Nothing quite gets a party going during the festive season like the gladdening pop of sparkling wine. This year, rather than counting your pennies to see if you can spring for one or maybe two bottles of Champagne, you might want to explore some of the exciting bubblies made in other regions of France and from elsewhere around the globe. A growing number of these attractive, and often very reasonably priced, sparklers are finding their deserved way into our homes.
Good French Fizz from Other Than From You-Know-Where
In France, outside of the Champagne region, the name used for quality sparkling wine is “Crémant.” This appellation dates from the late 1980s when using “méthode champenoise” on the labels of traditional bottle-fermented sparklers outside of Champagne was outlawed by the European Union. Don’t be confused by “crémant” when occasionally used on a Champagne bottle: it means bubbles with slightly less fizz. Crémant is usually very good value and the wines are worth exploring for their own unique qualities.
Crémant d’Alsace is perhaps the best-known appellation and can often closely resemble Champagne, though it is typically somewhat lighter in body. Permitted grape varieties are also different, although the best will include Pinot Noir in the blend. Alsatian Blanc de Noir, made from Pinot Noir, can be fabulous. Crémant de Bourgogne is made mainly in the Côte Challonaise area of southern Burgundy and in the Auxerrois to the north. Southern versions tend to be fatter, especially when made with Chardonnay, while those from the north are leaner, with crisp acidity.
Crémant de Limoux and Crémant de Die, despite their Mediterranean origin in the Languedoc, can be surprisingly fresh and fruity and are nearly always a good value. Crémant de Loire embraces the areas around Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, and styles vary a great deal depending on the grape varieties used. The only widely planted Loire grape not permitted is Sauvignon Blanc. Most of the Crémants contain a significant percentage of Chenin Blanc that lends a distinctively aromatic regional character. Versions made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be Champagne look-alikes. Expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $25 for top Crémant.
The Charm of Italy’s Prosecco
For many Italians, Prosecco and sparkling wine are synonymous. The Prosecco DOC is located in the stunningly beautiful hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, about 60 miles northwest of Venice. The appellation is unusual in taking its name from the grape rather than being named after the region. Within this part of the country, a small delimited area, close to Valdobbiadene, produces Cartizze, the most refined expression of Prosecco.
The virtue of Prosecco lies in its youthful fruity freshness. Once this fades, the wine quickly loses its appeal. The largest quantity is made “extra dry,” with some residual sugar. “Brut” is made in smaller amounts, although the percentage is growing. In fact, Prosecco’s crispness makes the slight sweetness of the extra-dry style pleasantly refreshing. Whether brut or extra dry, these wines stand in marked contrast to Champagne and its imitators. Prosecco is made using the charmant or cuve close method: the yeast is removed in large tanks and the fizz put in prior to bottling. The charmant method has proven most effective in retaining a certain clean quality and the youthful fruity character of the grapes.
Best examples of Prosecco show crisp apple, and sometimes pear, on the nose. There is often also a hint of almond. The same fresh apple and pear flavours are found on the palate, and the finish should always be clean and refreshing. Cartizze is more elegant, with a bit more complexity. These are fresh, fruit-driven wines of simple elegance. The best Prosecco producer exporting to Canada right now is Nino Franco. It’s worth seeking out.
The Sparklers of Spain: Incredible Volume and Remarkable Quality
Cava is the very good Spanish wine that, like Champagne, has been fermented a second time in the bottle. Wines carrying the Cava designation are produced only in the legally demarcated zone. The principal Cava DO is centered in the Penedès region just west of Barcelona. Cava is made from the local grape varieties Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, although Chardonnay is starting to find its way more frequently into some blends.
Freixenet, the largest Cava maker, produces 110 million bottles a year. Its wines are vinified in enormous 600,000-litre stainless-steel tanks. Production is rigorously controlled: state-of-the-art computers monitor and adjust the temperature, the action of yeasts and other factors as required. The ultra-modern facilities and a huge economy of scale enable Freixenet to maintain very high quality standards while keeping prices remarkably reasonable. Codorníu, the other giant producer, offers similar quality.
The New World
A vast array of sparkling wines are now made in various New World countries, although most tend to be Champagne derivatives of one sort or another. That does not mean they aren’t good, however. The French certainly think so, since they have established well-known satellite operations in such places as California, Australia and New Zealand. Many of these wines are of very decent quality, although they still fall short of the originals. There is also remarkable quality in South Africa, where the long association with French winemaking seems to have had an impact. Unfortunately, not much has yet made its way to this country. Don’t overlook Canada either. Canadian producers are just getting the hang of making good bubbly and both BC and Niagara have good potential.
Australia has taken up bubbly with a vengeance, producing plenty of cheeky, unpretentious and inexpensive sparklers, several of which can be found here. The Aussies have also created quite a market for their robust, fruity sparkling Shiraz, which is very popular. Watch out, though, for the high alcohol levels. Combined with the bubbles, it can all go to your head pretty quickly.
Notes To Seek Out
89 Pierre Sparr Réserve Brut, Crémant d’Alsace, France ($26.90)
Fruity bouquet with a light hint of strawberry sweetness. Lovely fresh fruit on the palate with a very fine mousse and crisp dryness balanced with the generous fruit. It is a little lighter in weight that typical Champagne, leaning more toward crisp fruit than biscuity richness.
89 Château de Montguéret, Crémant de Loire, France ($18.99)
Elegant bouquet, fine mousse and delicate fruit on the palate, attractive light biscuit on the finish and excellent acid balance. A textbook example at a bargain price.
89 Moulin de Gassac Terrasses du Lido, Languedoc, France ($16.99)
Traditional bottle fermentation and local grape varieties produce a distinctive, deeply fruity bouquet with honeyed and yeasty overtones. Mousse is fine but not overly persistent. On the palate, fruit is rich with a trace of honey and a lightly bready dry finish.
86 Bouvet-Ladubay Bouvet Brut, Saumur, France ($20.29)
Reliable bubble from one of the Loire’s better-known producers. Crisply dry with quite good mousse and a very clean finish.
87 Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, Penedès, Spain ($14.79)
Green-apple crispness on the nose with light, fresh green fruit on the palate and a clean, refreshingly dry finish.
87 Freixenet Brut de Noirs, Penedès, Spain ($13.99)
Attractive rose colour with an enticing scent of fresh strawberries and lightly fresh berry fruit in the mouth. Finishes with refreshingly light acidity.
89 Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad, Penedès, Spain ($34.99)
Very fine persistent mousse and a subtle bouquet with citrus, mineral, apple and a hint of bready yeasty character. Crisp apple flavours dominate on the palate, softened by the elegant, creamy texture. Finish is smooth and fresh with a delicate hint of vanilla.
87 Prosecco Campagnolo 2004, Veneto, Italy ($17.50)
Delicate ripe-apple scents yield to fuller ripe-apple flavour on the palate with gentle tingling sensation from the lighter frizzante bubble finishing with a trace of honeyed sweetness.
89 Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Brut, Australia ($15.99)
An impressively well-made drop with relatively fine mousse, good depth of fruit and clean, fresh acidity. Excellent value.
86 Seaview Brut, South Eastern Australia ($15.99)
Nothing particularly stands out about this very-good-value bubble, but that is its virtue. It is an all-around pleasing and nicely balanced drop that will not be out of place in any New Year celebration.
86 Banrock Station Sparkling Shiraz, South Eastern Australia ($16.29)
Dark purple in the glass and richly concentrated with ripe raspberry flavours and dark berry fruit on the palate, finishing slightly off-dry. Heady stuff, but very easy to like.