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Educational Just For Fun

Prosecco, Champagne, Cava, oh my! Everything you need to know about sparkling wine

For someone who considers themselves a bit of a sparkling wine connoisseur, I find it odd that I can’t remember the first time that I tasted prosecco. It feels like it should have one of those illuminated-by-a-heavenly-light-angels-singing life changing moments but nope, I draw a blank. I mean, there could be an explanation for that – too much of said prosecco – but I’d like to think I savoured that bubbly goodness and didn’t just neck glass after glass.

Although I started as a Prosecco absolutist, as time has gone by I’ve taken my taste buds on an international sparkling wine adventure, be it whilst on holiday or just because I liked the look of it in the supermarket. I’d like to share with you all the glorious things that I’ve discovered, tasted and loved about this most beautifully, bubbly temptress. I am by no means an expert but I’ve definitely drunk a lot of the stuff…

France

Where better to start than the grand dame of the sparkling wine scene, Champagne. It is popular belief that a monk named Dom Perignon invented bubbly wine back in 1697, though some say, including Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger of Taittinger Champagne, that it was invented by the English 30 years earlier (no really, check out this link!). Either way, the French took it and ran away with it, and Champagne remains the most popular sparkling wine in the world today.

But Champagne is by no means France’s only sparkling wine. As we know, Champagne can only be Champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region and satisfies a pretty hefty set of rules. But what about the sparkling wine produced in the many other wine regions? In the Loire Valley they produce sparkling wines called ‘Vouvray’ and ‘Crémant de Loire’, in Bordeaux ‘Crémant de Bordeaux’, and in the Languedoc-Roussillon ‘Crémant de Limoux’ and ‘Blanquette de Limoux’, to name just a few. Less bound by the restrictions of Champagne production, vintners from other regions can use different grapes and even different methods to make their bubbles. Whilst any of the sparkling wines labelled ‘crémants’ are made using “Methode Traditionelle” or “Methode Champenoise” – the same as Champagne – ones like the Blanquette use “Methode Ancestrale”. The difference? It’s all in the fermentation process, Traditionelle is fermented twice, Ancestrale just once, so Ancestrale produced wines will be a bit less bubbly and have a more delicate froth.

We don’t see many of the alternative French sparkling wines for sale in supermarkets in the UK, but wine specialists might stock a few. As with most French wines, you’re pretty safe in the knowledge that it’ll be pretty delicious. 

Italy

Prosecco outsells Champagne these days in terms of the volume sold. Why? It’s cheaper, it’s fruitier and a bit sweeter than Champagne making it incredibly drinkable and it goes with everything, from crisps and dip to a curry. Prosecco is from the hills of northern Italy, made using the ‘Charmat’ method (carbonated in large metal tanks) and made mainly of glera grapes – like Champagne, only sparkling wine from a specific area can be called Prosecco. DOC Prosecco can be made in 4 provinces of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and 5 provinces of the Veneto region. DOCG Prosecco, which is considered superior, must be from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene area of the Veneto. I spent a very happy day with two beautiful friends in the village of Valdobbiadene walking between wineries, doing tastings and buying a lot of Prosecco. We were in Italy for 4 days on that trip, and got through about 18 bottles of the good stuff. Ah, happy times!

So what other sparkling wines does Italy produce? Well, quite a few but here are my top 5 favourites:

Asti – a sweet sparkling wine made from Moscato Bianco grapes in the Piedmont region. It is slightly lower in alcohol than the other wines and can be drunk with dessert.

Lambrusco – a dry, lightly sparkling red with fruity hints, mainly produced in Emilia-Romagna. Made from mostly lambrusco grapes, it is great as an aperitif.

Franciacorta – produced using the traditional Champagne method in southern Lombardy, using Pinot Nero, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay grapes.

Pignoletto – produced in Emilia-Romagna close to the culinary mecca of Bologna from Grechetto Gentile grapes using the Charmat method.

Trento – from the northern province of the same name, this sparkling wine is made the same way as Champagne, using Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Nero grapes.

Many UK supermarkets have started stocking a bigger variety of Italian sparkling wines alongside Prosecco. Asti has long been a cheap sparkling option whilst Pignoletto is now available at Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. For any of the others, a more specialist wine shop or warehouse might have a few options. Better yet, go to Italy!

Spain

In the 1860s a Spanish wine maker visited France’s Champagne region to sell his still wines, and returned home to Catalonia with the secrets of sparkling wine production. He began experimenting using this traditional champagne method and by 1872 had created a local sparkling wine. Neighbouring wine-makers got in on the action using mainly local parellada, xarel-lo, and macabeo grapes and Cava (‘cave’) was born.

The majority is still produced around the Penedès area of Catalonia but Cava can actually be made anywhere in Spain, as long as it is produced following a set of rules. It is grouped by the amount of sugar used in the production process, ranging through 7 categories from Brut Nature (less than 3 grams of sugar per litre) to Dulce (over 50 grams of sugar per litre), as well as by amount of time it has been aged, from Cava de Guarda (minimum 9 months) to Cava de Guarda Superior de Paraje Calificado (a minimum of 36 months).

Cava is produced in a more temperate climate than other sparkling wines, making the final product drier but with more subtle hints and flavours to delight the palate. Like Prosecco it is a versatile beverage that works well with many cuisines, and is widely available in supermarkets across the UK.

England

English sparkling wine is still in it’s infancy but has been on an upward trajectory for a while now, winning enough awards to give Champagne a run for its money! With our ‘temperamental’ climate, grape cultivation here is a tough one, but in the south in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire particularly, winemakers are making a pretty good job of it. The soils in the southeast are chalky, like those of the Champagne region and vintners here tend to grow and use the same grapes as their counterparts across the channel – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, and produce their fizz using the good old Methode Traditionelle. The nuances of production, of climate, of soils and so on though, give English sparkling wine a flavour of its own.

The UK wine scene was pretty dead until a revival in the 1950s saw wines produced with mainly German grapes. It wasn’t until Nyetimber came along in 1988 to plant Champagne grapes in their plot in West Sussex that things began to kick off. In the 1990s some of our big hitters began to start their sparkling wine production – Ridgeview and Chapel Down (featured at at least one royal occasion) for example, with things exploding in the 2000s with the likes of Hush Heath (their ‘Leslie’s Reserve’ is one of my all time favourites) and Squerryes joining the party. Today there are over 100 vineyards in England producing sparkling wine, including a brand new venture in Kent by Champagne house Taittinger. Things are only going to get bigger!

English sparkling wine is widely available, and though it’s pricey it is certainly worth trying! Alternatively, find your nearest vineyard and go along for a tasting.

South Africa

South African wine is pretty delicious and extremely popular, but I bet most people have never had a crisp, bubbly glass of South African sparkling. Why? Well, it’s a pretty new venture, with the first local fizz popping up in the 1970s but not really taking off until 1992, when a number of producers came together to form the Cap Classique Producers Association, with the aim of rising standards. Called Méthode Cap Classique, MCC if you will, it is again produced using the traditional champagne method and, whilst any grape can be used to produce one, many wine-makers stick to the traditional champagne grapes. As similar as it may be the champagne, South Africa’s warmer climate gives an entirely different ‘New World’ flavour when compared to its ‘Old World’ ancestor.

For the best of the best look for a Blanc de Blancs from the likes of Simonsig, Graham Beck or Colmant, but with MCC production growing exponentially and getting all the accolades, you can expect plenty more to appear in the coming years.

Canada

Anyone had Canadian wine? No? Icewine maybe? Canada actually has some massive wine regions, which have, in recent years, been receiving more and more international acclaim. The majority of the vineyards are located close to the southern border with the US where there is much more moderate weather. Yes, the winters are pretty epic, but the climate mirrors that of the Champagne region, offering the perfect grape ripening weather, and the soil is rich in limestone, which makes for extra happy grapes.

Ontario’s wine region, south of Toronto and surrounded by the Great Lakes is Canada’s largest grape growing region. There are over 100 wineries producing bubbles here – the number of producers has tripled in the past decade – particularly around the Niagara Peninsula. Here you’ll find the traditional Champagne method is popular, and the Charmat method, as well as a wealth of different grapes, from traditional to unique (the hybrid Vidal for example) giving a fine variety of fizzy sensations.

Over in BC, the climate is moderated by the Pacific and Lake Okanagan. There are over 270 wineries here, dotted through a range of spectacular landscapes which gives a great variety of terrains and soils. The Okanagan Valley has established itself as a wine region extraordinaire and here a number of wineries whip up a pretty delicious fizz; the slightly more temperate climate making it slightly more fruity than its Ontario counterpart. You’ll find the usual suspects grape-wise, the cold grape varieties of Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Zweigelt make for some truly interesting bubbly tipples.   

It’s pretty difficult to find Canada wine in the UK, online wine retailers are your best bet. But with the rate the Canadian wine industry is growing and the attention it’s attracting, we’re bound to be seeing more of it soon.

Without a doubt there are PLENTY of other countries producing amazing sparkling wine – I’ve not mentioned Australia, Germany, the USA, purely because I’ve not yet had the chance to try their wares. All in good time…

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Educational History Just For Fun

Love Bridgerton? This is the Regency lingo you need to know!

Duels at dawn, heaving bosoms, feather headdresses and glances that speak a thousand words – what’s not to love about the Regency Era? And with Netflix’s Bridgerton bringing it to life for us right now, there’s no better time to sharpen up your 19th century vernacular.

Firstly, though, what, when and where was the Regency Era? Obviously, it was in the UK. Where else could formality have got quite so ridiculous. The when is slightly more complicated. Formally, the Regency was 1811 to 1820 when the Prince of Wales ruled by proxy for his father, George III (also known as ‘Mad King George’). The Regency Era also describes the mini-Renaissance of art, architecture, music, fashion and society in the UK from 1795-1837. So, as well as the setting for Bridgerton, Jane Austen was also doing her thing at this time. That’s right, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse et al were all Regency ladies, although not in the upper echelons of society that the Bridgerton ladies promenade through. That would have made for quite different books!

As we know from books, films and television shows, having a social life during the Regency era was pretty complicated (will someone write that about 2020/2021 in 200 years?!). There were set rules for who could call on who, what time you could go visiting, how many times you could dance with someone at a ball, what women could say/do/read/hear/wear. But it was also a time when the wealthy invested heavily in the arts, when architects like John Nash and Decimus Burton were creating beautiful parks and buildings and, with the adoption of the steam press in the early 1800s, books and novels were becoming more accessible to a wider section of society.

All in all, it was a very elegant and exciting time to be alive, you know, if you ignore the poverty, disease, lack of women’s rights, racism… Well it was, if you were rich.

So, if you were to find yourself magically time travelling back to 1813 (work with me here, we’ve all wished for a bit of time travel recently), once you’d found yourself a corset or tailcoat, what sort of language would help you blend in with the likes of the Bridgerton family? Well, you’ll use quite a lot of euphemism, some fantastic slang and plenty of French…

Here are a few of the best Regency words and phrases to use amongst ‘The Ton’:

The Ton – from ‘le bon ton’, high society
To cast up one’s accounts – to be sick, vomit
Adventuress – a prostitute
Sprained her ankle – to get pregnant
Bond Street beau – a well-dressed man who shops on Bond Street
Cucumberish – to be in debt
Dandy – fashionable, charming and witty gentleman
Incomparable – a woman of the ton who has no rival or peer
Nonesuch – the male equivalent of the Incomparable
Swoon – a graceful faint
London Season – coincided with the sitting of parliament, to keep all of the aristocrats and their families who came to Town from their country seats entertained
Town bronze or Town polish – learning the culture and manners needed for Town (Town with a capital T is London)
Rake – shortening of ‘Rakehell’, a libertine, a carefree aristocratic man who loves a ‘good time’    

For example,
‘Uh-oh Jeffrey has just cast up his accounts over that adventuress’ 
‘Lady Charlotte sprained her ankle dallying with a Bond Street beau’
‘He may be a dandy but he’s also the rake of the ton!’

Is it time to bring back some of these phrases into our everyday lives? Definitely. There is a fantastic subtlety to some of these older words and phrases that makes them so much more fun to say. Though perhaps we should start practicing those lingering meaningful looks too, to make sure we’re getting the message across.

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Educational History

A brief history of the written word.

Have you ever thought about writing? No, me neither, it’s just one of those things you do, isn’t it? You learn how to do it as a small child, and then it just sort of flows from there.

But if you did want to think about it…which I hope you do, so you read on a bit further… there are actually some interesting things to consider. Where did it all begin? Who ‘invented’ the written word? When did the first pen scratch words on the first paper? Why should I care?

All great questions, why don’t we find out?

Everything we know about the past is thanks to the written word. Without it, it would all just be verbal stories passed from person to person – we all know how that can turn out – missing the context that helps us piece together what happened 50, 500 and 5,000 years ago. It may sound a little bit melodramatic, but without writing, there would be no history. Not literally of course, but we certainly wouldn’t know what naughty deeds our ancestors were getting up to in ye olden times if it had never appeared.

Cave paintings, pictograms if you will, were the first instance of people recording their day to day life, the sort of ‘ah, my horse is so pretty, I’m going to smudge his likeness onto this wall’ or ‘mmm that bison was so delicious I’m going to draw it in this cave’. We’re talking the ancient hunter-gatherers here, between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, drawn with crude ‘crayons’ made of natural rocks and charcoal. Not so much writing, but the first step on the path to the word.

When humans stopped roaming the land and began to cultivate it instead, growing crops, living in dwellings and being able to own more than just what they could carry, a counting system was needed. How else would you keep track of how many ears of corn you’d harvested, or whether there was actually an oxen missing or you’d just imagined you had four? The Sumerians of Mesopotamia came up with the counting token about 9,000 years ago, each of which was stamped with a picture that represented the item to be counted, and bingo, you’d always know if that pesky fourth bison had done a runner again. 

Fast forward to about 3,500 BCE and we’ve reached the rough time that what is considered the earliest form of writing came into being. Those busy Sumerians had developed counting tokens into ‘cuneiform’, what is catchily known as a logo-syllabic script. It’s probably not a big surprise to anyone that some of the earliest records that used this method were to do with beer and its sale. It’s good to know that the ancient people knew how to party. A ‘stylus’ made of reed was used to make marks that initially represented objects, a pictogram, but developed to represent sounds, phonograms, much closer to what we know as words today. This had a great many benefits for trading, as rather than four little stamped tokens that simply represented four cows, they could now convey what was happening to the cows – where they were going, what they were for and so on.  

Around the same time the Egyptians were using hieroglyphs (everyone’s favourite ancient writing of course) marked on papyrus. With over 1,000 distinct symbols, it was a formal writing system; each symbol representing a sound, a word or a concept, depending on the context. Further east in China, another distinct script was emerging with its roots in the art of divination (not just a subject at Hogwarts!). Oracle bones and shells were etched with marks and thrown in the fire until they cracked. The diviner would then ‘read’ them. Feels like a reach to me, but then these ancients were pretty smart. 

As symbols began to represent sounds, they were better able to capture the precise meaning of what people were saying. It was at this point that literature became possible.

The first known writer was a Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna (2,285 – 2,250 BCE) who wrote down hymns to the goddess Inanna. At the same time, the first epic tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic quest for the meaning of life, was also written in Mesopotamia. As writing became more prolific across the region, the Assyrian (Asssyria was a kingdom within the Mesopotamian region) King Ashurbanipal, collected as many works as he could into a great library in his capital Nineveh. It was the remains of this library, discovered by archaeologists in 1849, that has given us so much information about this time period. The tablets they found can be seen at the British Museum today.

The epic poetry of the likes of Homer and Virgil, the philosophical writings of Plato and Socrates and the fact that we know the Romans hung phalluses everywhere for good luck is all thanks to the Greek and Roman phonetic writing systems that built on what had been achieved in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and an alphabet that was developed by the Phonecians (ancient Mediteranean civilization, big into sailing and conquering). And from the Romans we got Latin, the root of many European languages. The rest they say, is history…

So next time you go to write something, especially if it’s something that records your thoughts and feelings, remember that thanks to the development of the written word, over thousands of years people just like you have done the same thing. That is what has given us such an epic and fascinating collective history of civilisation. Pretty cool huh?

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