“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.
Not so long ago, English Wine was a joke – and a not very funny one at that! The pioneering growers in the 1960s and 70s chose to plant the varieties they thought were likely to ripen in our climate – often the unexciting Muller-Thurgau (the main grape in Liebfraumilch). They then tried to balance the inevitable acidity of barely ripe grapes by leaving plenty of residual sweetness in the wine, often back-blending in the German style (“sussreserve”) for extra sweetness. The result: wines that were, in the main, ‘interesting’ – in a masochistic sort of way!
How things have changed in the last 2 decades! English wines have improved beyond all recognition and many are multiple international award winners – often against the best in Champagne. In particular, our sparkling wines grown in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire on the same chalk soils you find in Champagne and using the same grape varieties. Many are so good that Champagne producers are buying up land in the south of England to produce their own versions. But, despite this, many customers’ views of English wine are still conditioned by the past and it remains an uphill struggle to convince them.
But there’s a great opportunity soon for those who haven’t tasted an English wine recently (or even those who have): English Wine Week begins on Saturday 27th May and many vineyards and wine merchants are holding special events to celebrate.
Not wanting to be caught out without a relevant bottle or two to open during that week, I’ve been collecting a few examples on recent shopping trips. The problem is, once they’re sitting on the wine rack, the temptation is close at hand and, in fact, the empty bottle from the Devon-based Sharpham vineyard’s Estate Selection dry white (Waitrose, £13.99) is already in the recycling bin. It was delightfully fresh and floral and, although only 11.5% alcohol, there was enough weight to go with some flavoursome smoked whiting.
English wines really have changed. Do give them a try.
It’s that time of year again! So, if you’re going to have some friends around over the holiday season, what better choice to welcome them than with a glass of something sparkling?
‘It’s Christmas so it must be Champagne’ will be the view of many but, as regular readers to this Blog will know, English Sparkling wines are consistently beating the Champenois at their own game and, for me, a bottle of something from Nyetimber, RidgeView or one of the many other accomplished English sparkling wine producers is a better choice – as well as a good talking point. You’ll find them at many wine merchants and Waitrose supermarkets for £20 – £30 – the same sort of price you’d pay for a reasonable Champagne.
But, if your budget won’t stretch that far, there are many excellent value alternatives. French wines made outside the Champagne region but using the same production method are called ‘Crémants’ and bottles from Alsace or the Loire can often be found in supermarkets and are frequently very good buys.
From Spain and Italy respectively, both Cava and Prosecco have become increasingly popular in recent years – and for good reason; but do avoid the ultra-cheapies: sparkling wine making is a complex process when done properly and bottles selling for around £6 or £7 are likely to be pretty basic and uninteresting. Prefer something around £10 and, if you’re going for a Prosecco, look for the letters DOCG rather than just DOC on the label – the ‘G’ is important and will be on all the best examples.
But that’s just Europe. If you normally prefer still wines from the New World, why not sparkling wine from there, too? New Zealand has an ideal climate and Pelorus (Majestic, £17.99) and Lindauer (same supplier, £10.99) are favourites of mine, while Champagne producer Moët and Chandon have set up in Argentina and clearly know what they’re doing – their Brut and Rosé are each £12.99 (Majestic, again).
So, there you are. My quick guide to some sparkling wines for a sparkling holiday season.