Champagne, Prosecco, and Blanc de Blancs

It’s Christmas again, and people start to think about drinking cold fizzy wine again, for the first time since the summer. If you wonder why this seemingly inappropriate, summery sort of drink should be chosen in the middle of winter (I do sometimes), the answer is to do with the festive fizziness of the style outweighing it’s coldness. Here, therefore, is my view on Champagne and alternatives, with as little boring history, and as much balanced insight as possible (always difficult on this rather emotive subject).

What’s all the fuss about, and why does it always have to cost more? The answer is integration. If you used what I call the Tesco sparkling water technique, and carbonated some wine from an ugly great gas cylinder (which, incidentally, you can do; the French even have a quaint expression for it, ‘pompe bicyclette’), you would end up with much the same result as the water: it fizzes for just about the amount of time it takes you to pour it into your glass, then goes flat, and you are back where you started. So you generally don’t do that, rather opting for a variety of more involved techniques, usually, but not always involving a secondary fermentation to create the gas which is then trapped in the bottle. And yes, by more involved, I do mean more expensive as well. The pinnacle of these methods is what used to be rather self-explanatorily called the Champagne Method, now called Traditional Method. Most of the more expensive fizzes (including, of course, all Champagne) use this method, and a great result is achieved. Incidentally, to try to lead seamlessly into the next part of the article, it has become widely accepted now, even by the French (vive l’entente cordiale!) that it was an Englishman, Christopher Merret, who devised the basics of this method, not Dom Perignon, a French monk, as previously thought.

So there is the technical background (with a little boring history, sorry). Now, the options. First, you have Champagne. It is more expensive both because of prestige (whatever that is), but also because of quality; they have been making and refining this for longer than anyone else (even if they didn’t invent it), and they make a great, and reliably good fizz. Pick your favourite Champagne House, and impress your guests. They all make a version in their own ‘house style’. I don’t have space to go through all the different Houses and their styles. The internet, the source of all knowledge, should yield the secret with a little searching. In fact, there is a link for your enlightenment: Tom Stevenson, the Champagne expert, has very generously donated to the interweb an admittedly old, but still very useful, 2003 edition of his Champagne and Sparkling Wine guide. It is on Tom Cannavan’s site at:  http://www.wine-pages.com/guests/tom/fizz2003.htm. It’s not every day you get a free book! Just before I leave this, though, let me answer the point about Blanc de Blancs, because this is usually, but not always, used with reference to Champagne. This means quite simply that it is a white wine made from white grapes. You may wonder why that wouldn’t always be the case, and the answer is that Champagne can be made from three different grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay is, as everyone knows, white, the other two are red. So when a Champagne is Blanc de Blancs it is 100% Chardonnay, simple as that.

Talking of which, here is the first recommendation: Tesco, a company not universally loved by all in the trade, because of their aggressive purchasing strategies, nevertheless have some gems in their range. One such, I believe, is their Tesco Champagne Vintage 2006 Brut. This is a terrific buy at just over £18 on offer at the moment

Then, I want to revisit the relationship we English have with the French, which I sometimes describe as love/hate: we love their wines, but we hate them! Not content with inventing the stuff, we now seem to be rubbing salt into the wound by making fizzes which beat Champagnes in competitions for sparkling wines. Camel Valley in Cornwall has just won the Sparkling Rosé Trophy for its Pinot Noir Rosé 2009. Other estates in England to watch out for are Nyetimber and Ridgeview, both in West Sussex, who have also won numerous awards; I also like Denbies Whitedowns Sparkling from Dorking, and Chapel Down’s version, from Kent. None of these are cheap (they are on a par with cheap Champagne, in a range of about £18-£30), but they are good, and it gives a patriotic glow to drink them; I don’t know how much that is worth!

Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé is available direct from the vineyard at www.camelvalley.com  (£24.95), Various Cuvées of Ridgeview and Nyetimber are available at Waitrose, as are Denbies Whitedowns (£16.99) and Chapel Down Reserve Brut (£17.99)

Finally, we have all the other versions. Every wine-making country in the world makes fizz, a lot of it pretty good. Cava, from Northern Spain is passé (isn’t it?), but still pretty good, except for the cheap ones, and that last proviso applies to all sparkling wines, especially and including Champagne. Prosecco (along with Pinot Grigio) has resuscitated the Italian wine industry. Is it getting passé too? I still like the style; David Beckham and I (without once discussing it) both accepted our feminine side several years ago, and Prosecco sure displays a feminine side with its fruity semi-sweetness. The better ones like Bisol, Ruggeri, and many others, are drier. Again, price is usually a good indicator: the more expensive, the drier and better. Other regions in France compete with Champagne. I have always liked Loire fizzes like Vouvray and Saumur. Made from the Chenin Blanc grape, these have the profile of Champagne, with a lean citrus mineral core (usually), but, I think, with the bonus that they have a fruity, grassy side not often seen in Champagne, which makes them more interesting in some ways. Plus, of course, they’re cheaper. Further afield, to make a huge generalization for which I will be shot down if any wine buffs or particular country specialists read this, New World versions like Australia and Chile tend to be more fruit driven, and richer. There’s a lot of wine out there.

For Prosecco, I would recommend a good one like Ruggeri’s Argeo Brut, which I can personally supply at £14.99 a bottle (it’s not cheap, but it is very good), or Majestic’s Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry NV, at £9.99. I also like Majestic’s Bouvet Ladubay Saumur NV (£9.99), and I had a fruitsome bottle of Isla Negra Sparkling Brut, from Chile, a while ago. This is available at Tesco; pricewise, to give you an insight into their unpopularity in some trade quarters, this is listed at a ‘normal’ price of £12.99. Bought on promotion (which it regularly is), it goes for just £4.99. Who’s for buying it for £12.99?

I’ve certainly only scratched the surface with this, and missed whole swathes of exciting places: Luminaries like Michel Rolland, Randall Graham, Steven Spurrier, and I all see great potential in the Black Sea area. The Caucasus region is one of my favourites, and of course India (there are more exciting drinks than Omar Khayyam, believe me), not forgetting Canada, and, last but maybe not least China may be the next big thing in fizz. But still, this is a snapshot of my thinking, and I hope it is of use. Merry Christmas, with plenty of fizz; there’s enough choice!

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