This is a longer version of an article published by The Financial Times. This picture was taken by Matt Martin at 67 Pall Mall.
The one major change to my recommendations for celebratory sparkling wines this festive season is that top-quality fizz is now made in – England.
I have always wanted English sparkling wines to succeed but while most of them tasted well made, for many years they were a bit simple and tart. Recently I have been convinced that the best now offer much to those who thought that only champagne would do.
Not long ago I took part in a revelatory blind tasting organised by Noble Rot, a cheeky, well-designed gastromag. The idea was to compare the editors’ favourite champagnes with their favourite English wines. The champagnes included non-vintage blends from the likes of Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger as well as Bérèche, Chartogne Taillet, Marguet and Savart.
The tasting panel included several French sommeliers and we all assumed that the dozen wines we tasted without knowing their identities would be divided equally between champagnes and English sparkling wines. To our amazement in fact there were only four English wines among the 12 and to our even greater amazement, the top two places, when all the scores were added up, were occupied by English wines: Hambledon Estate Classic Cuvée NV England (£28.50 www.hambledonvineyard.co.uk) and Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 England (£23.99 Hennings, also Berry Bros & Rudd).
My personal favourite overall with (for what it’s worth) 17.5 points out of 20, along with what I assume was the current blend of Veuve Clicquot NV Champagne (£29.98 Amazon.co.uk – presumably much to the dismay of brand owners LVMH), was another English wine, Wiston Estate Cuvée 2010 (£32.95 www.wistonestate.com), but I gave 17 points to all three of the other English wines, including Gusbourne Reserve 2010 England (£29.95 Lea & Sandeman), whereas I scored some of Noble Rot’s favourite champagnes as low as 14.5.
There have been murmurs in the trade press for some time about the Champenois’ being increasingly rattled by competition from Prosecco and to a certain extent Cava, but perhaps they ought also to be looking across the Channel at a new threat to their domination of the uplifting combination of wine and carbon dioxide.
Of course Prosecco and Cava have the great allure of being generally very much cheaper than champagne (except for the supermarket champagne brands designed specifically to be used as a lure at this time of year). English wine, generally grown on expensive land in unreliable conditions (the 2011, 2012 and 2013 harvests all presented particular challenges), will never be cheap – and the English fizzes in our tasting cost about the same as the champagnes they were lined up against.
But to me the really exciting development was that I found myself during the tasting not trying to work out which wines were the champagnes and therefore superior but was writing enthusiastic notes such as ‘Sophisticated. Could be a very good English.’
The other source of seriously well-made sparkling wine made in the image of champagne is Italy. While Prosecco is hugely popular, most of it is made by a much more industrial technique than the traditional method used for champagne. I also tend to find it a bit sweet. But both Franciacorta and Trento produce much more subtle, dry fizzes – most of which have the advantage for us wine geeks of giving full details of what’s inside the bottle on the back label: vintage, date of disgorgement and, often, varietal composition of the blend (usually, like English fizz, the two finest grapes of the Champagne region: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir).
Ca’ del Bosco, Annamaria Clementi 1985 Franciacorta (£85 Vini Italiani) should impress the most fastidious of champagne drinkers, and Ferrari Perlé 2008 Trento (£25.79 Drinks Direct) is a long-aged, particularly complex, all-Chardonnay sparkling wine from the subalpine slopes. These two producers are hardly discoveries; they are arguably the locomotives of their respective regions. But alas more outré examples are even harder to find from British retailers.
One producer who is working hard in north-east Spain to produce seriously interesting top-quality sparkling wines that each have a fascinating story to tell is Manuel Raventós whose Raventós i Blanc blends could only be Catalan, and are worth checking out. These sparkling wines are not sold as Cava but as the new Conca del Riu Anoia appellation.
The only other non-champagne sparkling wine I have been seriously impressed by in the last year (which probably reflects how unadventurous I have been rather than being a condemnation of the rest of the world’s producers of sparkling wine) came from a most unlikely source: Mendoza in Argentina. Pablo Cuneo makes this blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay using the traditional method and the result is seriously good for the price, with quite a bit of age and an appetising dry finish. I just hope that the Ruca Malen Sparkling Brut NV Mendoza (£15.95 Corney & Barrow) I tasted at the Wines of Argentina Awards last February is the same blend that is currently on offer in the UK.
This of course is the problem for non-vintage (NV) blends of champagne and other sparkling wines. We usually have no way of knowing from the back label exactly which blend is the one currently on sale. This is where the army of conscientious growers trump most of the big champagne brands. Growers’ champagne has always been more likely to provide specific information on back labels about each blend (although an increasing number of the big names are beginning to provide more detail on their labels). Until recently, grower’s champagne has tended to be much better value in general than the big houses’ blends, once known as the grandes marques.
Alas and alack, rather than the big houses responding to the competition by cutting their prices, many growers have increased theirs, so that I can no longer generalise that growers’ champagne (which tends to be identified by the small letters RM for récoltant-manipulant on the label, as opposed to NM for negociant-manipulant in the case of champagne producers who also buy grapes or wine) is better value.
Today it all comes down to producers and individual blends, or cuvées. Among growers’ non-vintage blends I was very taken by Laherte Frères, Les 7 NV Champagne (£45 The Wine Society) made from a blend of all seven grape varieties to be found in the Champagne region, based on the 2010 vintage but aged in a sort of solera fractional blending system. Egly-Ouriet has so far been a thoroughly reliable source of grower’s champagne but Egly-Ouriet, Tradition Grand Cru NV Champagne (£55 Roberson) does demonstrate that upward trend in prices unfortunately. The blend I fell for earlier in the year had been aged for 46 months on the lees and was disgorged in 2012.
As for other champagnes, these are some of my current favourites – few of them bargains unfortunately.
I have been lucky enough to taste many a de luxe champagne this year and it is not difficult to find truly fine wines carrying names such as Dom Pérignon, Dom Ruinart, Krug, Pol Roger Winston Churchill, Louis Roederer Cristal, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and even relative newcomer Armand de Brignac. See for example these verticals of de luxe champagnes , bottle v magnum of luxury champagnes and this comprehensive Champagne and sparkling wine compilation .
These are some of the less expensive bottlings that have impressed me over the last year, listed in ascending price order.
Marc Chauvet, Brut Tradition NV £24 The Real Wine Company
Henriot Brut Souverain NV £25 Taylors Fine Wine and many others
Vazart-Cocquart NV £28.75 Scala Wine, £29.95 www.plus-de-bulles.co.uk
Larmandier Bernier, Longitude Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru £34.95 Lea & Sandeman and others
Aurelien Suenen NV £38 www.robersonwine.com
Charles Heidsieck 2005 from £40 Millesima and many others
Alfred Gratien 2000 £42 The Wine Society
Paul Dethune Grand Cru 2005 £55 Hedley Wright
Louis Roederer 2004 £55.95 Lea & Sandeman
Pol Roger Brut 2004 £56.99 www.waitrosecellar.com
René Geoffroy Extra Brut 2004 £60 Berry Bros & Rudd