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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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Just For Fun Personal Travel

Meeting Charlie: an awkward encounter in South Africa

Do not run, do not run; the words echo around my head, words spoken a few moments earlier in a rushed hiss by our ranger. Easier said than done when a fully-grown bull elephant with pointy looking tusks is, for lack of a better term, starting on you. Honeymooning amongst South Africa’s glorious nature, we had arrived at our spectacular safari lodge in a haze; partially excitement, partially the welcome glass of wine. This moment was supposed to be the crowning glory of my first ever safari: sundowner drinks as Charlie, said bull elephant, meandered past at a comfortable distance. I now see that I was a little too eager, perhaps another side-effect of that welcome glass of wine, to step away from the safety of the jeep, as nature, in her wily way, gave things an unpredictable twist. So here I am, huddled penguin-esque with four other people, three of them new acquaintances and one a new husband, marooned 30 metres from any form of shelter. Heart pounding, my panicked litany screams through my head. Do not run, do not run! Five tonnes of Charlie advances slowly, pausing often to glare at us. It turns out that most animals can sense your fear, and elephants are particularly sensitive, so you have to do your best to appear confident and fearless…fat chance of that, Charlie is big and unimpressed by our, somewhat quaking, presence. Our ranger, cool, calm and collected takes charge, stamping a foot towards the bewildered elephant and opening his arms wide. “Back away slowly” he commands, almost dancing in his intimidation tactics. Inch by inch, step by step, as one we claw our way back to the jeep, heave ourselves in and release a collective breath that’s been held for who knows how long. Held at bay, Charlie watches warily, only starting forward after our ranger has swung himself back into the driver’s seat. Cautiously, curiously Charlie saunters around us, trunk reaching and waving as he inhales unfamiliar scents, investigating what he finds before him. Satisfied, or unimpressed, he loses interest, turns his back and plods back into the grasslands. Over our much-needed sundowners, we could only assume that he was having a bad day.

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