“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?” It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about. But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice. It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.
Why the emphasis on a cool climate? Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles. But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%. If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising. Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.
What of the evening itself? We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25.
And the reaction of the tasters? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2. Although not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all.
The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14). Delicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight. Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.
Take a high quality grape variety native to Galicia in North West Spain, plant it in Marlborough in New Zealand and what do you get? A delicious surprise!
Or, so I found when I tasted Stanley Estates Alboriño (Waitrose, £14.99) recently. It has a similar character to examples from its home region: quite rich and mouth-coating but with lovely freshness and aromas and flavours of pink grapefruit, apple and peach. Just a touch off-dry, this would be an excellent match for a fish dish in a creamy sauce, some pan-seared scallops or, thinking of the grape’s Spanish origins, perhaps a paella.
Until now, Alboriño wasn’t a grape I associated with New Zealand – in fact, Stanley Estates claim that they were the first to plant it there and their first vintage from it was only produced in 2012. But the location was clearly a good choice; both Galicia and Marlborough’s Awatere Valley have relatively cool climates and, with the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc thriving so well in Marlborough, then why not Alboriño? Except that no-one, apart from Stanley Estates, thought of it.
Stanley is a new name to me – although, perhaps, it shouldn’t be: after completing Horticulture degrees at Bath University, just a few miles down the road from here in Bristol, the owners, Bridget Ennals and Steve Pellett travelled the world for a few years before putting down roots – and vine roots! – in their present base in Marlborough. Within 2 years of their first bottling, they had won the award for Best International Sauvignon Blanc at the 2011 London International Wine Challenge – a variety they still produce alongside some Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Alboriño and another little-known variety that I must look out for, the northern Italian native, Lagrein.
I’m always happy to see some of the lesser-known grapes that were previously restricted to quite a small area, finding their way to new locations, especially when such high quality varieties as Alboriño land in what appears to be perfect conditions for it to thrive and show its best.
Pinot Noir is the trickiest grape. It can make great wines or disappointingly ordinary ones. The problem is that it’s very choosy about where it grows: it generally prefers a coolish climate to show off its subtle elegance. But, too cool and it won’t ripen properly resulting in raw, green flavours. On the other hand, too warm and you get thick, jammy fruit. And don’t ask the vines to produce too many bunches or the wine will be dilute and thin. So growing – and buying – Pinot Noir wines can be a nightmare.
The grape is a native of Burgundy, but the growers there only get it right some of the time; the USA turns out some fine examples, as does New Zealand. But good bottles from any of these places are generally quite pricey (£15+) and I usually avoid cheaper – sometimes even mid-priced – examples as they rarely show much Pinot character. So I must have been in a good mood (or not thinking!) as I picked up a bottle from a Tesco shelf recently. Wairau Cove Pinot Noir (£9) is described as from New Zealand’s South Island – an interesting description as I’m more used to seeing a more precise origin such as Marlborough or Nelson or Central Otago. ‘South Island’ sounds as though it might be a blend of fruit from more than one region, although the Wairau River flows through Marlborough. A clue or just a convenient Kiwi-sounding name?
Whichever, the wine itself was a pleasant surprise: a typical earthy, ‘farmyard’ nose (some describe it more explicitly!), quite light-bodied in the mouth but plenty of fruit – stewed plums and some slightly dried fruit flavours – and a reasonable finish, too. So how do Tesco do it for the price? It appears from the label that the wine may have been shipped from New Zealand in tanker and bottled here in the UK. Not what we might expect in a £9 wine, but, in this case, it’s given us a very drinkable Pinot Noir at a fair price. Nothing tricky about that!