Scandalous sparkling wine is not the angle I set off to write this article on, but it’s a niggle that caught a spark of irritation, a vexed little voice that said, “wait, why scandalous?” The mindset that we have around sparkling wines, compared to our counterparts on the continent for instance, is very different. Over there, sparkling wines – be it Champagne, proper or various versions of local or neighbouring bubbles – are embraced as casually, appreciatively and reverently as normal still wines. Dinner with pals? Start with bubbles. Afternoon drink? Mixer with bubbles. Little snack? Bubbles. Notice the engagement with food as opposed to solitary confinement to a flute? #downwithflutes!
Yes, I realise that price points of said bubbles over there look very different to over here. Even in the relevant contexts of the different costs of living and spending power, sparkling wines are so much more accessible there than here. However, it’s not just spending power that’s holding us back, it’s the mindset (in my humble opinion).
Too often, we tangle ourselves up in the conditioning that the opening of a sparkling wine needs to be justified by merit of an excuse or occasion – please, life is too short!
Sparkling wines are wines, and they come in a variety of styles, price points and quality levels. You can get paint-stripper bubbles right through to heaven on earth bubbles and the only factor that should have any influence on what you choose to drink (and when) is your own spending power – everything else can, quite frankly, get in the bin. So, with that in mind I’ve written a three step plan towards sparkling wine fulfilment for anyone looking for that little nudge of encouragement to shed a few layers of wine culture conditioning over Christmas (and beyond).
Step One – Pet-Nats
I wouldn’t dare assume that anyone reading this has yet to meet a Pet Nat but just in case there is anyone yet to discover the pleasures, here’s what you need to know.
Pet-Nat (short for Pétillant Naturel) is the wine that’s emerged as a sort of crossover artist between bubbles and cool. Pet-Nats are made through the oldest method of making sparkling wines, whereby the wine is bottled while it’s still busy fermenting. The resulting CO2 created as a byproduct of fermentation is trapped in the bottle and behold, we have bubbles.
These wines are usually closed with a simple crown cap (as opposed to the mushroom cork and cages of Champagne style sparkling wines) and are made without any additives (yeast and sugar already there, working away). They are generally unfiltered, although some producers might choose to disgorge and release a clarified wine to the market. Most are intended to be drunk young and can be lower in alcohol (8 – 11%ish) than other sparkling wines, with a touch of unfermented residual sugar. They are fun and easy to drink, humble and innocuous in their concoction, hence why they’ve managed to sneak into Everyday Drinking without much fuss. They’re the guilt-free version of sparkling wines (like Müller Lights if you will – remember them?) and they tend to be gentle on the wallet too.
Pet-Nats are happy wines, as much as I like to think that I’ve rebelled against the when-I-can-and-can’t-drink-bubbles doctrine, it still feels like a treat, a departure from the norm to drink a wine with bubbles in it. They are produced in many wine-making regions and are widely available in a range of styles, fits and colours to match any mood or impulse.
Step Two – Méthode Traditionnelle
We’re going to entirely bypass Prosecco at this stage because Prosecco is doing fine as it is (for what is asked of it) and if any sparkling wine should be subjected to dosing with fruit or mixers, let it be Prosecco. I won’t stop you.
But, if the ultimate freedom of drinking sparkling wines would be to open a bottle of Champagne at every whim, the step before that, must be of making a good dent in the catalogue of Champagne-style sparkling wines. That is wine made in the Méthode Traditionnelle’, whereby the second fermentation takes place in the bottle.
Spain is my go-to for brilliant sparkling wines made in the traditional method at incredible value for money. We know Spanish sparkling wines as Cava and technically Cava can be made in many regions of Spain, but it’s the wines from the main Cava producing region of Penedes that are the ones to look out for. There’s been a fraction within the ranks of the Cava label and a handful of the best producers broke out to create their own classification of Corpinnat. For a wine to carry the Corpinnat label, it has to be made from 100% organic, hand-harvested grapes and must be vinified entirely on the premises of the producer whose name is on the label. In other words, this is about quality, diligence and integrity, both to the land and wine-drinkers. There are 11 producers who are proudly making wines under this mantle, all of which subscribe to the ethos of long-ageing before releasing their wines. Some of the names easily available in Ireland are Gramona, Llopart, Recaredo and Mas Candi.
One Penedes based producer went one step further and created their own classification to release their wines under, called Conca del riu Anoia DO. That producer is Raventós i Blanc. Their ethos goes further again, subscribing to biodynamic viticulture, using only native grape varieties, extra-long ageing and releasing only vintage wines (as opposed to multi-vintage blends). They also prefer no or low dosage, which means very little extra sweetness is added to the finished wine after disgorgement
No or low dosage sparkling wines make for some of my favourite food pairing wines, because it means they are far more “stretchy” in terms of how they react to food. They can take on sweetness from food (in our perception anyway), seeming to fill up and flesh out, becoming juicier, fruitier and softer and likewise they can snap shut, tighten and elongate into their minerality against foods that revel in their dryness. They move, they react and they change shape over the course of the meal. They are entertainment in a glass and whilst you can play around with low or no dosage wines in Champagne form, inviting a producer like Raventós to the table means you can do it with a quality wine at half the price point.
These wines might very well cost the same amount of money (or less! or more! – horses for courses) than the usual bottles you would pick up on the weekend, or on a Wednesday because you’ve had a shit day, or on a Monday because it’s been a good one – but if I was to bank on getting a brilliant value and delicious wine, I’d put my money on the Spaniards hellbent on producing leading quality sparkling wines, every time.
Step Three – Champagne proper
For the most part, the market has been dominated by what’s called the Grandes Marques, the big famous Champagne houses responsible for the branding and marketing of Champagne being premium products and the indoctrination that they should only be applied to premium situations. These are huge operations, releasing millions of bottles to the market each year and squirrelling many more millions of bottles into quiet slumber in their underground network of cellars. I’m not here to demonise or condone them, only to mention them as a frame to the context of the Champagnes that I do want to talk about: the emergence of Grower Champagnes.
Grower Champagnes are wines made by much smaller producers. They make wines from their own grapes at a scale that allows them to make hyper-focused wines of vineyards, varietals and vintages and also to produce “montage” wines that combine these factors into more homogenised expressions. Like the Grand Marques, they too can produce stalwart non-vintage (or “multi-cuveé”) blended wines and one of my favourites of such is Bérêche & Fils Brut Réserve. If I was to choose a Grand Marque equivalent, I’d go with Louis Roederer’s new collection 242/243 releases. These wines are by no means cheap; the category of Grower Champagnes tend to start at around €60 retail, but, in my opinion, they deliver on every cent.
We are very lucky here in Ireland that we have some fantastic suppliers who have brought the wines of a lot of these producers to our shores. Some of my favourites (and I’m sure some of yours too) are Savart, Georges Remy, Larmandier Bernier, Ulysse Collin, Bourgeois Diaz and Françoise Bedel. All of these producers are making limited amounts of wines from their organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, producing expressive, authentic and distinctive wines that take up far more room as a drinking experience than a flute could ever accommodate.
Ditch the flutes, get your proper glasses out and let yourself experience these wines at any opportunity that funds allow. Money is a big enough restriction as it is when it comes to drinking what we want, save yourself the weight of labouring under any other restriction as much as you can. I say – remember – Kipendacho moyo ni dawa! (do what makes you happy)!
Words: Cathryn Bell
Cathryn Bell is an award-winning sommelier who runs a consultancy service winerover.ie Follow her on social media for updates on her public wine and supper club nights around Dublin.
Cathryn is a guest contributor to the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com and avail of festive vouchers to the Digest with a ‘Buy One, Gift Two’ offer for the holiday season.