Champagne and the best-kept secrets of summer sparklersby Barry Smith / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
No wine in history has achieved a greater marketing triumph than champagne. Who else’s wine is so inextricably linked with celebration? Whatever the occasion, congratulations call for a bottle of champagne. We love the pop of the cork and the delicate foaming mousse, but how often do we appreciate the flavour of the wine itself? Racing drivers simply disgorge the bottle’s contents over each other’s heads.
All too often it’s the well-known effects of the bubbles that capture our attention rather than the subtle hints of the base wine.
The truth is, however, that if you want to savour the rich and satisfying character of these wines you must try a mature vintage champagne like Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill from Pol Roger, or a decently aged grower champagne like the sublime Substance from Jacques Selosse. For these, however, you must wait and pay dearly. For something less exorbitant, and non-vintage, try Egly-Ouriet’s low dosage Brut Tradition, where the quality of the underlying pinot-noir-rich wine really stands out.
But there are many alternatives to champagne. These are the best kept secrets. Australia and California both make sparkling wines from very ripe grapes, thereby avoiding what Californians will tell you are the green notes of under-ripe grapes from Champagne’s unpromising climate. The European riposte is that the struggle for ripeness gives champagne its depth and character, and the green notes its refreshing acidity. Or you could opt for prosecco: a wine made by an entirely different method from entirely different grapes. Here you must revise your expectations. The very same mouthful can strike you as poor champagne or an excellent prosecco. The best examples include Bisol’s Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore 2008.
Why not stick to wines made according to the méthode champenoise from any, or all, of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier? The south of England has an excellent climate for making these wines, and it is entirely appropriate that they should be made there since the méthode champenoise was invented not by the French but by the English. The process of starting a further fermentation in bottle by adding a dose of sweet liquor was only possible when bottles were tough enough to withstand the pressure. And in the 17th century, the English made thicker glass than the French could muster.
That’s why the name of Christopher Merret, who pioneered the process in 1662, adorns each cuvée of Ridgeview wines from the South Downs. Their 2008 Bloomsbury cuvée—currently being served in the British Museum’s restaurant—is pale gold with elegant bead-like strings of bubbles. The nose is yeasty with a hint of wine skins and the palate is rich and savoury with a surprisingly tangy finish. Here is an affordable alternative to Grande Marque Champagne, as is another well-kept secret: Crémant de Bourgogne.
Just as growers in Champagne are learning how to get the best out of Burgundy’s two great grape varietals, so many burgundy makers from the Côte Chalonnaise are learning from champagne growers the techniques of turning their chardonnay and pinot noir into crémant. Same grapes, same technique, but the wines can never be champagnes. So jealously does the region guard the name it has given to this kind of wine that they once threatened legal action against Yves Saint Laurent for launching a perfume called Champagne. (It was quickly renamed to Yvresse.) But Crémant de Bourgogne is reaching new heights, new depths of flavour and new customers. So what’s in a name?