it perhaps the oldest sparkling wine in the world. There can also be some pretty ropey stuff mixed in as well, or from neighboring areas that are just too hot to reach the right balance of ripeness and freshening acidity. So, it pays to taste before hand, or go with a wine merchant online or otherwise, whose advice you can trust rather than just plonking in the bottles off the shelf.

Cremant de Bourgogne

Not to be overlooked are the oft very good to excellent sparkling wines from Burgundy. These are made using the Traditional Method and with the same grapes as Champagne, with the sole exception being Aligote which is allowed here, but not in Champagne. Look for those excluding Aligote from the blend (in most cases) to get sparkling wines that are as close to Champagne as any other region in France (or the world for that matter) can produce, at a considerably lower price. Consistently one of my favourite sparkling wines but with a similar caveat as above.

Cava

My least favourite, generally speaking, among sparkling wines. However, if you fancy some, and they are omnipresent here in the UK market. Look for producers who are using a higher proportion of Chardonnay (and more rarely still, Pinot Noir) in their blends. Obviously, there are on the end of the spectrum, some smaller producers who are making wild and wonderful wines, but they’re not always readily available here or at your corner off lisence. Due to the climate, I don’t think you’ll ever get quite the same complexity of flavours or the natural verve of acidity you find in Champagne and even other French sparkling wines, but you can get some very pleasant, undemanding sparklers to enjoy by the case for the price of a few bottles of Champagne’s finest.

England

The same advice holds for English sparkling wines: Look for the Champagne grapes and the Champenoise method for the very best of English sparkling wines. Nyetimber and Chapel Down tend to make some of the better ones I’ve come across, complete with a touch of nettles and hedgerow flavours that make them distinctly English. Unfortunately, expect to pay at least the price of a good Champagne (or more) for the privilege of drinking home-grown. The good news is that outside of a terrible year in 2012, English sparkling wine is going from strength to strength, stacking up awards (with good reason) and pushing ahead with expanding grape production and investment in the know-how and oversight that it takes to make world class sparkling wines good enough to regularly give the French a run for their euros. But like good Champagne, you’re liable still to pay top dollar for the best that England can offer.

The New World

The flood gates on sparkling wines are thrown open when it comes to the New World. There are so many regions and potential producers, it is hard to give exact advice, but again, the best will combine the holy trinity of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, with in-bottle fermentation, and relatively cool-climate cultivation. The best Australian sparkling wines hence come from Tasmania. New Zealand makes some very decent (but again, rather pricy) examples. Both South Africa and California produce some world class wines (most notably Graham Beck and Schramsberg respectively) but they are harder to find in the UK than at home. In the case of South Africa, there are some honeyed blends of Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay that make for excellent wines whatever your preference is.

Get the Drinks In!

I’m always happy to field recommendations for more outré sparklers, but most of us won’t have the time to hunt them down, I suspect. So here are a few of my current Champagne recommendations which can be found on the UK’s online and brick-front retailers with a simple click or a trip to the store:

The Wine Society Marc Hébrart Selection, Premier Cru Non-Vintage, Brut Champagne – 20 quid a pop if you buy six. A nice fruit driven blend, heavy on the Pinot but very sensibly priced. Another great find from the Wine Society’s passionate buyers.

Sainsbury’s Blanc De Blancs Brut NV Champagne 75cl – £16.86 a bottle. Lovely citrusy, toasty Chardonnay flavours. Blanc de Blancs are some of the most food friendly of Champagnes, and if you have the patience to age them, take on the characteristics of honey and toast with added time in the bottle.

Sainsbury’s Blanc De Noirs Brut NV Champagne 1.5l – £29.99. Or push the boat out with a magnum. Deeper, richer, and award winning fizz. Good for the mixture of strong flavours we see at this time of year, and one 75cl bottle always runs dry (if it’s any good, and this is) before you expect it.

Lanson Rose Brut NV Champagne – If you can get down to Morrison’s today, they have LR NV at £18.99 on offer, limited to 3 per customer. And which is truly festive stuff, goes surprisingly well with turkey and all the trimmings, not to mention looks good too on the luncheon table.

Tesco’s Finest Premier Cru Non Vintage Champagne – Is marked down right now to 14.99 a bottle. Good, drinkable Champagne that is every bit as tasty as most of the bigger houses’ pricer fare. It’s not a tenner, but it’s the real deal.

Tesco’s Finest Grand Cru Vintage Champagne – From the 2005 vintage, and at £21.99 – very drinkable with oodles of class and while 2005 isn’t the year that 2004 or 2006 were when it comes to Champagne, this is drinking just fine now with an open expression of what the Champanoise do best, balancing crisp mouth cleansing acidity with subtle notes of citrus, berries, and toasty oak/Chardonnay aromas.

Chanoine Frères Vintage Champagne – Also available and on offer at Tesco’s, from the better 2006 vintage the last time I was able to check. Down to £18 a bottle when you buy six online. This isn’t a well known name, but the stuff inside is really just as good as some that are. Creamy, citrusy, with a long life still ahead if you don’t get through all six over the holidays.

Best wishes and happy drinking.

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In a few days I’ll post a follow up to my recommendations above, with some other sparkling wines to look out for, as well as a nod towards some of my other favourite tipples of the season: sherry, port, sweet wines, and brandy.

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