Festive fizz: guide to sparkling wines (Champagne, Prosecco, Cava)

Festive fizz: your guide to sparkling wines. Champagne, Prosecco, Cava.

“Pleasure without champagne” Oscar Wilde once said, “is purely artificial.” That great wit has a point. Christmas without a glass of bubbly in your hands somehow seems rather flat.

The first thing your host shoves into your hand at this time of year, once the coats and initial formalities have been dispensed with, is some kind of fizz. There is something about all those bubbles streaming to the surface of the glass that seems magical and festive. We have compiled a short, but descriptive guide to sparkling wines, so have a look at Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco, Cava and other Italian sparkling wines. We have also covered Champagne bottles and glasses, so you can approach the festivities like an expert.

Champagne

“Remember gentlemen,” Winston Churchill once remarked, “it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” The great statesman had a weakness for Bollinger, one of the last great independent champagne houses. His sentiments are to be applauded. After all, we would all love to get our tastebuds round Bollinger’s wonderfully complex, toasty flavours.

Unfortunately, at £40 a pop, most of us certainly cannot emulate Churchill and down a pint a day. As for the rapper Jay Z’s new offering at over £500 a bottle, that is strictly for the glitterati. So is there any hope for those of us that want to enjoy the genuine article this Christmas but whose wallet is not that expansive?

The short answer is yes. The trick is to do your homework and track down the small, unfamiliar communes where you will find grower-producers that you have never heard of. Check on the label for the initials RM (Récoltant Manipulant).

In the past these small-scale growers sold their entire harvest, under contract, to the big champagne houses and their name never appeared on the label. Times are a-changing and now people like Olivier Collin in the village of Congy are coming direct to us.

As you and I sip contentedly and chatter over the canapés, uppermost in our mind are familiarity, taste and above all price. At £20-£30 a bottle we would certainly enjoy these wines if someone else is paying but what if it is our wallet that is being asked to stump up?

Crémant

As you scan a wine merchant’s list your eyes may alight on a label with the legend crémant – France’s best kept secret in sparkling wine. This one word speaks volumes: you know immediately this sparkling wine is not made in the Champagne region of France; you also know that the method used to make this wine is the same as that used for champagne.

Unfortunately crémant producers cannot be this specific on the label. The Champenois, with the full backing of EEC law, is fiercely protective of the word champagne and instead you will notice on the label the words méthode traditionelle. Same method, different wording.

Alongside the word crémant will be the name of the region and the letters AOC: the first underlines the wine’s authenticity, its origins; the second is a guarantee of quality and stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or controlled name of origin.

As you stock up for Christmas, that’s hardly going to worry you; nor is the fact that these regions don’t stick to the 3 classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. An experienced palate might pick up different flavours but there is no discernible difference in quality.

Any of the following will intrigue, impress and make your Christmas hum; none of them will break the bank:

Crémant d’Alsace AOC: crisp, dry white blends based on Pinot Blanc, with the best including a proportion of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; some producers add Riesling to give a perfumed overtone; look for the 100% rosé made from Pinot Noir.
Food pairing: excellent with Thai food simply because its sweeter and aromatic nature..

Crémant de Bourgogne AOC: creamy, rich, dry white blends where the Chardonnay grape predominates; also look out for a rosé, made from Pinot Noir with a dash of Gamay
Food pairing: try the rosé with monkfish or oven-roasted salmon

Crémant de la Loire AOC: dry white blends using Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
Food pairing: try with a goat’s cheese salad or chicken marinaded in Moroccan spices.

Crémant de Limoux AOC: made in the Languedoc, predominantly using Mauzac, a local grape variety, with some Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc; see if you can detect the bruised-apple flavours.
Food pairing: great accompaniment to fish and roast pork.

Blanquette de Limoux AOC

If you are feeling particularly adventurous this festive season try one of France’s oldest sparkling wines, also from Languedoc. It differs from it’s close relative Crémant in one crucial respect.

A Blanquette is made using the ancient Méthode Ancestrale. This means the wine retains in bottle the lees, the dead yeast cells that impart so much flavour and which would be jettisoned, quite literally, during the disgorgement process that any wine made using the champagne method undergoes. Because it still contains the lees, the bruised-apple flavour of the Crémant are that little bit more intense in the Blanquette.

Prosecco

In 1895 an Italian, Frederico Martinotti, patented a process that initially follows the champagne process, with the first, natural fermentation taking place in the bottle. Where his method departs from the champagne script is in the secondary fermentation; this takes place in stainless steel tanks.

This method is more commonly referred to as the Charmat or Tank method in honour of Eugene Charmat who adapted the process, realizing very quickly that it was much faster, far less labour intensive and the results much cheaper.

Unless you are drinking premium champagne this Christmas, the sparkling wine you bring to your lips is likely to be made using the Charmat method and if it is dry the chances are it is a Prosecco.

Prosecco takes its name from the grape (also called the Glera) and from the geographical area in Veneto, North West Italy.

The market is currently flooded with Prosecco and to be sure you are buying one that competes favourably with champagne and other sparkling wines look for the words Prosecco superiore on the label. These are wines that come from grapes harvested in the hills of the sub-region, Valdobbiadene. Anything else almost certainly comes from the plains around Treviso.

These are wines designed to be drunk young; most don’t have the subtleties of a premium champagne – the bubbles and mousse are less refined. Quite frankly, at this time of year, who cares?

Prosecco is but the tip of the iceberg. Italy is a treasure trove of sparkling wonder, from the fresh Alpine Trentino region to baking hot Sicily and column inches could be written about them. Many model themeselves on champagne, using the same grape varieties and the same strict winemaking practices. The most famous is Franciacorta D.O.C.G from the Lombardy region in the North west of the country and winemakers to look out for include Berlucchi and Ca del Bosco.

D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or D.O.C.G (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) are quality control guarantees and the latter denotes the very best that Italy produces.

Italian sparkling wines

No discussion about sparkling wine would be complete without mentioning a triumphirate of Italian sparkling wines that have defined many a student party or wedding. All 3 have a poor reputation that is undeserved:

Asti Spumante D.O.C.G and Moscato d’Asti D.O.C.G: both wines come from the Piedmont region of north west Italy; both use the same grape, the Moscato Bianco; this grape’s sweet, aromatic properties produce wines that are the perfect fit for chocolate and light desserts.

Lambrusco: there isn’t a student of a certain age who cannot recall, without mixed feelings, drinking sweet fizzy red from Emilia-Romagna in the central-east. This Italian joker has now come of age. If you are feeling brave this Christmas, want to get the tastebuds talking and the tongues wagging I dare you to pour everyone a glass of Clieto Chiarli’s Premium Vecchia Modena, Lambrusco di Sorbara. At 11 per cent alcohol this wine has moved up a gear from the 4 per-centers you may remember. Its clean cut, bone dry finish will slice effortlessly through that joint of beef.

Cava

Lambrusco is not the only former student joker that has grown up. No student party was complete without either Lambrusco or a glass of deep yellow cava, with overtones of burnt rubber.

Cava is still produced on an industrial scale (230 million bottles) and production remains in the hands of a mere 271 producers, most notably Freixenet and Codorniu.

Cava, however, has been steadily reforming. Since 1986 and the introduction of the D.O.C quality system all cava has been made using the Metodo Tradicionel (code for the champagne method). Only 3 grapes have been permitted, all indigenous: the Viura (Macabeo), Xarel-lo and Paralleda. Recently Chardonnay has been allowed into this exclusive club.

Slip your mates in the local wine circle a glass of the bone dry Gramona Brut Nature Gran Reserva and watch the respect slowly settle over their faces. These wines, rivalling champagne not just in quality but also in price, are now being joined by own label wines that are giving Prosecco and the other champagne ‘pretenders’ some healthy competition.

The English are coming. A word on English sparkling wines

In quality terms arguably the real challenger to champagne’s crown is right on your doorstep, here in ‘Blighty’ itself. English sparkling wine, from Cornwall to the South Downs, has come of age. Vineyards such as Ambriel and Nyetimber in West Sussex are producing seriously good fizz.

In many respects these wines are a mirror image of champagne itself: the grape varieties are the same, as is the method of production. The South Downs even has that crucial flint and chalk soil that gives champagne its identity.

The volumes are tiny and the price tag is similar to champagne but this is Christmas so to heck with it. Track down a bottle of Ambriel’s Classic Cuvée and open it sitting by the log fire. A few sips and all will be right with your world.

Waitrose Cellar has a good selection of English sparkling wines for your to try. Nyetimber is awesome with so many International awards.

Champagne bottle

As you unpack your mixed case of wines that will hopefully keep your Christmas afloat, your haul resembles a school rugby photograph from yesteryear: the tall, lanky Alsace, useful in the lineout, standing loftily above the classically shaped ‘winger’ from Bordeaux; both dwarfed in stature by the powerful frame of the Champenois, with the broad shoulders of a prop forward.

These broad shoulders are vital. As a prop forward needs his strength in the scrum, so a Champagne bottle needs that wide frame and extra thick glass to withstand the pressure building up inside the bottle during secondary fermentation.

The yeast and sugar dosage added at this stage activates the carbon dioxide. In the primary fermentation, usually in stainless steel tanks, the carbon dioxide can escape. Once in the bottle, these natural gases have nowhere to go.

A powder keg of pressure builds up that can amount to as much as 90 pounds per square inch, 3 times the pressure inside a standard tyre. It is small wonder that in times past a sparkling winemaker could lose up to 90% of his production as the bottles exploded in a crescendo akin to Beethoven’s nineth symphony in full voice.

A champagne bottle needs all the help it can get to contain this kind of pressure and the punt, or indent at the base of a champagne bottle (and found in most wine bottles) is also thickened to add extra strength and evenly distribute the pressure; this also explains why a champagne cork is always much chunkier than a standard cork, and why it is further secured by the wire clasp.

The Glass. Champagne flutes or tulips?

The type of glass into which you pour your champagne is really up to you. After all, Christmas should be fun and there are more serious issues to get stressed about than the type of glass you use.

However, what scientists have confirmed is that the style of glass you offer your guests will determine the taste and sensory experiences they receive. When you are proffered a glass of bubbly you are generally handed 1 of 3 kinds of glass: the bowl or coupe, the flute and lastly the tulip.

The Bowl: next time you download and watch Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby, concentrate this time not on what Leonardo de Caprio is saying and doing but on the glass he is holding in his hand.

You are looking at a champagne coupe, a wide-brimmed, shallow glass with a wide stem that is evocative of those fast, heady and extravagant years of the early twentieth century.
You may even have inherited some of these from your grandparents and be tempted to pull them out of the glass cabinet, dust them off and press them into active service.

You may well, like many of us, have quietly consigned grandpa’s heirlooms to the charity shop. When you fall in love with champagne you fall in love with not only its taste and sensory charms but importantly you are captivated by those thousands of bubbles rushing to the surface of the glass.

In a champagne coupe these bubbles, after the initial excitement, quickly dissipate and by the time you get your nose and lips to the rim the effect is lost.

The Champagne flute, shaped like a supermodel, with its long stem and equally slim bowl, concentrates the fizz, as it is poured, at the base of the bowl. The flavours and aromas locked into the bubbles are then chanelled at high speed to the surface but unlike the coupe, a flute’s narrow rim means the bubbles stick around long enough for the nose to get that tingling sensation and for the taste buds to enjoy the aromas and flavours.

The Tulip: flutes are perfectly fine for most everyday fizz but Christmas is the time when those special bottles make an appearance. These wines have subtle nuances that don’t get a chance to express themselves in a flute because the narrow rim that is slow to release the bubbles is in no rush to release the aromas and flavours either.

The tulip, so named because it is shaped like the tulip flower, may not be as stylish as the coupe or flute but its wider bowl will encourage the special aromas and flavours to slowly emerge.

Festive fizz: guide to sparkling wines (Champagne, Prosecco, Cava)Whichever glass you choose, whatever you decide to pour into it, your choices are global and there is no need to break the bank. Offline and online, everyone has a deal and it pays to shop around.
Have a look at our selection of ISO tasting glasses and more expensive Riedel sets – wine gifts are reviewed here. More more inspiration on where to buy Champagne and get the most value for money – have a look at our All Wine Clubs in the UK feature article.
So happy shopping, Merry Christmas and a very happy New 2016 year!

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