The sound of corks popping will soon herald the advent of the festive season – but it doesn’t have to be Champagne every time. Susie Barrie MW finds there’s great style, flavour and value to be had in Cava, Prosecco, Crémant and New World sparkling wines
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 in the coming weeks and seeking out the best deals on everything from Wiis to celebratory fizz will be the order of the day.
The news that shipments of Champagne were down 20% in the first six months of this
year, with producers keen to move unsold stock, led to a rash of newspaper headlines predicting rock-bottom prices on Champagne in the run-up to Christmas. A not unreasonable assumption given the circumstances, surely?
However, the Champenois have other ideas and recently announced a lowering of permitted yields. Head of the Union des Maisons de Champagne, Ghislain de Montgolfier, who has been accused of doing this to keep Champagne in its luxury price bracket, believes it will avoid a possible rash of sub-£10 bottles hitting our shelves as stock levels rise (read his views on p13).
Although indications still suggest there will be the usual last-minute tussle between merchants and supermarkets seeking to outdo each other with tempting deals for the festive season, it seems we’re no more likely to see super-cheap Champagne this year than any other.
With this in mind, could it be worth looking further afield for your festive fizz, adding something else to your basket alongside your favourite Champagne? Because in almost every winemaking country in the world, someone, somewhere is making sparkling wine. Quality is increasingly on the up and a lot of what is being made is considerably cheaper.
Top of the list is the sparkling wine of the moment, Prosecco – a typically light-bodied, off-dry Italian fizz with a delicate, frothy mousse and attractive peach-blossom aromas. When I spoke to UK wine buyers about current sales of Prosecco, the words ‘phenomenal’, ‘amazing’, ‘mad’, even ‘scary’ all came up. At Tesco, one in 10 bottles of non-Champagne sparkling wine now sold is Prosecco; at Majestic and Sainsburys, sales are up 60% to 70%; even high-end outlets considerably cheaper.such as Selfridges have seen a 50% increase in sales of their own-label Prosecco over the past year.
The best 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 help the consumer understand the two levels of quality’. But it’s hard to believe the DOCG classification won’t eventually mean higher prices, so I’d suggest you take advantage of the great value that Prosecco offers before it’s too late.
What Prosecco is not and never will be, is anything like Champagne. Cava, however, another sparkling favourite, can be much closer in style as they use a similar method of production. Justin Apthorp, buying director for Majestic, describes Codorníu’s premium Reina Maria Cristina NV as, ‘perhaps the most Champagne-like in style of all our sparkling range’. Apthorp goes on to explain that the cool European climate is a great help when you’re looking to emulate the elegance of Champagne. But a typical glass of Cava will have softer acidity than Champagne and the flavours will be of green apple, honey and dried herbs.
The quality of top-end Cavas has improved enormously over the past few years, with large companies like Codorníu now using satellite imaging in the vineyards and experimenting – with barrel fermentation, for example – to make ever- more complex wines. Given that most ‘expensive’ Cava is usually around £10, it is clearly an interesting budget option.
The problem with Cava occurs further down the price scale: below £5, most of it is a waste of money. At this level, the traditional Spanish Cava grapes tend to be overcropped and at best make fairly tasteless fizz, and at worst something approaching a headache in a glass. Unless you intend to make Bucks Fizz, you’ll need to spend upwards of £7 to get something that is truly worth drinking.
Crémant is a lesser-known style that shouldn’t be overlooked when considering inexpensive Champagne alternatives. This traditional-method fizz is made all over France from grapes local to the various regions and although styles vary, these wines tend to show 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. Although availability is limited, more and more sparkling wine buyers are talking about Crémant and new wines are appearing all the time.
New World diversity
The New World has always offered very drinkable wines at affordable prices and the sparkling wine category is 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 £5 to £7, many of these are very acceptable, inexpensive wines that are well suited to drinking without food and are ideal for easy-going festive parties.
However, if you’re looking for something from the New World that might rival Champagne, 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, refreshing style of Jacob’s Creek but wanted a more 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 (especially 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. yeasty character,’ says its wine development director,
What all of these top wines have in common, and what makes them so elegant, is cool-climate viticulture. According to Dr Andrew Pirie, CEO and chief winemaker of Tamar Ridge 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 without fruitiness that is lost in warmer regions’.
Renowned sparkling wine expert Dr Tony Jordan, winemaking consultant for Oenotec, 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 is: can you bear to miss out on the magic of Champagne? For some readers, it is only Champagne that will ever fit the bill. But if you can open your mind to bubblies from elsewhere – or you need a cheaper alternative for the party season – you may be pleasantly surprised by the price and taste of what you find yourself drinking. Adrian Atkinson. ‘So we added a little more aged wine to the final blend.’
Written by Susie Barrie