-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-
As simple as that sounds, sparkling wine is anything but simple. From the cheapest, artificially carbonated “bicycle pump” fizzies, through to the super-expensive, luxury cuvées from Champagne, sparkling wines bubble and sparkle in a myriad of styles throughout the world. These come in various shades of white, pink and red, in both vintage and non-vintage versions, any of which can be made from either single varietals or multi-grape blends. A universe unto themselves, Sparkling Wines must be approached and understood on their own terms. So what makes a good Sparkling Wine? It comes down to the bubbles, the wine and how they interact. Basically, the smaller, tighter and more persistent the bead or bubble size, the better the wine. Quality is defined by how all this fizziness, called mousse in French, collectively feels in the mouth. A wine that creates this feeling can be described as having “finesse”. Over time, Sparkling Wines have amassed a broad range of aromatic and flavour descriptors: citrus fruit, pineapple, apple, peach, fig, strawberry, raspberry, nutty (hazelnuts, almonds), toast, yeast, mushroom, soy, butter, cream, honey, baked pie crust, biscuit, caramel, malt and cocoa. For most of the last century, all sparkling wines were called “champagne” regardless of their provenance. Eventually, the inaccuracy and unfairness of using this term were recognised and now, only wine from the French region of Champagne has the right to use that name. Subsequently, other terms were adopted to describe similarly styled wine. The finest of these are now labelled Méthode Traditionnelle, Cava (of Spain) or “Fermented in this Bottle”.
Champagne provides the model for the vast majority of the world’s Sparkling Wine styles. Two red grapes, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white, Chardonnay, provide the complementary raw material blended into the non-vintage styles associated with each major Champagne house. White wine from the Pinot Noir grape is fuller bodied, providing structure and depth of fruit, in contrast to the richness, fruitiness, breadth and softness imparted by Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay adds a delicate fruitiness, austerity, elegance, and it ages well. Not unlike multi-grape Bordeaux blends, the predominant variety in the blend strongly determines house style. All Champagnes are made in a range of styles, from extremely dry to ultra-sweet: extra brut (less than 6g of residual sugar), brut (less than 15g), extra dry (12-20g), sec (17-35g), demi-sec (33-50g), rich or doux (more than 50g).
Other European regions also produce méthode traditionnelle Sparkling Wines. In France, such wines are referred to as Crémant followed by the region’s name. France’s Alsace makes these from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, together with the related Auxerrois, Riesling and Chardonnay that have been planted in Alsace. All grape varieties grown in Burgundy are allowed into Crémant, although Gamay may not constitute more than one-fifth of the blend. In the Loire Valley, Crémant has the native, lemony, waxy Chenin Blanc as its most dominant component, but Sauvignon Blanc is forbidden to be included in the blend. The Spanish call their méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines cava and use completely different grapes: Xarel-lo for weight, Parellada for creamy base notes and Macabeo (pronounced mass-say-bow) for acidity and freshness. Italians employ spicy, grapey Moscato Bianco for their Spumante and the Germans mostly draw on Riesling for their crisp, clean sparkling Sekt. Elsewhere in the world, sparkling wines are made from all manner of local grapes. The finest examples are generally grown in cool climates that equate to those of Champagne’s and mostly rely on the same grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, to a lesser degree, Pinot Meunier. Not unsurprisingly, California’s Anderson Valley and Russian River, New Zealand’s South Island, and Australia’s Tasmania and Yarra Valley all fit this bill and are among the regions most likely to approach Champagne quality. But the vast majority of the world’s inexpensive, volume-oriented sparkling wine comes from relatively warmer climates within Australia, Argentina and California. The best of these will also draw on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but high-acid Chenin Blanc and Semillon are commonly used as well. Quirky méthodes traditionelles have also been produced from Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals. While Italians have long produced a slightly fizzy red from the Lambrusco grape, Australia’s sparkling red is one of the most unusual wine styles to capture the imagination. Although the vast majority of Australia’s sparkling reds are made from Shiraz, intriguing alternatives are made from Malbec, Merlot or Durif.
Food for sparkling wine
Many claim that Champagne goes with everything, including chocolate and asparagus, which are boring companions to all other wines. This claim may be somewhat influenced psychologically by the nature of celebratory occasions and the unlikelihood that anyone would turn down the offer of a glass of champers. Certainly, the Champenois take it to an extreme, serving Champagne with every course. Following their progression, Blanc de Blancs are served with starters, non-vintage with fish, vintages with meat, rosés with local cheeses (Brie, Chaource, Cendré) and Doux with dessert. Traditional pairings often find Chardonnay-dominant wines with oysters, caviar, lobster, shellfish, smoked salmon, sashimi/sushi and Asian cuisine. Fuller pinot styles go well with poached or grilled salmon, foie gras, charcuterie, rabbit, hare, boar and ham. When you think of sparkling reds, think red lager. Australia’s rich, frothy, berry-sweet mouthwash will happily chase away a furious curry or chilli con carne. These wines have a flair with Asian food flavoured by hoisin or black bean sauce, and naturally pair with duck, turkey, pâté and goat’s cheese.
Top Champagne houses Light-bodied Taittinger Billecart-Salmon Perrier-Jouët
Medium-bodied Pol Roger Laurent-Perrier Moët & Chandon
Full-bodied Bollinger Louis Roederer Veuve Clicquot
Well-priced Champagne houses Cattier Drappier
Rockford of Australia
Hardys of Australia
Popular sparkling producers of the world
Domaine Chandon (Australia and California)
Iron Horse Vineyards (California)
Pongrácz (South Africa)
Cloudy Bay Pelorus (New Zealand )