The grape guide

Shane Quinn sorts bubble from trouble in this tour of sparkling wines from around the world

Shane Quinn sorts bubble from trouble in this tour of sparkling wines from around the world

That time of year is here again when the staff parties begin and the Christmas spirit can be felt buzzing in the air. This year may have forced many to tighten the purse strings but why not party in style with some fine sparkling wine? Don’t fret! You don’t have to re-mortgage the house. Sparkling wine is made in most major wine producing countries and in countless lesser known regions making it virtually impossible to cover them all here! One benefit from this is that sparkling wine can be enjoyed cheaply these days and without losing any of that much sought after panache, even if it’s not Champagne.

First of all, we should dispel an old myth. Sparkling wine isn’t carbonated like Coca-Cola or 7up. The wine goes through a second fermentation in the bottle. This creates a lot of carbon dioxide which dissolves in the wine under pressure, creating that crisp, long-lasting effervescence.

Champagne is quite undoubtedly the most renowned and best of sparkling wines. The very name evokes up the snobbery in all of us. Sometimes, however, if the wine is lacking richness, it is sweetened. This often spoils the character of the wine and has had the effect of tarnishing Champagne’s sterling reputation over the last few years.

What often confuses people about Champagne is the seemingly endless list of terminology. Once you get your head around this then a simple glance at a label should tell you everything you need to know.

Most Champagne is a blend of two or more vintages (the year’s grape harvest) and is therefore called Non-Vintage. The quality of Non-Vintage Champagne has varied considerably and some released in 2005 was generally thought unacceptable. On a lot of the labels you will find ‘Brut’ which means the wine is dry. Extra-dry denotes, funnily enough, a style less dry than Brut.

Single vintage Champagne is generally only made in the best years (‘95, ‘96, ‘00, ‘01 and ‘02 are some worthy ones) but during the 1990s it was thought that too many were declared so don’t be surprised if you get a mediocre bottle!

Some Champagnes are Blanc de Blancs, which is an elegant and light style of Champagne and made solely from the Chardonnay grape. Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made entirely from red grapes, either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a combination of the two.

In Spain, the word for the traditional Champagne method is Cava (pronounced Caba, if you want to show off). Although not exclusively, most Cava comes from Catalonia. The unheard-of grapes Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo are used but often complimented with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Cava is the bargain that will save you a fortune this Christmas. The youngest Cavas are the fruitiest and will con any unsuspecting guest at a house party!

Spumante (sparkling) or Frizzante (semi-sparkling) are Italian sparkling wines. The word Spumante means ‘foaming’ and, contrary to popular belief, the French didn’t invent sparkling wine; the Romans, more than two thousand years ago were drinking the world’s first ‘foaming’ wine! Spumante is made to sparkle either by the traditional French method or by the metodo charmat. i.e. not in the bottle but in the tank.

Lambrusco is an extremely popular red fizz in Italy and the Emilia-Romagna region is noted for producing this. It’s great with salami or buttery cheese sauces. Prosecco is a popular white grape, grown in Veneto and is often used to create soft, scented Spumante.

Australia produces blends using grapes from various areas but regional characters are beginning to emerge, most notably Tasmania. Some Australian fizz is made with Shiraz (or Syrah) which has a fascinating (and seductive) alcoholic edge to it.

In the USA, California has some rather good examples of how the traditional method can be used outside of Champagne. Oregon has also shown itself to be a worthy contender but in general the States aren’t a favourite of mine for fizz.

This Christmas try out the exemplary aperitif, Codorniu Reserva Raventos Cava. This Non Vintage won’t be too sore on your wallet at 16.99 (O’Brien’s). The Non Vintage La Pieve Prosecco is even cheaper at 13.99 (O’Brien’s) but definitely superior coming from the world class winemaker, Mionetto. Soft with peaches and pears, this is a great party drink. For the wealthier among us, Bauchet Selection Non Vintage Champagne at 24.99 (O’Brien’s) is still relatively cheap!