Bring on the Bubbly

(by susie)

Check out this unedited version of my article which appears in the December 09 issue of Decanter Magazine

Though it may not be music to the ears of most cash-strapped families, Christmas 2009 is fast approaching. Careful budgeting is likely to be a priority over the coming weeks and seeking out the best deals on everything from Wiis to celebratory fizz will be the order of the day.

On the face of it the good news is that with overall shipments of champagne down 20% in the first six months of this year and producers increasingly keen to move unsold stock, it seems reasonable to assume that we will see some of the best deals ever this Christmas on the nation’s favourite celebratory tipple.

The Champenois, however, have other ideas and have recently announced a lowering of permitted yields in the region which head of the Union des Maisons de Champagne, Ghislain Montgolfier, believes will stabilise prices and thus avoid a possible rash of sub £10 bottles hitting our shelves as stock levels rise.

Although indications still suggest there will be the usual last-minute tussle between supermarkets and merchants seeking to outdo each other and offering some tempting deals in the run up to the festive season, it seems we’re no more likely to see super-cheap bottles of champagne this year than any other.

With this in mind it might be worth looking further afield for your festive fizz. Because in almost every wine-making country in the world, someone, somewhere is trying their hand at producing sparkling wine. Quality is on the up and a lot of what is being made is considerably cheaper than champagne.

Top of the list is the sparkling wine of the moment, Prosecco. Prosecco is typically a light-bodied, off-dry style of Italian fizz with a delicate, frothy mousse and attractive peach blossom aromas. When I spoke to UK wine buyers about current sales of Prosecco words such as ‘phenomenal’, ‘amazing’, ‘mad’, even ‘scary’ all came up. At Tesco, one in ten bottles of non-champagne sparkling wine now sold is Prosecco; at Majestic and Sainsburys, sales are up 60-70%; even high-end outlets such as Selfridges have seen a 50% increase in sales of their own-label Prosecco over the past year.

The best quality Prosecco has historically come from the hillside vineyards of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and new rules recently announced will see the promotion of these wines to DOCG status, the highest classification in Italy. The director of the local Consorzio is keen to stress that Prosecco won’t become more expensive as a result and the intention is merely to, ‘increase the image of the best quality Prosecco and to help the consumer understand the two levels of quality’. It is, however, hard to believe that the DOCG classification won’t eventually mean higher prices so I’d suggest you take advantage of the great value Prosecco currently offers before it’s too late.

What Prosecco is not and never will be, is anything like champagne, whereas Cava, another sparkling favourite, can be much closer in style due to a similar method of production. Justin Apthorp, buying director for Majestic Wine, describes Codorníu’s premium Reina Maria Cristina NV Cava as, ‘perhaps the most champagne-like in style of all our sparkling range’. Apthorp goes on to explain that the cool European climate helps when you’re looking to capture the elegance of champagne. A typical glass of cava, however, will have softer acidity that champagne and the flavours will be of green apples, honey and dried herbs. The quality of top-end Cavas in general has improved enormously over the past couple of years with large companies like Codorníu now using satellite imaging in the vineyards and experimenting, for example with barrel fermentation, in a bid to make ever more complex wines. Given that most ‘expensive’ Cava is usually around the ten pound mark, it is clearly an interesting budget option.

The problem with Cava occurs further down the price scale: at below five pounds, most of it is a waste of money. At this level, the traditional Spanish Cava grapes tend to be over-cropped and at best make fairly tasteless fizz, at worst something approaching a headache in a glass. Unless you intend to make bucks fizz, you’ll need to spend upwards of seven pounds to get something that is truly worth drinking.

Crémant is a lesser-known style that shouldn’t be overlooked when considering inexpensive alternatives to champagne. This traditional-method sparkling wine is made all over France from grapes local to the various regions and although styles therefore vary, these wines tend to show less finesse and a little more rusticity than champagne. Burgundy is the most obvious point of reference due to its predominance of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. That said, there are some lovely wines coming out of Limoux, Alsace and the Loire Valley, and although availability is limited, more and more sparkling wine buyers are talking about Crémant and new wines are appearing all the time.

The New World has always offered very drinkable wines at affordable prices and sparkling wines are no exception. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and, more recently, Chile are all home to companies producing clean, fruity wines with plenty of crisp fizz and the kind of attractive packaging that makes them look more pricey than they actually are. At around £5-7, many of these are very acceptable, inexpensive wines that are suited to drinking without food and they are ideal for easy-going festive parties.

However, if you’re looking for something that might rival champagne from the New World you’ll need to spend a little more. Australian brand Jacob’s Creek has just launched a new blanc de blancs at £9.99, a price at which you can expect more fine-tuning in the production process. In this case, sensory research and development manager Kate Lattey, formerly of the Australian Wine Research Institute, was brought in to help ‘tweak’ the final blend to suit consumer tastes. ‘We found consumers liked the light and refreshing style of Jacob’s Creek but wanted more of a yeasty character’, says wine development director, Adrian Atkinson. ‘So we added a little more aged wine to the final blend.’

If we take a final step up to the very best non-champagne sparkling wines in the world, it is no longer a case of how much they actually cost, but rather what value they offer when you compare them to similarly priced champagne. When it comes to the finest bottles from Australia (including Tasmania), New Zealand, California, South Africa, Franciacorta in Italy and, of course, the United Kingdom, these are not budget wines. But they can certainly offer great value for money if you consider the quality.

What all of these top wines have in common, and what makes them so elegant, is cool climate viticulture. According to Andrew Pirie, CEO and chief winemaker of Tamar Ridge estates in Tasmania, ‘One of the most interesting trends with regard to premium sparkling wine production in Australia has been the very rapid polarisation of production towards the coolest regions.’ He goes on to explain that, in his experience, ‘the sparkling fruit from truly cool regions produces a mid-palate sensation of flavour presence without fruitiness that is lost in warmer regions’. Renowned sparkling wine expert Dr. Tony Jordan, wine-making consultant for Oenotec Pty Ltd., agrees and cites the highland areas of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as well as parts of Tasmania, as the best. Jordan goes on to say, ‘we are now seeing different styles and even the emergence of house styles’ – something that champagne has built its reputation on.

One place which is certainly cool climate is the UK, and the quality of its sparkling wines is constantly improving. The industry is still in its infancy but the most widely planted varieties are now Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and as more young vines mature, the finished wines will gain the complexity and consistency that at present they sometimes lack. Nonetheless, the best English sparkling wines are already superb and show the elegance of champagne along with their own unique flavour profile.

Ultimately, however, the real question you have to ask yourself is: can you bear to part with the magic of champagne? If you can, you may be pleasantly surprised by the price and taste of what you find yourself drinking. Because, whether it’s champagne or an alternative, the habitual festive price-slashing of the supermarkets is bound to deliver delicious fizz whatever style and budget you have in mind.

Recommendations – champagne alternatives

Reina Maria Cristina NV Cava – from £11.99 (normal price £17.99) Majestic

A stylish and beautifully balanced Cava that shows classic aromas of green apple and herbs, along with a delicate mousse and overtones of honey. Drink now to 2010. 4 stars 17

Cloudy Bay Pelorus NV, New Zealand – from £14.99 Majestic (normal price £19.99), Waitrose (awaiting price confirmation)

I must confess to not always having been a fan of Pelorus, but this sparkling offering from one of New Zealand’s most famous producers has improved enormously over the past few years and is now showing real class and finesse. Drink now to 2011. 4 stars 17

Nyetimber 2002, England – £25.99 Waitrose

I’m sure the name isn’t new to you but it’s hard to find much better English fizz than Nyetimber. This vintage wine shows bready complexity, a fine mousse and a compelling core of acidity. Drink now to 2012. 5 stars 18.5

Valdo Prosecco Extra Dry Marca Oro – £6.99 Sainsburys

Most supermarkets and merchants list a good prosecco at a reasonable price and this is one of them. Full of floral, peachy aromas and with a touch of softening sweetness, it is delightfully gluggable – just as prosecco should be. Drink now. 3 stars 15

Clover Hill Brut 2004, Tasmania – £17.99, Selfridges and independents (*I have a list if you need it).

This could never be mistaken for champagne but it is superbly complex and utterly delicious. Developed honey and mushroom aromas are complemented by intense flavours of savoury, stewed herbs in this fine and persistent fizz. Drink now to 2012. 4 stars 18

Louis Roederer Quartet NV, California – from £17.99 Majestic (normal price £23.99), Waitrose (awaiting price confirmation)

From the Champagne house of the same name and made in a similar style to Brut Premier NV, this is consistently one of the best sparkling wines on the market. Drink now to 2012. 5 stars 18.5

1531 Blanquette de Limoux – £9.99 Tesco

A highly individual style from the South of France which shows bold, rustic flavours of red apple and fresh bread. The elegant and well-conceived packaging also deserves a mention. Drink now. 3 stars 14.5

Montenisa Franciacorta Brut NV– Berkmann Wine Cellars, Zelas, £23.60

From an estate owned by the Antinori family, this is the perfect fizz for anyone who finds the acidity of champagne overwhelming. Rich and biscuity on the nose, it is fleshier and fruitier on the palate than most champagne. Drink now to 2012. 4 stars 17.5

Montana Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV, New Zealand – from £6.99 (normal price £10.49) Majestic

One of the better inexpensive sparklers I have recently tasted, this is a simple, fresh and fruity fizz with a hint of cream on the nose and lots of tangy acidity. Drink now. 3 stars 14.5

Brut Nature

If you like your champagne as dry and sophisticated as James Bond’s martinis, then brut nature is the style for you. The brut nature category was officially introduced by the CIVC in 1996 and it is reserved for champagne made without a final addition of sugar syrup and wine, known as dosage. Although these wines often contain a touch of residual sugar from fermentation, they are essentially bone dry and at best thrillingly austere and quite fascinating to taste.

As everyone knows, the Champagne region enjoys a marginal climate and dosage has historically been added to almost all champagne prior to bottling to help balance acidity and to lend roundness in the mouth. Up until now a typical brut style has had between 10 and 12 grams per litre, but with a combination of global warming leading to slightly riper grapes and increasing consumer demand for more natural products, the current trend in Champagne is towards lower-dosage wines. Although the brut nature category accounts for only a tiny fraction of the region’s total production, it has seen significant growth since its introduction and has gathered a high-profile following along the way.

Without dosage, there is nowhere to hide. To make a truly successful brut nature champagne requires an exceptional base wine with perfect balance, which is why producers tend to either specialise in low dosage wines or alternatively choose to create a totally separate blend when introducing a brut nature wine into their range.

Styles vary enormously, but in general the small, artisanal producers of brut nature avoid the use of dosage as one element of a much grander plan, the aim of which is to produce terroir-driven wines in tiny quantities that reflect an individual plot and/or variety in the most natural way possible. These wines are highly individual and at best can taste like fine white Burgundy with bubbles. Larger producers look to reflect an established house style in their brut nature wine whilst also creating something which adds diversity to the range. Whether it’s due to a current lack of availability, the use of more expensive grapes, or just clever marketing on the part of the Champenois, brut nature wines frequently command a premium over their brut equivalent.

Leaving aside the cost, if you’ve never tried brut nature champagne and feel the spine-tingling austerity of this style might initially be too much, then I’d suggest you begin by dipping a toe in the water with an extra brut wine with a small amount of dosage (extra brut wines can have up to 6 grams per litre). Jacquart, for example, make a delicious extra brut champagne that is widely available and offers a superb stepping stone towards a full-blown brut nature style.

Brut nature recommendations

Cuvée Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 – Mentzendorff £65 (awaiting price confirmation)

Ayala is one of Champagne’s leading brut nature producers and this prestige cuvée vintage wine is seriously impressive. A blend of 80% chardonnay with 20% pinot noir from grand and premier cru vineyards, it is elegant and lifted with a light truffle note on the finish. Drink now to 2015. 5 stars 18.5

Ulysse Collin Extra Brut 2004 – Vine Trail £31.95, Selfridges (awaiting price confirmation)

Made by the supremely talented Olivier Collin, this non-dosé champagne from the recently-established house of Ulysse Collin is one of the most exciting I have tasted. Aromas of toasted walnuts give way to intense minerality and flavours of bruised red apple in this truly enchanting, barrel fermented blanc de blancs. Drink now to 2012. 5 stars 19

Larmandier-Bernier ‘Terre de Vertus’ 1er Cru Non-Dosé – Vine Trail £31.95, Selfridges (awaiting price confirmation)

You can almost taste the earth in which the vines were grown when drinking this exquisite, terroir-driven, blanc de blancs champagne. Made according to biodynamic principles it is exotic, floral and spicy with honeyed overtones and flavours that are quite unique. Drink now to 2011. 5 stars 18.5

Tarlant Zero NV – M&S £28

Blended from the three champagne grapes, this is one of the less expensive brut nature champagnes on the market. Fresh and lemony in character it also shows some bready, autolytic notes and good, racy acidity. Drink now to 2010. 4 stars 16.5