With the festive fizz season about to get into full swing, drinks expert Mark Slaney picks out eight sublime corks you’ll want to be popping over the coming week.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve: two occasions when a bottle of sparkling wine seems appropriate.
Think of sparkling wine and you think of Champagne. While other countries make sparkling wine, none have yet managed to create such an iconic product as Champagne. It is internationally regarded as the luxury drink for celebration. When looking for a bottle of Champagne to buy there is a ready selection of famous names to be found on the high street and prices that go from pricey tocrickey! Are they worth it? And why is that sparkling wine from Argentina so cheap in comparison?
Okay, first off the famous names of Champagne have lavish advertising campaigns often employing high profile celebrities to endorse their product. This has to be paid for, so you will be paying towards this when you buy a bottle of such Champagne.
The well-known names of Champagne such as Lanson, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Moet et Chandon are to be found in every supermarket. How this does fact stack up against the notion that Champagne is an exclusive luxury product? Well, I don’t think it does. These big Champagne names buy grapes from a host of growers and they make considerable quantities of wine. Moet make millions bottles of Champagne every year.
Incidentally, Moet being a Dutch name should be pronounced with a hard “t”. Veuve Clicquot has a turnover in excess of a billion euros, just like Moet, and the success of these names as international brands is formidable. Champagne is essentially a branded product although the likes of Moet are real properties and they have a long and illustrious history, they are nevertheless blenders; their grape juice mostly coming from lots of different small- holders from whom they buy their grapes each year. So are these Champagnes worth the money?
Well, if you like the flavour and you don’t mind the price, then I suppose the answer is yes. There is however a second option when it comes to buying Champagne. Not all Champagne is made by the big boys. If you fancy supporting the private grower who not only grows grapes but goes to the effort to make Champagne too, then there are bottles out there. Are they any good? Yes, I reckon they are, and some are indeed really good because, let’s face it, pride and ownership count for something.
Champagne has been a formidably successful wine and the big Champagne properties, unable to expand beyond the geographical boundaries of the Champagne region, have expanded their business by setting up wineries in other countries and making sparkling wine out in those places: USA and Australia to name but two. They have also taken to buying farmland in southern England where the same chalky sub soil as there is in Champagne re-emerges. Global warming is making southern England a far more viable wine region now. Some English people have realised what is now possible and there are a handful of wine estates in England that have now been planted with the same grape varieties that are used in Champagne. I should also mention that those legal boundaries that have encircled the Champagne region of France for centuries have been allowed to be enlarged.
Not of course to meet growing demand for celebratory fizz you understand, simply because the French authorities have now decided that when the boundaries were originally drawn up, they were not quite right.
A couple of tips for buying Champagne: every bottle has a tiny code of letters and numbers on it. Those that start RM are basically wine from grapes grown and bottled by the same chap: a domaine in other words. So if you want to steer clear of the big brands look out for an RM in the small print on the label rather than a NM or CM.
If you want really good fizz without feeling compelled to buy into the glamour and aura of Champagne then, I think, you’ll get more value for our money. Try Pelorus from New Zealand,
Quartet from California or one of the sparkling wines now made in England such as Nyetimber. I drink these rather than Champagne, as I think they stand or fall on the taste rather than the word “Champagne” printed on the label. Franciacorta, a small wine region roughly a hundred miles west of Venice also makes terrific sparkling wine if you can find it. Whilst a top Prosecco is good, the wines from here are in an altogether higher league and can rival or beat Champagne for quality and style.
If you do want to splash out a have a decent bottle of Champagne then here are a few suggestions: Delamotte, founded in 1760, is centred on the village of Le-Mesnil-Sur-Oger and they have fantastic vineyards of generally Grand Cru rank and mostly planted with chardonnay vines. Production is modest but the Champagne is very good. Drappier, at Urville, I first came across in the early 1980’s and is terrific. The top cuvée, Grand Sendrée, is really good. Paul Déthune works organically and achieves richly flavoured wines of complexity from their own 7 hectare vineyard in the Montagne de Reims. This is one of my favourite Champagnes.
If you fancy something totally different try La Pamelita Espumoso Sparkling Shiraz. This is a dark purple, vibrant, dry and deliciously unusual alternative to Champagne and will also interest those who love classy, northern Rhone valley red wines or top notch Australian shiraz. The red wine in your glass is frothy, intense purple wine and bubbles away yet the bouquet conjours suggestions of a serious, still red wine. When you taste it gets even more confusing as your palate darts from Champagne to Barossa and Cornas and back. Brilliant with chocolate desserts, the wine also works well as a seriously cool aperitif for those who like to ski off-piste. The lady wine-maker, Pamela Loban, who makes this in northern Spain, trained in Australia and to my taste she has elevated sparkling Shiraz to the highest level. Pour this wine at a dinner party and sit back and listen to the flurry of comments it provokes. Wine that is both serious and sexy doesn’t come better than this.
Oh, I nearly forgot… if you want something that’s really good, tastes like top notch Champagne and yet doesn’t come with a hefty price tag try Zuccardi Blanc de Blancs from Argentina. Made exclusively from organically high altitude grown chardonnay that is aged far longer than most Champagnes can be bothered with, it is fabulous. I tasted the 2007 vintage and it was easily the best sparkling wine I have tasted this year. It is actually so good that I would have thought it was Champagne at two or three times the price had I not known what it is.
La Pamelita Espumoso Sparkling Shiraz from Villeneuve Wines Edinburgh and Peebles, or from Aitken Wines, Dundee (around £15 a bottle).
Zuccardi Blanc de Blancs 2007. The Fine Wine Company, Edinburgh, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Cambridge and Carruthers and Kent, Newcastle Upon Tyne (around £19 a bottle).
Other wines mentioned from selected wine merchants.
Mark Slaney has been a commercial wine buyer for hotels and restaurants for over thirty years. He has written a book on wine, Tasting Notes, which is available in paperback from Amazon and other stockists. He is also General Manager at the Horseshoe Restaurant with Rooms, Eddleston, By Peebles, Scotland, EH45 8QP
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