There are many articles that detail the euphoria of drinking sparkling wine at Christmas. Here’s another one. I’ll try my best to sidestep any saccharine images of popping bottles and earnest festive toasts, but the simple reality is that it’s not Christmas without a bottle of something fizzy. The question, therefore, is never whether you should acquire some sparkling wine, it’s where on earth do you start?
Go to the sparkling wine section of any supermarket or independent bottle shop, you’re hurled headfirst into a wall of cursive text and puzzling languages. The heavy, opaque bottles all look rather similar and you have nothing to guide you except first impressions and vague memories. Hurried along by a wailing child or impatient partner, you pick the one with the nicest label and pray to Father Christmas you’ve made the right choice.
Not all sparkling wine is created equal, but there’s not enough time in the day to stand in a supermarket hunched over your Oxford Companion to Wine. So, I, the selfless woman that I am, have taken it upon myself to taste and identify some of the best sparkling wines available this year. Below, I break down the most common sparkling wines you’re likely to come across, how they’re made, and — most crucially — what they taste like. Less time in the supermarket means more time drinking Champagne. You can thank me later.
You love it, you loathe how much you spend on it, but it’s ultimately synonymous with special occasions; Christmas being one of them. Hailing from a region in northern France of the same name, Champagne must be made from three different grape varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — the exact proportions of each will vary between producers.
All Champagne must be made in the traditional method, with a first fermentation of a base wine, and then a second fermentation in the bottle (which gives it its fizz). After the first fermentation, there is a minimum lees-ageing period of 18 months, where the wine remains in contact with the dead yeast cells after they’ve fermented (sounds gross, actually delicious).
Non-vintage Champagne is a wine made up from the wine of multiple harvests, or vintages, blended together to achieve a house style. So, every time you have a specific non-vintage, you can rely on it tasting broadly the same as the last time you had it. Non-vintage Champagne is usually marked as such or with a simple "NV" online.
Most Champagnes are now pushing £50 thanks to this year’s duty increases. But the member-owned Wine Society has held the price of its bold, toasty own-label.
This is the non-vintage Champagne of choice for many of my sommelier friends. I like the Pinot noir-driven notes of black cherry and stone fruit which are supported by a structure that makes it a good match for food.
Blanc de Blancs means "white from white," which denotes a Champagne made solely from Chardonnay. This fine Champagne is 50 per cent reserve, some of which dates all the way back to the 1980s.
Vintage Champagne is made from the harvest from a specific year and will always name this year on the label. Generally, vintage Champagnes are made in good years, as the winemaker feels that the specific conditions of the vintage produced a harvest of exceptional quality. Vintage Champagnes must undergo a minimum lees ageing period of three years, imbuing the wine with pronounced patisserie notes of biscuits and brioche.
I was seriously impressed with this wine from Waitrose. It offers good value. I found it heavy on the nuts: think praline, hazelnut and powdery salted almonds.
Grower Champagne is on the up, and this elegant fizz is the house sparkling at the Noble Rot restaurants. And if anyone knows great value Champagne, it’s them.
This is the one you’re likely to find in the supermarket. This cuvée has spent six months in the cellar before release. I'd advise buying one to drink and one to age.
Not all that sparkles is Champagne. ‘Crémant’ is the name given to French sparkling wines made using the same traditional method as Champagne but in any other region. There are nine official places where crémant is made, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to cover the three you’re likely to come across this festive season.
Crémant de Jura
This crémant is made in the à la mode French region of Jura, which lies on the border between France and Switzerland. The cool Alpine climate and high altitudes of its vineyards imbues the wines with complexity and freshness. The crémants made there tend to be a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a native red grape called Ploussard.
Another if-you-know-you-know bottle from Aldi. 100 per cent Chardonnay gives a lemon-posset-style creaminess with a fine mousse. For me, it's a good option to have on repeat on Christmas morning.
Crémant de Limoux
Limoux is the oldest sparkling wine-producing region in the world. Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are the main grapes used here, plus Pinot Noir and Mauzac — a white grape variety native to the area, which brings a tingling acidity to any blend. Not to be confused with Blanquette de Limoux, a historic sparkling wine that is predominantly Mauzac.
A bottle I pick up every time I pass the St James’s shop. It's 70 per cent Chardonnay, with the rest Chenin Blanc and Mauzac. It's a tropical and opulent fizz.
A bonus bottle of Blanquette, aged for 12 months on lees to bolster notes of stone fruit with a brioche-clad richness.
Alsace is a region in the east of France and on the border with Germany. There are a few grapes permitted in the production of its crémant, among Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Pinot Blanc tends to be the dominant variety, marking wines with freshness and fruity tenderness.
I love this classic Alsace blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois which balance floral, delicate aromatics with ripe orchard fruit and plum.
English sparkling wine
We’re becoming a nation of producers as well as drinkers. For now, English viticulture has found its niche in sparkling wine production, mainly because the chalky soils that typify Champagne can also be found in the south of England, where you’ll find most wineries. English sparkling wine is made in the same traditional method as Champagne and from the same varieties.
I’d heard a lot of good things about this wine but was still surprised. Chardonnay-driven notes of green apple and lemon arrive before a creamy finish.
Another good-value English sparkling that would suit most occasions. Many of Ridgeview’s own wines are significantly pricier.
2018 is heralded one of the best-ever English vintages. This Blanc de Noirs (made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) has a core of blue fruit, with biscuity notes. Blueberry crumble?
Cava is Spain’s flagship sparkling wine, made in the Penedès region using the same traditional method as Champagne. Macabeo, Xarello and Parellada are the three most popular grapes, combining to make a fruity sparkling wine but not as sweet as Prosecco.
Waitrose No.1 Cava Brut £11.99
Made by Castillo Perelada, this is a great-value bottle from Waitrose. One is currently chilling in my fridge door.
This is a wine you’re likely to find in your independent bottle shop. Made from a tiny 12-hectare estate, it’s an incredibly easy-drinking Cava that I often crave.
It may not surprise you to hear that the UK is the world’s largest market for Prosecco. It must be made at least 85 per cent Glera, then mixed with other local grape varieties. What differentiates Prosecco from other sparkling wines is the tank method, where, unlike the traditional one, the second fermentation happens in a pressure-resistant tank. Because of this, Prosecco tends to be a lot cheaper than its competitors that are fermented individually.
If you knew me at university, you knew that own-label Tesco Prosecco was my pre-drink of choice. This expression is poised and floral, with a bushels of white fruit.
Méthode Cap Classique
And now to South Africa: Methode Cap Cliassique is their traditional-method sparkling wine, made from Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The warmer climate means these wines can be delicious and fleshy, which makes them fabulous with food.
Graham Beck Brut NV £16.49
A rich blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, served at Barack Obama’s presidential win, and if it’s good enough for the Obamas, well, yes, it's good enough for me.
Italian sparkling wine is more than just Prosecco. Made using the traditional method, this is a famous wine from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. Made with Moscato grapes, this sparkling wine errs on the sweeter, aromatic side of proceedings.
Balanced Asti at an excellent price. Expect classic notes of flowers and grape. An ideal option to serve to the relative who adores something sweet.