White fizz

Drink - Victoria Moore on the rise of sparkling wines

Toasty. Nice and fruity. There are definitely some brioche flavours and a hint of green apple here. Beautifully rich. A good whiff of yeast on the bouquet. A cheeky little number. Just a touch of Golden Virginia on the throat. That's what my impromptu test panel said of the two sparkling white wines I'd given them to drink at dinner. They were teasing, needless to say. Most people can mimic winespeak quite effortlessly, but would probably struggle if asked to read and drink before matching, say, five pieces of prose to the five wines they described.

The crucial question, as always, is do you like it? When tasting sparkling white wines, this is complicated somewhat by the presence, uninvited, of another question: can I tell that this isn't champagne? If the answer to the second question is yes, then the answer to the first also tends to be yes.

How unfair. You would not dream of rating a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc according to its resemblance (or not) to a fine Sancerre. Indeed, New Zealand's cult wine is considered so fine that it is much harder to get hold of and much more expensive than a common or garden Sancerre. So why judge its sister sparkling wine, Cloudy Bay Pelorus, by the discrepancy of taste between it and whatever your particular taste buds hold to be the gold standard for champagne?

The truth is that, over the centuries, the people of Epernay and Reims have pulled off the biggest, and least recognised, marketing coup in history. They have succeeded in making the desire for white fizz synonymous with the desire for champagne. If we can't afford champagne, then why will we not make do with some lesser sparkle, but have still wine instead? What nonsense. There are some very good sparkling wines around, many of them in the champagne style and less expensive, some utterly different.

Blessed with a cool climate, New Zealand is making some very good sparkling wines. We tasted two. One, Lindauer (£8.99), from the wine-making giant Montana, was still half full when we cleared the table at the end of dinner. The other was the aforementioned 1996 Pelorus (£12.49) from the Cloudy Bay superstars. Cloudy Bay is now owned by Veuve Clicquot, which bought its first stake in the business in 1991, but that's not why Pelorus tastes so good. Pelorus may be made using champagne grapes - Pinot Noir and Char-donnay - and the traditional champagne method. (There are four main ways to make wine fizzy, the others being tank, transfer and injection. The traditional method is generally considered to be "better", but is also more expensive.) But Cloudy Bay was set up by an Australian wine-maker and its sparkling wines pre-date Veuve Clicquot's interest in the company. "Pelorus is a New Zealand sparkling wine," says Cloudy Bay firmly. "Not a champagne lookalike and we don't want people to think of it as such. We're very proud of our sparkling wines."

Well, it is in many ways a champagne lookalike, but Cloudy Bay is successfully nurturing an elegant mythology for itself. The winery is named after the mists that rise from the waters of the bay. And Pelorus is named after a dolphin - Pelorus Jack - that used to act as a pilot, guiding boats through the waters of the Marlborough Sounds.

The first vintage of Pelorus was made in 1987. The wine now sells about 50,000 bottles a year in this country - its other principal markets are New Zealand and Australia - and interest continues to grow, though production will always be relatively small. It really is exceptional. Taste buds that flinch at the prospect of a non-French fizz should try it.

But I suppose you want to know what the experts think. All right, then. "The pastry-edged fruit is outstanding" (Malcolm Gluck on the 1995 vintage). "Well-developed, biscuity flavours in a foaming mouthful of bubbles" (the Independent on the 1993 vintage). Does that leave you any the wiser? Why not just try it?

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose