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Arts & Crafts

Popping the cork for Christmas

21 Dec 2022 | Written by By Clive Hook

There’s no better excuse to break open the bubbly than Christmas! Read on for The Joy Club member Clive’s two cents on sparkling wines…


When we’re discussing sparkling wines, we have to start with Champagne (and a close relative) – it’d be crazy not to. By the end of this article, you’ll know a lot more and be able to make informed buying decisions (as well as show off with bits of knowledge and downright trivia). But, as we’ll see in part two – there are many alternatives to the world’s most famous fizz.

Let’s be clear – I think Champagne’s great. There are times, perhaps, when nothing else will do. But if you’re not winning Formula One or launching ships, there are plenty of other options. Watchers of The Crown will know Champagne was considered too extravagant to launch the £2 million Royal Yacht Britannia in 1953, so they used ‘Empire wine’… no I don’t know what that is either.

That “perhaps” in the second sentence wouldn’t have been there a decade ago; the options have increased considerably and Champagne has struggled to keep its pride of place in the celebrations game.

I’d also consider Champagne to be a bit of a spoilt brat that gets in a huff if it doesn’t get its own way. As a result, it gets special treatment. You can’t add sugar to make a wine sweeter – except if it’s Champagne. You can’t mix red and white wine to make rosè – unless it’s Champagne. Champagne has to be grown within very strict boundaries – except for when they thought the Russian and Chinese market was going to boom, then they widened the area. The market boom didn’t happen and that has left a lot of wine becoming a bit of a headache. If it’s a luxury item, you can’t start knocking it out at knock down prices – and it won’t keep for ever. But what’s a bit of bad news for Champagne is good news for budget shoppers. More on that later.

Champagne is a celebratory drink – not an everyday tipple… and that’s exactly how Prosecco got into the UK market and took over. In the UK we now drink about 30 million bottles of Champagne a year – compared with 130 million bottles of Prosecco. By the way, Champagne consumption drops like a stone during hard times or ‘non celebration’ years. The Falklands War was one example – and that 30 million bottles was 21 million during the pandemic. Oh – and in those crazy stock market years of yuppies it was nearly 40 million – until Lehman Brothers’ collapse heralded the beginning of the end.

The production of Champagne was a miraculous invention (harrumph – see below) and continues to be a method which is astounding. In very short terms – it’s fermented in the bottle, not a barrel or tank. The bottle is gradually turned upside down (we’re talking months or years here) and the plug of dead yeast cells is frozen, popped out and replaced with more wine (and sugar) and the familiar champagne cork. There is then a secondary fermentation, with the bubbles held in suspension, until you pop that cork.

Other parts of France, and indeed the world, use the same process and for years it was known as Methode Champenoise. But spoilt brat Champagne insisted it couldn’t be called that so you’ll see names like Traditional Method or, in South Africa, Cap Classique. Bottle fermentation was happening before Champagne – Blanquette de Limoux was about 20 years earlier – but mummy’s precious darling got its own way again and acted like it was its idea.

Did I mention that it was the British, not the French, (and certainly not Dom Perignon) that should be credited with the invention of sparkling wine? Charles Merrett from Winchcombe filed a patent with the Royal Society 30 years before. Actually, Dom Perignon spent quite a bit of time trying to get rid of the fizz – but he did come up with the cork idea – and a German, Georg Christian Von Kessler, came up with the bottle. Racy trivia note: That famous Champagne widow (Veuve Cliquot) and he were lovers.

Oh, while we’re up there (the bottle top not the lovers) the metal cage was invented much much later in 1844 by Adolphe Jacquesson… and to win points in Scrabble or amaze/bore your guests, it’s called a ‘muselet’ (think little muzzle).

The French are very good at sparkling wine – they’ve been doing it commercially for a very long time and perfected the art and maintained quality control through regulations, none more so than in the Champagne region.

Champagne enforces very strictly regulated methods of growing, pressing, fermentation, production, ageing, vintages and quality control. Four grape varieties are possible. Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and, much less common, Pinot Blanc. Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are red grapes but, like most grapes, the juice is white. Champagne made with only red grapes is known as Blanc de Noir (White of Black) and only white grapes is called Blanc de Blanc – you can work out that translation, I think.

Non-Vintage Champagne (95% of all Champagne) has to wait 15 months before it can be released, Vintage is at least 3 years. So if you make one this year (an excellent year by the way), you won’t be selling it until 2025/26 – not great for cashflow, so no wonder it’s pricey.

Budget supermarkets have bought vast amounts from the producers, fighting the market forces of Prosecco and climate change – which is why you can get something for less than £15 per bottle. On a climate note, we all know it’s getting warmer. That’s bad news for Champagne and good news for Britain and English sparkling wine. Some predictions suggest it will be too warm to grow Champagne in the region within the next two decades. Guess why the Champagne houses are buying up British vineyards?

Pricing

The big brands with iconic names like Bollinger, Veuve Cliquot and Moet et Chandon (Note: Moet is pronounced Mow Ett not Mow Way – a great put-down for pretentious wine snobs) start at £30 and upwards to ridiculous amounts – £200 for Dom Perignon 2012 Vintage – but it does come in a nice box.

If it has to be Champagne, then look for supermarket own-brands, particularly those who have an ‘extra special’ line. I’ve seen Blanc de Noirs somewhere where you can ‘taste the difference’ for £21.00. Christmas is a particularly good time for the budget shopper – and a terrible time for the big brand junkie. The budget supermarkets with four letter names will be turning it out at £15.00 (or less) per bottle this Christmas and it’s just fine – nothing extraordinary because it’s been released for sale at the earliest opportunity, but it is perfectly drinkable – and genuine – Champagne.

I was once tipped off that it’s a good idea to take any Champagne bargain going and buy enough so you don’t drink it for 6-12 months. Remember Champagne’s secondary fermentation is in the bottle and thus it will continue ageing…don’t leave it too long though – one to two years maximum.

If it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but it does have to be French on the label (and you don’t want to blow your budget) – Crémant is the answer. In the same supermarket with £21.00 Champagne, I bought three different Crémants for £30.00.

Crémant   

The term crémant is given to sparkling wines that are made by the traditional (Champagne) method, but that aren’t made in the Champagne region. The best known Crémants are Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Bourgogne, and Crémant d’Alsace. A relative newcomer getting lots of marketing and positive comments is Cremant de Bordeaux.  They may not always say ‘crémant’ in the title – Saumur from the Loire for example – but if it’s French and sparkling and not Champagne…it’s probably a crémant. What makes them interesting is the different grape varieties – too vast a topic for this article. Try Crémant de Bourgogne, Saumur and Crémant d’Alsace for contrasts.

Next time we’ll see who else uses the Champagne method (although they’re not allowed to call it that any more) as well as the less romantically labelled ‘tank method.’ For the avoidance of doubt, this will not include Babycham which isn’t even grapes (and now, not even actual fruit) and has been under siege from Champagne since 1978 when the French lost the court case against their “Sparkling Champagne Perry” strapline. Surely, though, no-one drinks this any more? Just checked – yes they do. Still on sale, as is Cherry B for goodness sake.


Look out for the second instalment of Clive’s two cents on sparkling wine next week, so you can get down to one of those four-letter supermarkets and get yourself a haul of good value fizz to see in 2023!

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