A Taste for Everyone Champagne
It was Coco Chanel who famously said “I only drink champagne on two occasions. When I am in love and when I am not.”
It’s been over 40 years since she died – in which time champagne has been joined by a whole host of sparkling wines from all over the world – often drunk to toast a special occasion or wedding, but always with pleasure. Here’s Take Stock’s guide to the most popular options.
A word sometimes erroneously used to describe any sort of fizzy wine, but actually a specific region of France, centred upon Reims, east of Paris and the only geographical area allowed to use the ‘champagne’ descriptive for their wines.
Champagne itself can be made from three grapes – white chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – the latter two, somewhat surprisingly, being red skinned grapes.
Because up to three different grapes can be used, champagnes can have distinctly different tastes or ‘house” styles. Actual blends are generally a closely guarded secret, but sometimes a wine is described as ‘blanc de blancs’ which means only white grapes have been used, whilst ‘blancs de noirs’ tells you the champagne is made from the red skinned varieties.
The process of creating champagne – the méthode champenoise – is well documented. Suffice to say it is both complicated and labour intensive – which goes some way to explaining why the finished product is not cheap…but that’s part of the attraction!
Champagne also has the distinct advantage of offering something to suit everyone’s palate. Like a super dry taste?
Look for Brut Nature or Brut Zero. Then moving up the scale of sweetness you have Extra Brut; Brut; Extra-Sec; Sec (medium dry); Demi-Sec and sweetest of all – Doux. So, a taste for everyone. As the use of the word champagne is strictly controlled, French producers outside of the area have adopted different terms to describe the sparkling wines they make. Two examples to look out for are:
- Crémant – wines from eight AOC areas that are produced within strict guidelines, using the same methods as in champagne.
- Vouvray – hailing from the Loire Valley, Vouvray wines are typically made from the chenin blanc grape and can offer brilliant value.
The French are justifiably proud of their sparkling wines, but to a true Italian, there is no need to leave their shores. Historically, by far the best known Italian sparkling wines were astis and
lambruscos, joined now by Franciacorto
and prosecco sparklers.
Hailing from the Asti region in Piedmont, asti is made from the moscato grape, giving it a slightly sweet taste. Production costs are reduced by use of the Charmat method, where secondary fermentation takes place in large tanks, with the finished wine being bottled under pressure. Asti is normally lower in alcohol level than champagne, with the moscato d’asti ‘frizzante’ even less.
Mention lambrusco and many people will immediately think of cheap, red fizzy wine. This is a shame, as there are growers in the Emilia-Romagne region of Italy who use the lambrusco grape to produce some really high quality red, white and rosé sparklers.
Because of the wide range available – there are at least 13 different lambrusco grape varieties for example – you need to talk to your wholesaler. Look for a bottle-fermented lambrusco for quality, and have one of the sweeter varieties as a superb accompaniment to chocolate desserts.
The Franciacorta region is home to most of Italy’s sparkling wine production, mainly using chardonnay and pinot bianco grapes. Wines carrying the DOCG label have no more than 15% pinot nero grape and will have been aged on their lees for between 18 and 30 months.
Made in exactly the same way as champagne, cava is Spain’s favourite sparkling wine. Most of Spain’s production comes from the Catalan region – where the main grape varieties of macabeo, parellada, xarel-lo and of course chardonnay thrive. These grapes contribute to a slightly less complex taste than champagne, but standards are getting better, year-by-year. Production costs are kept down through the use of greater levels of mechanisation, so there are some excellent value wines available to the on-trade.
Often thought of as an affordable alternative to champagne, prosecco’s keen pricing comes about through use of the Charmat tank method. Made in and around the town of Valdobbiadene from the prosecco grape, the wine can be found in both spumante (fully sparkling) and frizzante (lightly sparkling) forms. There are also varying degrees of sweetness – Brut (driest), Extra Dry, or Dry (sweetest).
In 2014 the UK was the top export market for prosecco, with some on-trade operations selling it ‘on tap’ rather than from a bottle. This has prompted Italian makers to take legal action in an attempt to enforce a 2009 European law that stipulated prosecco could only be served from glass bottles. Ask your wholesaler for advice.
Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine and is used to describe fizz from both there and Austria. The vast majority of sekt is produced using the tank method, though some traditionally produced wines are made. German producers tend to favour riesling and pinot blanc grapes, Austrian’s often going for grüner veltliner and welschriesling. Around 90% of sekt is made at least partially with imported grapes. If you want a wine made with just German grapes, look for the label Deutscher Sekt or Sekt b.A.
New Kids on the Block
The different types of sparkling wine have, traditionally been European. But times are changing…
California has been producing sparkling wine since 1892 – pioneers being the Korbel brothers who brought the méthode champenoise across with them from Bohemia. Some of the world’s most famous champagne houses now have wineries in the region, including Moët et Chandon, Tattinger, Mumm and Louis Roederer.
Wines made using traditional champagne methods carry the label MCC – Methode Cap Classique. Grapes are predominantly chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, though these are now being joined by chardonnay and pinot noir. Because of the climate, most SA wines have a fruity taste. If you’re looking for an unusual addition to your wine list, try and find one of the red sparkling pinotages now being produced.
Whilst the history of Australian sparkling wine goes back to around 1826, it is in the last 30 years that Australian wine producers have established themselves as masters at making high quality sparkling wines. Predominantly based in Victoria and Tasmania, quality has been driven by both the willingness to embrace new techniques (e.g. screw caps) and investment by and cooperation with French champagne houses, including Moët and Roederer.
Most Australian sparking wines use the classic grape combinations of chardonnay and pinot noir, but in recent years there have been new offerings, including the red sparkling shiraz.
English sparkling wine is growing enormously in both popularity and quality. Indeed, English wineries are now regularly winning international awards – taking on and beating competition from French champagne houses. This improvement has seen sales on English sparkling wine grow – one supermarket chain reporting a 32% rise in just the past year – so definitely worth considering for your wine list!