Last week, The Joy Club member Clive got into the intricacies of Champagne. This week, he discusses alternatives to this crowning jewel of the sparkling wine world – helping you to get stocked up ahead of the New Year’s Eve celebrations…
As Shirley Bassey said:
“So let me get right to the point:
I don’t pop my cork for every man I see
Hey, big spender
Spend a little time with me”
Ignoring all the innuendo (how did they get away with that on the BBC when Lola by The Kinks was banned?) – this verse could have been sung by a Champagne bottle. Let’s work with the assumption you love sparkling wine but don’t want to be a big spender. What could pop its cork for you?
I’ve taken most prices all from the same source – Majestic Wines. Not that I’m recommending them, but they have a wide range available and they often have a Pick Six deal which makes it even cheaper. The prices I’m quoting are their full prices, no discount.
So let’s look at the options – even as I write, I’m seeing Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Brazil (and Wales!) are expanding the horizons with even more possibilities. Both Cava and Champagne houses have bought up vineyards in South America as well as the UK in an attempt to beat the rising temperatures of their home countries. Cool climates are needed for consistent quality and that’s becoming risky in Europe – as 2022 has shown.
This particular sparking wine got a bad name for quite a long time. Rightly so – rubbish quality control and heaven knows what grapes got chucked in there – and you got the worst stuff on holiday in the Costa-del-whatever bars and clubs, claiming it was Champagne.
It’s much more strictly controlled now – although there are quite a few bits of Spain that make it. They realised they were missing a trick when Prosecco started to dominate, so they got their act together – still not quite getting there though, with probably a third of the Prosecco consumption in the UK. The main grape is called Macabeu (or Viura in the Rioja region) and three or four others in the blends, because it’s not very interesting on its own. It’s made in the same way as Champagne – so bottle fermented.
Look for Brut or, if you like bone dry, then Brut Nature.
Expect to pay £10-£15 a bottle – look out for the really interesting ones like Muga ‘Conde de Haro’ Brut from Rioja which includes Chardonnay in the blend.
Methode Cap Classique (MCC)
This is South Africa’s version made using the same method as Champagne. New kid on the block. The first Cap Classique was released in 1973, made from Chenin Blanc from the 1971 harvest, so we’re just arriving at its fiftieth birthday. There are no rules about which grapes so look out for the ones using classic Champagne grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Expect to spend £18-£20 a bottle. Graham Beck is a well known brand and their Blanc de Blancs and Pinot Noir Rose are both good value
- Graham Beck Brut, South Africa £17
- Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2017/18 £20
- Graham Beck Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 (if you like it pink) £20
English Sparkling Wine
How about that for an exciting name? Rubbish eh? One of the many great things about the Champagne region is it’s all called, well, Champagne. Once English sparkling wine started getting traction there was a move to also come up with a brand. But, oh no, the English egos got in the way and everyone was sure theirs was better, so wouldn’t be tainted by a generic branding. Some, like Nyetimber, have gone down the luxury route (£45-£165 a bottle) – many have taken on Prosecco and budget Champagne in the £18-£25 area.
- Chapel Down Sparkling Bacchus 2020/21, £20 (Probably not Methode Champenoise – they’re a bit quiet about that)
- Woodchester Reserve Cuvee (not in Majestic but just down the road from me in Stroud) £30
- Nyetimber ‘1086 Rosé’ Prestige Cuvée 2010, Sussex – £165 a bottle (I wasn’t joking)
There are other methods of making sparkling wine and the most important other one for our interest is the Tank Method (also known as Charmat Method). The Italian Federico Martinotti invented the tank method . Mr Charmat (a Frenchman) apparently improved it in 1907 and that name has stuck. ‘Martinotti’ or ‘Charmat’ both sound better than tank don’t you think? It’s also sometimes called Metodo Italiano.
This will not surprise you, the wine is fermented in a tank – actually three tanks. The first one for the primary fermentation to make a still wine and then into a pressurised tank with the yeasts and sugars to make it sparkle. The liquid is then cooled to stop fermentation and filtered into another tank and bottled under pressure with some adjustments (known as dosage) to the sweetness if required. Prosecco can go from grape to bottle in a number of months so no hanging about with stock tied up like that Champagne method – so you can sell it cheaper.
In Majestic Wines alone there are 25 Proseccoes listed. The primary grape is Glera (also conveniently known as Prosecco until 2009). Its winning qualities have been price and every day drinkability – the light fruity apple, pear, peach and lemon aromas are real crowd pleasers. There are no really bad ones, but look for the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) mark on the label – this is the highest quality and carries a numbered government paper band on the bottle neck.
At this price you might as well drink the best. If you like gold bottles though – and that could be an important point for a celebration – then you’ll pay more.
- La Gioiosa Prosecco Valdobbiadene DOCG £15
- Maschio Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry £15
- Bottega Gold Prosecco DOC – £26 (gotta love that gold bottle)
Known for many years in the hotel industry as ‘Nasty Spumante’ – sweet fizzy alcoholic raisin juice – and with a plastic cork to remind you of its quality. But quite a lot has changed as they realised they had to have more of a class act. Both Cinzano and Martini have branded Astis.
I’m including it here because I think it’s an excellent accompaniment to any leftover Christmas pudding or Christmas cake you may still have left lying around. It’s sweet, raisiny and very very easy drinking. I always include it in the mix when I run tutored tastings of sparkling wines. Of course, it’s not to every one’s taste – but nor is Christmas pudding or marzipan.
It’s a tank method wine again. The region of production is the Piedmont region in the foothills of the Alps and it’s now a DOCG wine. The grape is the Muscat grape (Moscato Bianco) which gives it the raisin flavour. An important note here is that fermentation is stopped at about 7-9% alcohol – so it’s a low alcohol wine.
Slightly confusing is the existence of Moscato d’Asti – DOCG too, same place, same grapes, lower alcohol (5.5%) and less bubbles (can’t see why you’d bother actually).
I’m sorry Germany – not enough space to talk about Sekt. America and Canada – yes I know you do too. We didn’t look at Transfer Method, Methode Ancestrale and Pet Nat, Lambrusco (thankfully) or Franciacorta from Italy made using not tanks but the Metodo Classico (I bet you can guess what that means now) or Brachetto d’Acqui and other sparkling reds. But I doubt that you will feel cheated of options if you work your way slowly and responsibly through the ones we’ve looked at. One of the secrets of enjoying wine is staying conscious…
And finally, a safety warning. More people apparently die every year from Champagne cork injuries than poisonous spiders. I’m very lucky that, in my early hotel days, I was told to treat each bottle as a live hand grenade and was taught the correct way to open Champagne or any sparkling wine. That cork can travel in excess of 50 mph, and it’s got a metal top – truly a lethal weapon.
All of this is of no interest if you are a member of the Sabrage guild. These are people who can open a bottle with a sabre by sliding it quickly along the body seam of the bottle to the lip to break the top of the neck away, leaving the neck of the bottle open and ready to pour. Entertaining but fraught with danger (and stupidity) – never a great idea in the restaurants where I was the sommelier; blades, bits of glass, spurting Champagne.
- Make sure it’s really well chilled (but don’t freeze it otherwise the hand grenade goes off in the freezer)
- Carefully remove the foil from the bottle and get ready to loosen the twisty wire thing (or the muselet, if you were paying attention when we talked about Champagne)
- Once you start twisting that wire you’re taking out the pin on the hand grenade so cover the top with your other hand and a cloth
- Take off the muselet (oh come on, you know what that is) but keep thumb pressure on the top of the cork
- With the base against your body, point the bottle away from you, granny, the kids, the cat and anything valuable at an angle of about 45 degrees and grip the cork through the cloth
- Now twist the bottle (not the cork) by holding the bottom or sides of the bottle and turning gently – you may need another cloth if it’s wet and slippery.
- Feel the cork coming out and, if you’re a professional, let there be just a gentle ‘hiss’ not a loud ‘pop’ (cowboy wine waiter sign)
- Keep the bottle at about 60 degrees and this should prevent any bubbling over – but have a glass ready to pour into (at an angle if you can to save more bubbles)
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