Despite these economically challenged times there are always reasons to celebrate – a new job, a promotion, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, Christmas, New Year, even a humble bank holiday.
And while Champagne is rightly the undisputed champion of all things fizzy, the diversity and excellence of alternative sparkling wines is well worth exploring. Not only are they a less wallet-shredding alternative to Champagne, many are of course serious wines that offer much more than cheap imitation. They come in various styles and prices and can be made from grape varieties other than King Pinot Noir and Queen Chardonnay. Both non-vintage and vintage wines are available, in red as well as white and rosé. Consequently, there are different flavours and experiences on offer and of course there are different food matching opportunities too.
There are also marked differences in alcoholic strength and even in how fizzy they actually are. The fizz is more than just gas pressure, it covers the size of the bubbles and also the character of the foaming mousse, which ranges from aggressive frothing to quietly sophisticated and subtle bubble streams – and all points in between.
As with Champagne, it’s all about the bubbles. They carry with them a range of irresistible connotations. They can make us feel elegant, sophisticated, generous and carefree, and console us in harder times. Such feelings occur before the bottle is opened with an anticipatory pop, so it can’t be the effect of alcohol. No wonder sparkling wines are the first choice for any celebration.
I prefer to explore the wealth of sparkling wines from around the world rather than endure the disappointments of cheap Champagne. Good Champagne is without peer, but with a few notable exceptions most of the cheap examples lining supermarket shelves are inferior, palate-insulting and unworthy of the name – and a waste of your hard-earned.
The old world has too many distinctive and memorable regional sparklers to list. From France, look out for the various regional crémants, including those made in the Loire, Jura, Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux and Bordeaux, while Spain can offer Cava. Germany makes Sekt (the home-grown examples made from Riesling are generally far superior); while Italian examples include Franciacorta, Prosecco and Asti. There is even seriously made Lambrusco! Meanwhile, England can be rightly proud of fine examples which rightly keep on picking up awards.
In the new world, South Africa has a long established history of sparkling winemaking, the best examples from there being known as Cap Classique. Australia, New Zealand and California all have highly regarded sparkling wines, frequently as a result of the Champagne houses expanding their operations in new territories. For example, Moët & Chandon, Roederer and Veuve Cliquot all operate such wineries.
New territories like China, Brazil and India are also getting in on the act. Russia and the Ukraine make sparkling wine in industrial quantities but fortunately for us most never gets to the UK. The quality is dire, largely as a result of inferior production methods with the worst simply carbonated.
One of the two biggest influences on sparkling wine quality is the quality of the base wine, which in turn is dependent on the quality of the grapes themselves. The other big influence is in the winery, were the production process employed to trap the bubbles of carbon dioxide in the wine is all important. With honourable exceptions (step forward Prosecco and Asti that use their own traditions), the best sparkling wines are made by a second fermentation of the base wines in bottle. This is the same lengthy and expensive process as used in Champagne itself and it is usually described on the label as the traditional or classic method.
As with Champagne, sparklers can be drunk throughout a meal, offering many opportunities for food and wine pairing, so please don’t limit them only to the role of apéritif. Choose a Brut (dry) white with plenty of acidity for seafood and salads, while a dry but creamier white will be good with fish or chicken. A red or rosé can pair up with grilled meats, barbeques and Sunday lunch. A magical combination often overlooked is to drink a demi-sec (semi-sweet or sweet) bubbly with lighter desserts and cheese.
Sparkling wine may even be inexpensive enough to use as a base for the most decadent
cocktails. And here lies another advantage; you can always pep up a dull wine by adding a little something to it. Here are three sophisticated cocktails that are quick, easy and delicious:
Kir Royale. Just add a few drops of crème de cassis to the glass and pour the sparkling wine over, for a classic French cocktail. Alternatively, use framboise or peach schnapps;
Bellini. Add a small amount of peach purée to a glass of Prosecco to create this Venetian classic. It tastes miles better than bucks fizz;
Champagne cocktail. Put one drop of angostura bitters onto a sugar cube in the glass and slowly add the wine to dissolve it. If no angostura is to hand, try a drop of brandy instead.
The world of sparkling wine has so much worth discovering. And for anyone that doesn’t like bubbles? I like to think that you just haven’t found your fizzical experience yet – but it’s out there waiting.
Paul Howard is the publisher of Wine Alchemy (winealchemy.com) and a judge at the International Wines and Spirits Competition and the International Wine Challenge.