Sparkling Wines – Alternatives to Champagne
Friday Night is Fizz Night: Alternatives to Champagne
by Paul Howard
A reputable Sunday newspaper recently announced that ‘with the world still in recession you cannot be seen to celebrate’. What utter media twaddle. We don’t need to be reminded that we live in gloomy financial times and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a little fun. There are always great reasons to celebrate – a new job, a promotion, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, Christmas, New Year, even a humble Bank Holiday. My regular excuse is more informal. It’s simply known as Friday Night. Why not celebrate arriving safely at the end of another week and look forward to the weekend with a glass of bubbly? It certainly works for me.
And while Champagne is rightly the undisputed champion of all things fizzy, the diversity and excellence of alternative sparkling wines is well worth exploring. Not only are they a less wallet-shredding alternative to Champagne, many are serious wines that are much more than simply cheaper imitations. They come in various styles and prices and can be made from grape varieties other than King Pinot Noir and Queen Chardonnay. Both non-vintage and vintage wines are available, in red as well as white and rosé. Consequently, there are different flavours and experiences on offer and, of course, there are food matching opportunities.
There are also marked differences in alcoholic strength and also in how fizzy they are. The fizz is more than just gas pressure. It covers the size of the bubbles and also the character of the foaming mousse. This ranges anywhere from an aggressive frothing to quietly sophisticated and subtle bubble streams.
“Most of the cheap examples lining supermarket shelves are unworthy of the name”
As with Champagne, it’s all about the bubbles. They carry with them a range of irresistible connotations. Bubbles can make us feel elegant, sophisticated, generous and carefree. They can also console us in harder times. Such feelings occur before the bottle is opened with an anticipatory pop. So it can’t be the effect of alcohol. No wonder sparkling wines are the first choice for any celebration.
I prefer to explore the wealth of sparkling wines from around the world, rather than endure the disappointments of cheap Champagne. Good Champagne is without peer and deserves an article all to itself another time. But with a few notable exceptions most of the cheap examples lining supermarket shelves are inferior, palate-insulting and unworthy of the name. And also a waste of your ‘hard-earned’.
The old world has too many distinctive and memorable regional sparklers to list. From France, look out for the various regional crémants, including those made in the Loire, Jura, Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux and Bordeaux. Spain can offer Cava. Germany makes Sekt (the home-grown examples made from Riesling are superior). Italy has Franciacorta, Prosecco and Asti to name just three. Meanwhile, England can be rightly proud of its own fine examples.
In the new world, South Africa has a long established history of sparkling wine making, the best there being known as Cap Classique. Australia, New Zealand and California all have highly regarded sparkling wines, frequently as a result of the Champagne houses expanding their operations in new territories. For example, Moët & Chandon, Roederer and Veuve Cliquot all operate such wineries.
“The production process that traps the bubbles in the wine is all-important”
New territories like China, Brazil and India are also getting in on the act. Russia and Ukraine make sparkling wine in industrial quantities but fortunately for us most never gets to the UK. The quality is dire, largely as a result of inferior production methods, with the worst simply carbonated just like cola.
One of the two biggest influences on sparkling wine quality is the quality of the base wine. This is dependent on the quality of the grapes themselves. The other big influence is in the winery, where the production process employed to trap the bubbles of carbon dioxide in the wine is all-important. With honourable exceptions (step forward Prosecco and Asti that use their own traditions), the best sparkling wines are made by a second fermentation of the base wines in bottle. This is the same lengthy and expensive process as used in Champagne itself. It is usually described on the label as the traditional or classic method. There isn’t space here to describe this fascinating and complicated way of making wine, save to say that this month’s recommended sparkling wines (see link below – Ed) use it – to good effect.
“A magical combination often overlooked is to drink a demi-sec”
As with Champagne, sparklers can be drunk throughout a meal, offering many opportunities for food and wine pairing, so please don’t limit them only to the role of apéritif. Choose a Brut (dry) white with plenty of acidity for seafood and salads, while a dry but creamier white will be good with fish or chicken. A red or rosé can pair up with grilled meats, barbeques and Sunday lunch. A magical combination often overlooked is to drink a demi-sec (semi-sweet or sweet) bubbly with lighter desserts and cheese.
Sparkling wine may even be inexpensive enough to use as a base for the most decadent cocktails. And here lies another advantage; you can always pep up a dull wine by adding a little something to it.
Sparkling Wines: 3 sophisticated cocktails that are quick, easy and delicious
- Kir Royale. Just add a few drops of crème de cassis to the glass and pour the sparkling wine over, for a classic French cocktail. Alternatively try framboise or peach schnapps.
- Bellini. Add a small amount of peach purée to a glass of Prosecco to create this Venetian classic. It tastes miles better than bucks fizz.
- Champagne cocktail. Put one drop of angostura bitters onto a sugar cube in the glass and slowly add the wine to dissolve it. If no angostura is to hand, try a drop of brandy instead.
The world of sparkling wine has so much worth discovering that only practice makes perfect. Drinking a different example every Friday night with friends is affordable and enjoyable. In a short time you’ll have acquired a wealth of fizzical experience and found new favourites. And for those of you that don’t like bubbles? I like to think that maybe you just haven’t found yours yet. It’s out there waiting if you’re willing to look. So try these recommendations – there’s something for everyone. Join me and raise a glass to Friday night!