An Introduction To Sparkling Wine
I remember my first trip to New York. I went with work and got put in business class, which I’d never travelled in before. I was nailing all the free stuff in the lounge before the flight, and then once we got on the plane there were only about 10 of us in the whole of the business class area. And there were about 10 air stewards. So they picked out someone to look after and probably hoped we’d doze off before the flight took off!
The woman who was looking after me was from Bath, where I’d been to uni. So we were having a good old natter about the town, and this and that. So she asked if I wanted a drink. Sure, I said, what did she suggest? What about a Kir Royale? Yeah, sounds good. So she poured one out and passed it over. I drank it and she offered me another. I took another. And so it progressed until about the 6th or 7th when she pointed out I might want to slow down as we were only 45 minutes into the flight! Whoops!
So I asked her what she was using for the mix. So she showed me the Champagne she was using, and I just thought that’s a bit of a waste of money if you’re going to mix it with cassis. I know it’s a Kir “Royale” cos it’s made with Champagne, but my point remains. I reckon it’s just because either the airline (or the customers or both) are a bit stuck when it comes to the choices of sparkling wine, so they go for the one they’ve heard of. Can it be anything other than that?
There are a couple main methods for making sparkling wines…
The traditional method, or bottle fermentation, is just as it sounds. A fermented wine is popped into bottles with some more yeast and sugar and left to ferment a second time (carbon dioxide from the fermentation is trapped in the bottle), after which the yeast breaks down in the bottle (this is what gives the bready, biscuity taste of this method). The rest of the yeast is eventually (and very slowly) removed by a couple of methods, and you have your sparkling wine.
The tank method is where it’s all done in a big sealed tank. This is great for fruity sparkling wines. It’s also easier to stop fermentation in this method, and so you can get low alcohol, sweet, sparkling wines.
We all know the famous sparkling wines…
Champagne, the marketing monster that it is. This is made by the labour intensive traditional method. Made from three different grapes (Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay). Labour is expensive, land is expensive, and marketing is a massive part of the operation. It’s great stuff, but you do have to pay for it.
Prosecco is made in north east Italy by the tank method. For years it was seen as the cheap alternative for champagne, which given the different production methods is a bit silly. It’s back in “fashion” (I hate that word!) these days, so again, the price is beginning to rise.
Cava is the more sensible alternative to champagne, as it’s made during the traditional method. Made in the north east of Spain using a huge choice of local grapes, it’s usually a bit less yeasty than most champagnes. Prices are still fairly reasonable.
There are alternatives to the famous ones…
Cremant is the alternative from France I’ve tried a good deal of. First came into contact with it earlier this year in Bordeaux, and since had plenty in Burgundy too. Traditional method, but less complex. The price is usually very reasonable.
One I’ve recently come into contact with is Franciacorta. Pretty much the only wine made in any volume around the city of Milan, it’s a tank method production. It’s cheap, and it makes brilliant cocktails. The Italians tend to export the Prosseco and drink Franciacorta, so I’m told.
Sekt is a germanic sparkling wine. Tough to get hold of as it’s mostly not really exported, but worth a try if you see it kicking about.
The New World has a huge advantage as they have very little old regulations, so they can experiment with lots of different techniques. Check out examples from California, New Zealand and Australia. Australia is very famous for sparkling reds too, and nicely they’ve starting exporting more. Again, if you see them, worth a try.
So what do I drink?
It’s tough to generalise really, but if i’m drinking it without anything else then I tend to flick between Cava and Prosecco. I just think Champagne is a bit over priced for what it is, although I’ll admit I probably haven’t tried the really good stuff that often.
For cocktails with sparkling wine in them, then Cava or Franciacorta is the way forward.
I also like the sparkling sweet stuff from northern Italy, known as Moscato. Low alcohol, very sweet, awesome for a bit of cake or puddings.
So as you can see, there’s plenty of things to keep an eye out for.
Least of all how long you’ve got til you land!