Before I launch into a hymn to sparkling wine, I’d better make something clear. I love champagne, with its rich and subtle flavours and richer, subtler history, not to mention the canniness of its makers who have somehow persuaded your average punter to spend five or six times their normal outlay because the wine in question contains carbon dioxide – free, last time I checked, in every location in which Homo sapiens can inhale.
We Brits are among the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of champagne and long may that continue. Yet there are an awful lot of sparkling wines out there, some much better than others, and our passion for champagne at one end of the market (and contempt for atrocious cava at the other) ignores too many. Our newly minted sparkling wine industry can’t help, since these wines still tend to be about the same price as a non-vintage champagne. I could talk to you about Australian sparkling wine or prosecco or even the better cavas but space is short and the sun is headed for the yardarm, so I will tell you about crémant instead.
Champagne is only the bestknown sparkling wine region in France. Limoux in Languedoc- Roussillon has been making its blanquettes and crémants since the 16th century; the Loire has six kinds of fizz, grouped under the name fines bulles but each with an array of rules even finer than those bulles, or bubbles. In 1900, Julien Dopff came home to Alsace from a champagne-making demonstration at Paris’s Exposition Universelle full of plans for Champagne Dopff; his descendants and their neighbours are still making their fizz, using the champagne (traditional) method and their own grapes, including Pinot Blanc and Riesling, although now they have to call it Crémant d’Alsace.
Even before you look across the Alps to the miasma of fizzing prosecco or franciacorta droplets above northern Italy, the choice is phenomenal. The wines vary in quality but then so do those of their more famous countrymen – and it’s a lot easier to practise trial and error at £14 a bottle than at £30-plus.
Why is most sparkling wine so much less expensive than champagne, even when made using the same méthode traditionnelle of a second fermentation in the bottle? Sometimes, it’s because the grapes are machine-harvested – in Australia, a Melbourne sommelier tells me, a lot of women (“Oops, that’s sexist – I mean people”) want to drink bubbles all through lunch without going bankrupt: “There’s no way that would be possible if the producers stuck to champagne’s rules.”
Or sometimes, fizz is where producers put the grapes that don’t make it into the still wine.
If you are a Burgundian lucky enough to have premier cru or grand cru land, your only permitted varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two of the three traditional champagne varieties.
You may choose to make Crémant de Bourgogne from whatever doesn’t go into your unbelievably good still wines because these grapes are only below par in the sense that Jenson Button is a substandard driver because he’s not Ayrton Senna.
It is party season now but, given that many of us have less to celebrate and fewer pennies to spend on the celebrations, this may be a good year to look at ways to make your festivities effervesce slightly more cost-efficiently – or you may simply consider the booziest part of the year an opportunemoment for a little vinous experimentation. That’s my méthode traditionnelle: less killing two birds with one stone than getting one bird stoned with a fine array of glasses.