Champagne may be the wine of kings and the king of wines, but there are times when you want to create a celebratory mood with the evocative pop of a cork, without breaking the bank. So what are the options?
Traditional method wines are made in the same way as Champagne but, because they are made outside the specified geographical area of Champagne, cannot call themselves that. To help consumers, many will use the term traditional method, or a variant of it, on the bottle. It would be so much more helpful, nevertheless, if such wines could be labelled “méthode champenoise” or “Champagne method”, but even such admiring use of the word is outlawed by the official body charged with protecting the Champagne name worldwide.
Top of any bargain-hunting fizz shopper’s list is Cava. Yours for around a fiver, or barely more, there are plenty of bottles out there to choose from. Cava is made in the same way as Champagne, but the grapes used are different: macabeo, xarello and parellada (hardly classic or well-known), though some also add a little chardonnay (one of the Champagne trio of grapes) to their blend. In what seems to be proof that the traditional method is no guarantee of quality, Cavas just don’t resemble Champagnes in any meaningful way. The grapes used must have a large part to play and unfortunately they are either excessively neutral, or rather earthy and with a tell-tale burnt rubber character. So, despite the low price, I would rather not drink Cava – unless it’s as a base for a buck’s fizz, where its neutral character is a virtue, or any earthiness is masked by orange juice.
A step up in quality from Cava is the wide range of sparkling wines made around the world in largely the same mould as Champagne. The closest, geographically speaking, is crémant.
Crémant is the term used to describe any sparkling wine made in France and using the same production method as Champagne, but outside the Champagne region. Burgundy, home of chardonnay and pinot noir for its renowned still white and red wines, uses these same grapes to make crémants that are a fair copy of Champagne, with perhaps greater weight of fruit and a touch less elegance. Majestic list the ultra-reliable Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Crémant de Bourgogne NV for £11.99, or £7.99 if you buy two. For £10.99 you can try the same producer’s (they seem to have this market sewn up) 2005 Perle Rare at Waitrose. This last also lists Cave de Lugny Crémant de Bourgogne NV Blanc de Blancs (ie made from chardonnay only) for £8.99.
Other French regions make their own crémants, based on their regional speciality grapes. In the Loire, chenin blanc dominates, while Alsace crémants are usually predominantly pinot blanc – though Tesco has an interesting Finest* Alsace crémant made entirely from Riesling for £8.99.
Champagne houses themselves are not slow to spot an opportunity to extend their brand and there are a number of New World outposts of names which you might recognize from closer to home. If you fancy a taste of Champagne expertise at a (slight) discount, then give one of these a go. Mumm Cuvée Napa is a reliable performer, with good fruit expression and great drinkability – Waitrose list it for £11.99, Majestic has it for the same price, but down to £8.99 if you buy two. Green Point is Moet & Chandon’s parent company’s Australian sparkler – the 2004 vintage is £19.49, or £12.99 if you buy two, at Majestic; or £13.99 for a single bottle at Waitrose. Arguably top of the quality tree is Roederer Quartet, which will set you back £18.99 at Waitrose, £19.99 for a single bottle at Majestic, down to £14.99 if you buy two.
New World sparklers
We’re in danger here of approaching Champagne prices, so bargain hunters should perhaps head for true New World expressions of the traditional method. One of the stalwarts of the style is Lindauer Special Select or Special Reserve: it’s undergoing a name change, so you may see it called either. In any case this wine is predominantly pinot noir, topped up with chardonnay and has the most delightful blush of negligée pink. The strawberries and cream nose gives way to a more seriously savoury palate, perfect with smoked salmon. You can pick this up at Wine Rack for £11.99 each or £7.99 at their 3 for 2 price; £9.99 at Waitrose, though it will be down to £7.49 from 3rd December; £9.99, or £7.49 if you buy two, at Majestic.
An honourable mention must to our own English sparkling wines, which have been improving steadily for a number of years. Our marginal climate for grape ripening becomes a virtue when making sparkling wines, which need high levels of acidity rather than full ripeness to be successful. The wines are made in the same way as Champagne and often using the classic Champagne grape varieties of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. On the other hand, our domestic wine industry is small-scale and cannot produce wines in such quantity that the prices can compete with the New World – you just cannot make quality sparkling wine here for under ten quid. However, in an effort to boost our economy it is your duty to try at least one of these: Chapel Down Brut NV, £19.99, or £13.33 at the 3 for 2 price at Wine Rack delivers a creamy nose and a fruity palate with some spice courtesy of the distinctly un-Champagne-y Reichensteiner grape. Ridgeview, based near Burgess Hill, make a creditable range of sparklers, including the chardonnay-dominated Ridgeview Merrett Bloomsbury 2005/6, available at Waitrose for £19.99.