Spotlight – Sparkling Wines (part 1)

Everyone loves a glass of bubbles right?  Actually, I’ve never been a huge fan, but having recently judged some Prestige Cuvée Champagnes (the best wines in a producer’s portfolio) I must admit some totally blew me away with their quality.

There is a huge amount of sparkling wine out there to choose from and as it’s less than 12 weeks to Christmas (sorry but it’s true!!) it won’t be long before you start seeing all the pre-Xmas Sparkling wine offers on the shelves, so this blog is to give a 101 on Sparkling, what to look for, what’s worth a try and what you should steer clear of…..

Let us start with France and the “Daddy”…Champagne

Champagne has its own French Appellation and only sparkling wine made by the traditional method (more on this a bit later) within this appellation can call itself ‘Champagne’.  Whilst technically 7 grapes can be used, the vast majority are made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.

You may notice on the label the terms:

Blanc de Blanc (made solely from white grapes)
Blanc de Noirs (made solely from red grapes) – and no these aren’t red wines they are white. How is this achieved? Quite simply most colour comes from the grape skins, so if there is no skin contact there is no colour extracted…Simple!
Rosé – made usually by blending a small amount of red wine into the white base wine pre second fermentation, to give it colour. Note – Champagne is the only controlled appellation within the EU allowed to do this.

The key thing to note with Champagne is the term “Traditional Method” (aka méthode traditionnelle, Méthode Champenoise).  I won’t go into too much of the technical stuff but the main thing to remember is this is when the second fermentation (ie the one that leads to all the bubbles being created), is carried out in the bottle, to be precise in that exact bottle!

Production costs are much higher for these wines, given the processes and time involved in the creation. I can get a bit geeky with the various production methods ie tirage, lees ageing, riddling, disgorgement and I sense I may be losing some of you here, so I will move on as there are lots of other bits to talk about.

There is a Cru system in Champagne: Grand Cru made from grapes from the top ranked vineyards and Premier Cru the second best ranked vineyards.

Most champagnes are blends and will be either Non Vintage (NV) ie made from a blend of wines over numerous vintages or Vintage wines, which as the name suggests come from one particular year/vintage and must be kept for minimum of 3 years in bottle before being released for sale.

There are a variety of styles from the bone dry Brut  Nature – with no dosage (sugars) added post disgorgement, through Extra Brut and Brut (dry styles with Extra Brut having less sugar), then onto wines with some sweetness rather paradoxically called Extra-Sec (Extra Dry) and Sec but in reality not that dry at all, up to Demi-Sec (Medium Dry) but in reality, quite sweet and finally Doux (very sweet)

One other thing I find interesting, ok it’s a tad geeky but is worth a look next time you buy a bottle if you are so inclined! On the label you will find a 2 letter code ie RM, MA, NM, CM this gives you a clue as to the type of producer and thus quality. ie

RM (Recoltant Manipulant) – a grower’s own wine he/she makes from their own grapes – I personally think some great quality comes from this group and are well worth looking out for.
NM – This is the biggest category and includes most of the major Champagne Houses who buy in grapes as well as use their own vineyards.
MA – signifies a brand name which is owned by a restaurant/supermarket. You may find a lot of sparkling on offer in supermarkets fall into this category.

Have a look at the images below, this shows what I am talking about more clearly.

Next we have Cremant

I’ve noticed a lot of these being sold in LIDL and Aldi, and it’s worth noting here these can be exceptionally good value.  Why? Because they are made by exactly the same production method as Champagne (ie Traditional, second ferment in the bottle) but are from other regions in France who are legally unable to use the term Champagne or Méthode Champenoise, yet prices are substantially lower – think less than a tenner!

Styles are similar in terms of dry-sweetness scales and most do a rose version.

One main difference is that these wines from regions including Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Jura, Limoux, Loire, use grapes more synonymous with each particular regions ie Alsace Cremant could be Riesling, Pinot Gris etc.

Leaving France, we will head to Italy and the phenomenon that has become Prosecco.

Fast becoming the sparkling wine of choice in the UK market due to its often (off dry) fruity style, it certainly seems like you can’t go anywhere these days without seeing someone quaffing a glass of Prosecco.

Why is it a lot more inexpensive than Champers?  A lot is to do with the method of production – made from the Glera grape predominantly, whilst some bottle fermented wines are made, most are tank fermented (Charmat or Martinotti method – in case you’re geeky…sorry…interested!), basically it’s a lot cheaper to make, the base wine and all the ingredients needed for the second fermentation are added to a big tank and after the desired pressure is reached, the wine is chilled, dosage (sugar) added and then the wine is bottled  under pressure thereby retaining the bubbles.

The main thing to note with this style is that it generally produces wines which are softer, fruitier and often sweeter than Champagne: Brut is the driest, with most wines Extra Dry or Dry (which can have up to 32g residual sugar!).

What I would suggest when you are looking for your next bottle of Prosecco to quaff, is that whilst there is a vast sea of average Prosecco out there, there is also a lot of good stuff, and as a pointer look for DOCG with the words Conegliano and or Valdobbiadane on them.

Also, be aware that you may see the term Frizzante on the label – this is lightly sparkling as opposed to Spumante which means fully sparkling. A clue is how the bottle is capped – screw cap means lightly sparkling!

Other Italian Sparkling you may see include Franciacorta

This is a high quality (DOCG) sparkling also made by traditional method and has production and ageing regulations similar to Champagne. (Note: the term: Saten is their equivalent of Blanc de Blanc) You don’t see many of these wines certainly not in supermarkets, but they are worth trying. Ca’ Del Bosco is a producer to look for.

Asti on the other hand is a totally different type of wine: fruity, fresh, frothy (and sweet!).  This wine has its own quirky method of production, the first fermentation is stopped with wine still at low alcohol levels, the wine is held at cold temperatures before the second fermentation occurs in a pressurised tank so retaining the bubbles. This fermentation is also halted early so retaining sugar in the final wine hence the sweetness and much lower alcohol than other sparkling wines.

One wine which used to be popular but has fallen out of fashion these days is Lambrusco – producing frothy red or rose wines, most of which are produced by the tank method (described above). Lambrusco can range from dry (Seco) to Sweet (Dulce) and can be Frizzante or Spumante. More serious wines are now being made since the move from quantity back to quality over recent years but prices are still comparatively low. Producers such as Caviro are worth looking for.

Moving into Spain and we have Cava

Personally I believe that “bang for your buck” wise, Cava is a better choice than Prosecco delivering traditional method (Methodo Tradicional) wine with similar ageing requirements at a fraction of the cost of Champagne.  The problem with Cava I believe is the name – it’s just not very sexy or memorable but the wines can be very good. Codorniu or Freixenet are big names in the Cava Market.

Using native grapes: ie Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo, Trepat, Garnacha as well as some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, wines are typically fresh and easy drinking and for me give Prosecco more than a run for its money.  Indeed Cava is seeing a surge in quality and a recent new category Cava de Paraje (Single vineyard Cava) has been established to further push this.

Next week I will look at English Sparkling (which believe me is very good and getting better) and why we really can lay claim now to producing some of the best traditional method sparkling wines to rival those of Champagne, as well as a look at the New World Sparklers from Australia, New Zealand and beyond.  I will also touch on the dreaded carbonated wines and how to spot them!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Caroline Frewing

    Thanks Sam. That’s really interesting and will be most helpful when I’m stood in the aisles and searching (usually cluelessly) for a bottle of fizz!

  2. Lee Elliott

    Loving this info Sam. Very interesting

  3. sams01

    Glad it’s of interest! Nearer Christmas I will do some fizz recommendations which may help further.

  4. sams01

    Thanks Lee. I will include some Aussie sparklers in part 2!

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