Bubbles galore!

November 2022

Through the Christmas and New Year holiday season – and on so many other festive occasions throughout the year – we want to celebrate with wine that embodies all the fun, frolic and frivolity that so enlivens these special times. The epitome of such wines is, of course, Champagne; we all know it by name – and by its price! – but we don’t always want to spend that much money for such evanescent bubbles. So where can we find all the fizz and fun without frittering away the family fortune? The good news is: today, just about everywhere!

Modern technology provides this good news. Making Champagne used to require huge capital investment and a long, labour-intensive process, so it was the big houses – the Grandes Marques – that dominated the Champagne market. But now a modern bottling plant can ride on the back of a small truck, and automated riddling machines can replace the laborious hand-turning of each individual bottle; the result is a wave of high quality, affordable new sparklers from around the world. Remember, true Champagne comes only from the designated Champagne region of France, and remains the benchmark for premium sparkling wine.

All the best Champagne alternatives use the time-honoured traditional method developed in the 17th century by the blind monk Dom Perignon, and perfected in the 19th century by the Widow Cliquot: they must make their bubbles by conducting a secondary fermentation in the bottle, so always look for that information on the label: Traditional Method in English, Méthode Traditionelle in French, Metodo Classico (or Tradizionale) in Italian, and Método Clásico in Spanish. Without this assurance of quality, your glass will not have the delightful, persistent, never-ending stream of tiny perfect bubbles that makes these wines so fascinating.

The best of these relatively inexpensive sparklers come from the Burgundy region of France, called Crémant de Bourgogne. Made from Chardonnay grapes and grown in limestone soils, just like Champagne, good Crémant de Bourgogne makes an admirable substitute in almost every celebratory situation. They are remarkably affordable, and are occasionally discovered in Extra Brut and vintage bottlings. Good Méthode Traditionelle Crémant is also produced in Alsace and the Loire valley in France.

Cava, from the Penedes region of Spain, south of Barcelona, is of equal quality, but very different in style. The best are Método Clásico and made with indigenous Spanish grape varieties, Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada; some brands now include Chardonnay. These wines have all the verve and energy of the finest sparklers, but with a unique personality and distinctive scent and flavour all their own.

Italy’s best Metodo Classico sparkler is Franciacorta from the Emilia-Romagna region, but good examples may cost almost as much as Champagne. Popular Prosecco is not at all Classico, and is simply not in the same class.

The new world is moving rapidly into this lucrative market. Some of the big Champagne houses are opening branch plants in California; Gloria Ferrer is the leading local producer, but watch for Mumm’s Cuvée Napa and Roderer Estate. Tasmania, that island state south of Australia, produces some of the finest Traditional Method sparklers I have encountered. They now appear occasionally at the LCBO Vintages – try one if you find it. Several Ontario wineries make very good Traditional Method sparklers, but look carefully for that designation on the label, for there are others on the market that do not follow these strict rules, and that shows in the quality of the final product. I have enjoyed Cuvée Catharine from Henry of Pelham, and Trius Brut, fine examples of Traditional Method modern bubbly from here at home that won’t break your budget.

© Paul Inksetter 2022

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