An alternative to Champagne
Whether you have been enjoying Christmas, another celebration or even looking forward to bringing in the new year, it is often thought to enjoy some bubbles whilst in these types of moments.
With most people I speak with, it’s the pop, fizz and bubbles the sparkling wine gives that marks the occasion in the way that people are looking for.
When thinking of a sparkling wine, many people’s minds go straight towards Champagne, and in some respects, rightly so. It has, over the decades, built an enormous reputation for producing the best and most sought after sparkling wines across the world and if you don't want to think too hard, this is the sparkling wine that many minds easily go to. However, technical advances and climate change has meant that there are many other methods of production and regions that create similar quality, but also offer different alternatives in the world of sparkling wine. So is it time to reconsider whether Champagne should be the choice to welcome such celebrations?
In this article, I will discuss some things that make exceptional sparkling wine, the production choices and the alternatives to Champagne, as well as what you can expect with Champagne itself.
Let’s start with Champagne:
Only sparkling wine made within the region of Champagne in north east of France can be labelled as Champagne, there were some producers outside of France that labelled their own wines as champagne and it did get a bit confusing to consumers, but luckily this dispute has been remedied in trade agreements.
The region of Champagne has a cool continental climate which is perfect for sparkling wine. The grapes retain high acidity whilst accumulating sugars slowly. The grape varieties that can be used in Champagne are; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (that’s right 2 black grapes and 1 white grape can make Champagne), It must be produced using the traditional method (check out our page on production choices to learn more).
Champagne has many different labelling terms, as it can be made in a myriad of ways, but a typical tasting note would suggest: medium alcohol, high acidity giving it a refreshing taste, and this is needed to balance the bubbles, light to medium bodied with aromas if apple, pear, citrus fruits, along with bread, brioche, from the yeast autolysis. These must be aged for a minimum time and can be produce a sparkling wine that is more forward with bread and brioche than a pure fruity wine.
So what are the other sparkling wines and how are they different?
Prosecco is a sparkling wine made in Italy. It is from the Venezia region which has a dynamic climate; cooler in the north near the foothills of the alps, getting warmer further south.
It is made very differently (tank method production) from Champagne. It is less involved, and due to this, easier (and cheaper) to produce.
The grape variety used is 'Glera' which has an array of different flavours & aromas, therefore, the producers want to protect and retain these during the production. If Prosecco producers were to use the Champagne method of production, they would miss out on all of the purity of expressiveness of the grape itself due to the autolytic characters from the yeast ageing.
For most sparkling wines, they go through a second fermentation and whilst Champagne goes through theirs in the bottle, Prosecco does not go through a secondary fermentation in the same way. Instead, Prosecco goes through a second fermentation in a tank.
These again, are medium alcohol, but are generally fruit forward wines and intended for early drinking. A perfect alternative to Champagne if you’re not keen on the yeast characteristics, and want a light refreshing, easy drinking wine.
Asti is a sparkling wine from Piemonte in the north west of Italy. This region of Italy is protected by a semi-circular set of mountains to offer protection from the cold northern region towards the alps, but allows the air flow from the river Po to the east, which offers a moderating influence into the region. This is perfect for grape production as they have long summers with good diurnal range which really does allow the grapes to fully develop.
Astii has a unique method of production, known as the 'Asti method'. It is unique because it is only fermented once (this is not common in sparkling wine),
This sparkling wine is generally low in alcohol (approx.. 7% abv), but always sweet. Although all sparkling wines can be sweet, this is often seen as the point of difference with Asti.
The grape used for this wine is Muscat which is an aromatic variety with intense aromas of floral, peach and citrus fruits. This means you normally have a resulting wine that is sweet with high acidity, low alcohol with uniquely attractive flavours that will mean you want to drink more!
Cava is a sparkling wine from Spain. Although it can be made across Spain, the main production is in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia in the Catalunya region in the north east of Spain.
The exact same production method is used here as is used in Champagne itself, even the same grapes can be used (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), although most commonly; Xerel-lo, Macabeu, which is also known as Viura, and Parellada are used. Monastrell and Garnacha are also permitted for use. This means you can get a huge amount of variety with Cava.
The other differentiating factor is the climate, which is much warmer here than the north of France. Although it is not necessarily binary, your resulting wine can go either of two ways. Firstly, if the producer harvests the grapes earlier to retain the acidity needed, the aromas in the grapes may not have fully developed. Secondly, if the producer chooses to harvest later, the grapes will have concentrated and developed aromas, but will lack the acidity - this is not a bad thing always, as it can make the wines more approachable than Champagne.
There are some differences with maturation, meaning that Cava doesn't need as long as Champagne, so it may lack the complexity that Champagne offers. Again, some say that this will make the wine more approachable with Cava.
Cremant is a sparkling wine from France and in some cases Cremant = the same as Champagne but at a fraction of the cost. Actually, maybe that’s not completely fair, but the cynic in me says their is some truth in that.
Cremant uses the exact same production technique of Champagne (traditional method), but just falls outside of the boundaries of the Champagne region.
Most wine regions in France have Cremant production, and the most popular ones are; Cremant de Loire, Cremant d'Alsace and Cremant de Bourgogne (Bourgogne is just south of Champagne, so similar characteristics can be expected).
With Cremant being produced using the exact same method of Champagne, the grape varieties used will depend on what varieties are permitted within each region, so they may differ, but you will always get the same bread, brioche, yeasty notes with a Cremant too.
The only, yes only other difference is the legal required duration of maturation is shorter for Cremant than it is for Champagne. Like Cava, some say that this makes the Cremant more approachable.
Some other styles that might tickle your fancy;
From Germany, using the same method as Prosecco. The base wine can come from France or Italy, but a Deutscher Sekt must have the grapes grown in
Germany, and likely to be made using the Riesling grape! Riesling, similar to Muscat which is used for Asti, produces very aromatic aromas!
English sparkling wine
Planting are increasing in England, and the world of wine is looking for English sparkling wine. Using the traditional method in the same way as Champagne, and now experiencing the climate that Champagne enjoyed 20-30 years ago now means that English sparkling wine rank amongst the most prestige around the world. Even some Champagne producers are investing in vineyards across Kent, Surrey and Sussex. So what a great alternative.!
New Zealand sparkling wine
Using the same grape varieties and production method, you can be sure to get some high quality sparkling wine from New Zealand, most does come from Marlborough, at the Northern point on the Southern Island, although it is produced elsewhere. Slightly warmer climate here, so ripeness in the grapes is never a problem, and cool nights mean that acidity is retained easily too... It's a win-win, or a wine-wine!
Australian sparkling wine
Whilst the vast majority of Australia is too hot for the production of sparkling wine, there are many areas that have the cooling influences of altitude of cool coastal winds. therefore, the regions of Tasmania, Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley to name a few are great choices to make. They use the same production method and grape varieties mostly, so it is pretty much a like for like. Also, Australia are known for producing red sparkling wine - that is one to look out for if you get the chance.
Like Australia, much of California is too hot of a climate to produce sparkling wine, but the regions of Los Carneros and Anderson Valley are cool enough climate to produce the quality of grapes you need (low sugar and high acidity). Los Carneros is moderated by the morning fog that comes in from the San Pablo Bay, which takes the edge off the sun throughout the baking hot days. Anderson Valley is a bit more northerly on the lines of latitude and closer to the coast, so the cool breezes make a big impact! These produce sparkling wine, again using the traditional method.
So out of all of these choices, you still are not able to make your mind up? Let me try to make a recommendation or two...
Firstly, you cannot go wrong with Champagne. It is the occasion for the occasion after all. But if you did want to try something else, then here is my two pence worth...
English sparkling wine is fantastic. There are two producers that I admire; Ridgeview and Nyetimber - you must try these and you will not be let down, both produces consistently exceptional sparkling wine, and as I said before, they are really taking the world of sparkling wine by storm.
Asti is another fantastic choice. It is a fraction of the cost of Champagne, but I love sweetness in my wine and I love the muscat family of grapes, I think they really are delightful.
New Zealand sparkling wine is another great choice. Marlborough can do no wrong, whether it be their Sauvignon Blanc or anything else for that matter!
And if you wanted something a little bit different
Deutscher Sekt..... Why not? Riesling is just an amazing variety, it will always retain acidity and if it can make some of the best dry wines in the world, just imagine what it can do with sparkling wine too!