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BUBBLES

BUBBLES

You can picture it. A drop-dead gorgeous lady is holding court at a dinner party. She begins her spiel with a story about drinking Champagne at The Four Seasons with Gianni, who you would just ADORE. While she continues her story I start to drift off. I wonder if it really was Champagne that she was drinking, and if she ended up sleeping with Gianni.

Chances are that it was Prosecco, and Gianni went home with nothing but the bill. But the point is that I feel sorry for the Champenois, who have worked so hard to protect the name of the place where they make their sublime bubbles. Alas, for many wine drinkers, sipping some god awful sparkling wine from Peru still qualifies it as Champagne. Shame on you.
Although Champagne is the benchmark, there are some very good quality sparkling wines made around the world. Actually, there are some that outclass Champagne itself. And given the price of the real deal, it’s worth looking at what other options exist.

The short story, for those of you who are already bored of reading, is that California produces the best bubbly outside Champagne and it’s half the price. If you want to spend even less then consider Spanish Cava, which is a bargain. And if you like something fruity and oh-so-sophisticated to pronounce then order some Prosecco. Finally, if you’re 18 and its Prom night then fill your boots with some sweet frothy Asti, close your eyes, and hope for the best.

When you are evaluating quality in sparkling wine the key things to look for are complexity of aromatics and flavors on the palate. You want a wine that evolves, with layers of flavors. Another key aspect, that is unique to bubbly, is the texture of the mousse. It should be soft and creamy, rather than sharp and aggressive. Otherwise, the acidity is important, and should be balanced with the dryness and fruitiness, so you avoid anything being too tart, or too flabby for that matter.

Champagne is the benchmark because many of them have exactly these qualities. They make wines that undergo much longer ageing than most other sparkling wines. This allows the nuances of toasty notes, hazelnuts, and fresh baked bread to evolve, the impression of acidity to soften, and the wines to take on great depth. Plus of course they have the inherent quality of the grapes which is due to the chalky soils, cool climate and other aspects of this unique terroir.

But if you’d like to explore other sparkling wines then try some Cremant, which means French sparkling wine made outside the Champagne area, but using the same methods. You can find good Cremant from the Loire valley, where they use Chenin Blanc for the most part. These can have lovely flavors of ripe apple, and a bracing thread of acidity that will make your mouth water for minutes.

Alsace also makes some very nice Cremant, often using Sylvaner, a white grape variety. Some people accuse the producers of only using lesser vineyards or poor quality grapes to make Cremant, but in fact some of these can be quite delicious. I once met a producer who specialized in Cremant in Alsace, and claimed to have beaten the Champenois in blind tastings. But alas the marketing might of the famous Champagne houses are always quick to dismiss such claims, with a polite but gentle shake of the head, as if to say that you can’t compare a Ferrari to a Honda.

Anyway, you can find Cremant from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and even the south of France in Limoux. Each region uses different grapes but the wines are almost always bone dry, light to medium in body, with a crisp and crunchy acidity. Expect to pay between $20-$30 for most of them, but don’t expect layers of complexity.

Elsewhere in Europe, you’ll find a gigantic amount of sparkling wine from Spain, known as Cava. I’m always amazed at the price of Cava, which is often under $20. They use the same traditional methods of production as the Champenois, but the grape varieties are usually indigenous Spanish things with impossible names. Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada hardly roll off the tongue.

The style of Cava can sometimes be identified as having a smell of freshly raked gravel, for those of you who like sniffing driveways. There are usually apple and citrus notes, and almost an earthy touch to the flavor profile. Is there such a thing as high quality Cava? Yes, and some of these have a splash of Chardonnay in them. But in general, I look at Cava for unbelievable value for money.

Staying within Europe, the Germans have always been fond of a glass of sparkling and they produce ocean loads of Sekt. Some of these, like Henkell Trocken, find a home in hotel mini-bars around the world, inflicting untold punishment on weary travelers who polish off a bottle after a stressful day.

Most of the German Sekt that reaches our shores is actually made from grapes grown in France and Italy, and then turned into sparkling wine using the so-called “tank method”. The essence of the tank method is adding yeast and sugar to a tank of still wine, and closing the lid so the carbon dioxide cannot escape. So the second fermentation takes place in a large tank which means you don’t get the complex flavor effects caused by the yeast breakdown within a smaller container, such as a 75cl bottle.

But, like with Cava, there is such a thing as high quality German Sekt. These are usually made from Riesling, grown in prestigious regions in Germany, and the producers follow the traditional Champagne method. But good luck finding these. They tend to get snapped up in Germany, where they’ll drink them at the breakfast buffet.

Over in Italy, one of my favorite wines is Franciacorta, a little known area in the north that produces wines on a par with Champagne. This is worth tracking down. Expect to pay around the $50 mark for a mature bottle. It is made in the traditional method, from the same grapes that they use in Champagne, and matured for long enough to create the complex flavors that make for high quality sparkling.

But outside Franciacorta, Italy is much more famous for Prosecco, which has become trendy in recent years. To me it often tastes cheap and has a terrible sweet fruit salad flavor to it. Obviously I’m not cool enough to enjoy this popular choice.
I think I’d even take an Asti over a Prosecco, although Asti is primarily a sparkling wine for dessert because of its sweetness. It’s fashionable to hate Asti, and call it “nasty Asti”, but I like the peach, apricot and honey flavors, especially with a plate of fresh fruit. Maybe it’s just because Prom night was such a success.

But seriously, the only place I regularly buy sparkling wine from outside Champagne is California. Now we’re talking quality. After all, California is the location of choice for several of the great French Houses. You’ll find Roederer, Taittinger, Chandon and others. It’s also where you’ll find some great American Houses, like my favorite called Schramsberg, who produce wines that can outclass Champagnes.

Thankfully, American consumers think you should only drink sparkling wine on special occasions. This means that prices are very attractive, and so expect to pay between $25-$50 for most of them, which is a comparative deal.

Otherwise, for sparkling wines outside of Champagne, you have to include Australia and New Zealand. Both these countries are significant producers and consumers of bubbles. It’s true that there are the cheap and not-so- cheerful versions such as Seaview, Yellow Tail and even that sparkling Shiraz stuff, which is vile at the best of times. But actually there are some outstanding sparkling wines made in Tasmania and in the Yarra valley. Some of these are better than your average bottle of Champagne.

So the bottom line is that Champagne still represents the pinnacle, but if you want to save a few dollars and try something else then look to California. If you want to go even further on austerity measures then maybe Cava is for you, or perhaps even a bottle of Cremant. Yes, they can be good, but frankly I’d rather save my shekels and spring for the real deal – like a nice bottle of Bollinger, Taittinger, Roederer, or Krug.

Wine : Schramsberg
Region : California
Food pairing : Smoked salmon

Wine : Roederer
Region : California
Food pairing : Caviar

Wine : Pierre Spar
Region : Alsace
Food pairing : Oysters

Wine : Segura Viudas
Region : Spain
Food pairing : Goats cheese

Wine : Henkell Trocken
Region : Germany
Food pairing : Mimosas

Wine : Batasiolo
Region : Italy
Food pairing : Fresh fruit plate