Let me try and specify this month’s Theme a bit more closely. It is easier to start with what the Theme isn’t. It isn’t – of course – about carbonated plonk – perish the thought! At the other end of the spectrum is also isn’t about Champagne. More contentiously it isn’t going to include any Champagne-Copies. This is a big class of wines, you’ll find examples from almost anywhere in the world (including England…) made from all or some Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

So we are restricting interest to what might properly be referred to as Traditional Local Styles. This means wines made sparkling in a traditional – second fermentation way – using indigenous (or at least “typical”) grapes from the locality.

Not content with that restriction I’m going to exclude some others too. Because we are so familiar with them I am going to omit Cava; Prosecco; and Cremants from the most popular French areas: Alsace, Bourgogne (that could be thought of a Champagne copy anyway) and the Loire. There are many excellent examples of these 5 and, in terms of good easily available wines, they would (with English Champagne copies) be among my first thoughts for an approachable non-Champagne sparkler.

However we have covered Champagne, New World Fizz and general non-Champagne sparklers so often I thought we would branch into the more esoteric. So I’ve decided to sample sparkling wines from 6 counties with no Chardonnay or Pinot in sight.

We’ll try wines from Germany and Austria (where sparkling wine is called Sekt); France (sampling a very old style from Limoux, where the Méthode Traditionnelle is said to pre-date Champagne); Italy; Portugal; and England (using a grape used for English wine long before the success of English Champagne copies took off – Seyval Blanc).

What are we looking for in Sparkling wine? In most cases sparkling wine is even more about fun than other wines. Vivacious, quick to inebriate, and … well… sparkly, it’s about party spirit and gregariousness more than the elements one looks for in fine wine. Of course good examples should have the flavour and interest of any wine, but the main feature is the bubbles, and because these fade away we are not usually looking for the wine to develop too much in the glass.

What we do want is some depth of flavour – often along the yeasty / biscuity / gluey lines – and quality of the bubbles themselves. A lot of little bubbles that don’t fade away too quickly give the wine a creamy texture called mousse. It is a good mousse that, along with flavour, marks out a good sparkling wine.

In the above I’ve said “in most cases” and “usually” because –notwithstanding the niche of Sparkling wine as a celebration drink – there are cases when one is using good sparkling wine as any other wine: to accompany food! Here the bubbles, mousse and vivacity of the wine might be secondary to the more usual vinous qualities: strength of flavour, balance, grip and complexity. Despite a tendency to think of pink fizz as frivolous, it is that view itself that is superficial – after all it will have some red wine character – tannins and fruit – that make it more vinous and more food friendly.

In my experience very good, complex Champagne, like a prestigious vintage version, is actually quite good at going through a meal and able to deal with quite challenging flavours. If you are looking for a sparkler to do that then you’ll be more inclined to assess the vinous quality of the wine with less regard to the bubbles.

One might expect a little more of this quality from traditional local styles where matching with the local cuisine has been a factor in the development of the wine, rather than just the creation of a valuable product.

The other factor to think about is the method of production. The box blow specifies the traditional method for making Champagne and other types of Sparkling wines. In this the vital second fermentation – which produces the bubbles – occurs in the bottle. Most good quality Sparkling Wine is made like this but there are notable exceptions. Most Prosecco and German Sekt are made using the Charmat method, where the second fermentation takes place in a pressurised tank. In this method the wine is filtered before bottling, eliminating the remuage and dégorgement processes. This method produces wine faster, slightly more cheaply and with, in general, lighter and less vinous qualities than the Méthode Champenoise” (Méthode Traditionnelle).

The Steps to Make Sparkling Wine

  1. A dry base wine is made, usually from cooler climates or early picked grapes, to give a wine of high acidity and only about 11% alcohol.
  2. The wine is bottled and sugar and yeast are added (this mixture is called liqueur de tirage in French), the bottles are capped.
  3. A secondary fermentation converts the added sugar (up to about 18 grams per bottle) to alcohol and carbon dioxide, making the bubbles.
  4. The new sparkling wine is aged in the bottle on the lees. This is usually for more than a year – 15 months is the Champagne minimum – but often longer – again vintage Champagne is a minimum of 3 years.
  5. After this the bottles are inverted (in special racks called pupitres, in Champagne) and turned, traditionally a quarter turn every day or two, causing the lees to fall to the neck of the bottle. This process, known as riddling (remuage in French), continues for 2 to 10 weeks.
  6. The sediment is disgorged (dégorgement) and the bottles are topped up with, what is called in France, a liqueur d’expédition – a blend of the base wine and some sugar – in a process commonly called dosage.
  7. At this stage the wine contains little sugar, usually less than 3 grams per litre (g/l), so the sugar in the dosage determines the dryness / sweetness of the finished wine. Again Champagne is the standard:

Extra Brut (less than 6 g/l residual sugar)
Brut (less than 12 g/l)
Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 g/l)
Sec (between 17 and 32 g/l)
Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 g/l)
Doux (50+ g/l)
There are also zero dosage or brut nature wines which will be bone dry.

So when we try these wines we’re not merely looking through the lens of inveterate Champagne drinkers (which I’m sure we all are). We’re trying to think of the wines for their vivacity and pleasure mostly, but also a little for their vinous qualities. Are they candidates for parties and celebrations, and as ice-breakers or potential food wines – either for party nibbles or a more serious meal?

Tasting notes which might answer this question will be posted in 4 or 5 days.

Until then….

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