Put a fizz in your step

Wine expert Rose Murray Brown gives us her essential spotter’s guide to sparkling wine


There is a real buzz of excitement in the fizz world today. Not only is the quality better than ever before, but there is increased interest in sparkling wine as a celebratory aperitif as well as at the dinner table, with a shift towards lighter easy drinking styles like Prosecco.

It is also getting harder to tell some Champagne and sparkling wines apart – and that is because of the dramatic improvements in sparkling wine making.

Back in the late 1980’s, Champagne had little or no competition. Fizz was made elsewhere, but it was plain dull or poorly made. Thirty years on, the advances in French Cremant, Spanish Cava, Californian, New Zealand and English fizz are considerable – but it all began in the New World.

Oddly enough, it was the Champagne producers who started this revolution. They began making fizz outside their region. Moet & Chandon first headed to Argentina in 1960, but by 1985 had set sights on Australia and in 1990 on New Zealand. In the 1980’s Roederer, Mumm, Piper Hiedsieck and Taittinger headed to California, Deutz to New Zealand - whilst Bollinger stayed close to home in Loire.

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What the Champagne producers did was export their knowledge of fizz-making abroad. They showed winemakers worldwide the most crucial element to making great fizz - to have quality grapes with high natural acidity.

They showed them how to grow classic grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) in cool or high altitude microclimates to give high ripe acidity, how to use the ‘Champagne’ method (elsewhere called ‘traditional’ method) to create the sparkle and most importantly how to ‘blend’ grapes, vineyards, vintages and reserve cuvees – a crucial element to making Champagne.

So what makes Champagne different? It is made in France’s most northerly appellation 80 miles east from Paris, in a delimited area of 34,500 hectares. With its cool northerly climate and chalky soils, Champagne grapes have piercing acidity, often unpleasantly tart when made as still wine (up until the 18th Century all Champagne was still).

After two centuries, the Champenois had perfected the sparkle. Quick gentle pressing, extract the first juice, create an ‘assemblage’ or blend of still wines to put into bottle with additional yeast and sugar to create the sparkle in the second ferment. Mature on yeast lees to add greater complexity before carefully riddling the yeast to the neck of the bottles, disgorging the yeasts, adding the sugary dosage and maturing again in cool chalk cellars – but now, of course, many top sparkling wine producers across the globe use this same method for making fizz.

Tastewise is Champagne so distinctive? The best Champagnes have nutty biscuity aromas from lees ageing, a fine scent in the mouth, gentle acidity, piercing finesse and racy texture, with more citric notes in Chardonnay-only cuvees and red fruit in Pinot Noir blends. Whilst the best Champagnes from top producers from Grand Cru vineyards are in a class of their own and there is greater diversity with more Champagne growers bottling their own, other ‘traditional-method’ fizzes are getting closer to this taste than ever before.

The highest quality French fizz after Champagne is traditional-method French Cremant, made across seven regions: Loire, Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Jura, Die and Limoux – using their own style, terroir and flavour profile with local regional grapes.

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For years Cremant lagged behind, few producers focused on using their healthiest grapes, but now it offers a great value alternative to Champagne. The closest match is Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant du Jura made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but France’s hidden gem is Cremant d’Alsace (90% is drunk by the French) made from predominantly Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. With fine mousse, high acidity and relatively light body it offers a more diverse flavour range than Cava or Prosecco.

Spanish Cava is also all made by the same method as Champagne – the traditional-method - but Cava producers feel they have a heritage to uphold. They insist on native grapes Xarello, Parellada and Macabeo, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir additions for modernists.

Cava can be made across ten provinces from Penedes to Rioja, but 98% is made in Catalonia. Considering it is all traditional-method, value-wise Cava is remarkable for easy-drinking ripe fruity soft acidic fizz. Quality-wise, Cava will never be a match for Champagne, because the native grape trio give earthy bitter notes and lack finesse.

The rise in popularity of Prosecco is due to its delicate style and gentle alcohol (11%). Prosecco’s pale colour, floral aromas, light body and soft gentle mousse appeals particularly to female drinkers, who enjoy its lightness and increasingly sweet taste.

As the Prosecco craze gained momentum, the Italians acted swiftly to protect the name. The problem was that Prosecco was the name of the grape, so could be grown anywhere in Italy or abroad. They discovered a village called Prosecco in north east Italy, drew a border around it and changed the grape name to Glera.

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Few Prosecco drinkers may be fussed by how it is made, but it is not made by the traditional method. Like other fizz from aromatic grapes (Germany’s often impressive Sekt made from Riesling) Prosecco is made with second fermentation in tank, rather than bottle – the leesy biscuity nutty character of bottle fermentation can clash with aromatic grapes.

The best Prosecco comes from Conegliano Valdobbiadene, but even top single vineyard examples do not benefit from ageing like Champagne. Prosecco should be drunk upon release.

Higher quality and more ageworthy is Italy’s top traditional-method fizz: Franciacorta from Lombardy and Trento Doc from Trentino, both use classic Champagne grapes with Pinot Blanc. Franciacorta is more popular in Italy than Champagne, it offers rich stylish fizz with less greenness than in Champagne.

The biggest change in fizz, thanks to Champagne’s intervention, has taken place in the New World - with New Zealand most impressive to date. As recently as 1981 only two Kiwi wineries made traditional-method fizz, now all eyes are on Marlborough with its warm days, cool nights and long dry autumns as an ideal source of grapes to create zesty elegant fizz with fine acid backbone – perhaps the closest to Champagne in style.

Australia has made fizz since 1826, using unsuitable grapes from warm microclimates. Too many still focus on big volume transfer-method fizz, disgorged into tank after second fermentation (labelled as bottle fermented) - but real improvements in traditional-method fizz from cool sites in Yarra Valley and Tasmania have created quality fizz with riper more pungent fruit and softer acid compared to Kiwi fizz.

Likewise in California, premium fizz comes from fog-bound cooler coastal sites in Carneros, Sonoma and Mendocino with a ripe fruit style, but once aged can be a match for Champagne. South Africa suffers from a similar problem to Australia with too many commercial fizzes, but there is a trend towards stylish traditional-method fizz from cooler sites in Stellenbosch and Breede River. Western Cape is one of the few wine regions to have created its own name for top traditional method fizz, distinctively called ‘Cap Classique’.

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Thanks to climate change, the borders of quality sparkling wine are shifting. England is a real contender with its cool northerly climate - and in certain sites - similar chalky soils to Champagne.

The first bottle-fermented English fizz was made in the 1950’s, but for years vineyard owners grew hardy Germanic grapes, Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc, Kerner or Muller Thurgau, so fizz tasted more like German Sekt. It took two Americans to insist on planting classic Champagne varietals at Nyetimber in West Sussex in 1988, although authorities suggested apple orchards instead, and on using the same method as Champagne. By the early 1990s, expansion had begun – with one million vines planted last year - but the entire English wine industry is still tiny with five million bottles to Champagne’s annual 300 million.

Don’t expect English fizz to taste like Champagne. Typically it is paler, more youthful with elderflower blossomy notes, high marked acidity (sometimes piercingly high) and a distinct greenness with less complexity. The best from as diverse sites as Cornwall, Hampshire, West Sussex, Kent and Dorset show impressive fruit concentration – and some believe the long growing cycle (provided there is adequate sun) allows grapes to develop extra flavours and may be capable of more elegance and finesse than Champagne.

Perhaps England’s greatest accolade is that the French have been unable to resist the temptation to join the planting frenzy. Two Champagne houses have already crossed the channel to invest - as we enter the second phase of the sparkling wine revolution.

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