Monday, 9 December 2013

Things that go pop in the night

Even those of us who eschew sparkling wines at any other time of year suddenly feel the need to pop the cork on a bottle of fizz come Christmas time. The sound is emblematic of celebration and instantly puts people in a party mood.

As well as marking Christmas and New Year celebrations, fizz comes in handy for lightening the mood in many ways. Don’t grimace when yet another Christmas card from a distant acquaintance containing a nauseating and boastful round robin update on their triumphant achievements in 2013 drops onto the hall carpet – crack open a bottle of fizz and settle down to read it with a smile on your face.

This year a group of some of my oldest friends has agreed that we will write our own round robins – but they must contain no achievements and focus instead on minor disappointments (goodness knows plenty of those stack up by the end of the year). So no mentions of Lulu’s Grade 5 flute success or once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable holidays in far flung places. Instead it will feature things like broadband speeds remaining stubbornly sluggish, failed vegetable growing attempts and the new stair carpet still giving off a huge amount of fluff despite being down for months now. I can see I’m going to take to this round robin of misery like a duck to water. And I’m going to enjoy composing mine all the more with a glass of something sparkling by my side.

Here are some sparkling wines on which I would be happy to pop the cork this festive season:


 From almost complete obscurity in this country 20 years ago, Prosecco has now almost become the default sparkling wine for any occasion.  The Prosecco grape’s naturally high acidity is traditionally mitigated with some sweetness in the wine, so the most common style we see here is labelled “Extra Dry” which, counter-intuitively, actually means off-dry.  Properly dry versions will have “Brut” on the label.  Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Prosecco Conegliano Brut is usually £9.99, but has been reduced to £7.49, and if you act quickly to take advantage of their 25% off 6 bottles promotion running until 10 December, you can snap it up for just £5.62. Or you can give it large with a magnum for just £10.49. It has plenty of fresh, ripe pear aromas and fine bubbles and is perfectly nice for a pre-lunch glass or evening aperitif, if not particularly refined.  Caves de Pyrène’s Prosecco Bellenda Brut 2012 has more elegance, but then it will set you back £14.76.

Pink fizz
Rosé wines have been the only growth category in UK wine consumption in recent years. This, along with our unquenchable thirst for fizz, has made the pink sparkling wine category a success story. The upside is that there is more choice than ever before – the predictable downside, that quality is not always what it should be.

I’ve yet to find a rosé Cava that I could recommend and pink Prosecco seems disappointing - more material for my round robin there. For a good value party pink fizz I’d plump for The Society’s Saumur Rosé Brut NV (£9.95 from The Wine Society). Made by the venerable house of Gratien & Meyer from Cabernet Franc with a little of the un-prepossessingly named Grolleau, it has a delightful fruity freshness. Light enough to drink on its own, it would also be happy to keep company with that Christmas staple, smoked salmon.

Other sparkling wines
As you are no doubt heartily fed up of hearing, any sparkling wine made anywhere than the designated Champagne region in northern France cannot legally use that name. However, France is awash with other sparkling wines, many made in the same way, though perhaps not with the special magic of Champagne itself.

I have particularly enjoyed Champalou Vouvray Brut NV (£15.97 from Caves de Pyrène or £14.50 from Great Western Wine) recently. The Champalous make their sparkling wine from Vouvray’s Chenin Blanc grape and, unusually, let the second fermentation in bottle use nothing but the residual sugar in the base wine to create the fizz – usually sugar is added along with the yeast.  The result is a wine that has a delicious light, floral character as well as Chenin’s appley fruit, and a gentler mousse. It is refined yet quaffable – which can be a dangerous combination.


There are so many Champagnes out there and many of you will have houses that you favour. If you are open to some suggestions, though, I can heartily recommend Sainsbury’s own label Blanc de Noirs Brut NV. I snapped up a few bottles of this food-friendly, savoury Champers made from the black-skinned varieties Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, earlier this year when it was on offer. In the meantime, it has managed to bag itself a Gold medal at this year’s International Wine Challenge. There’s nothing like having your own good opinion of something confirmed by others for making you feel even more well-disposed towards it. Even better, this bottle is currently available at Sainsbury’s for a frankly ridiculous £12.75 a bottle, as part of their buy 6 bottles and save 25% promotion until 10 December. If you’re not squeamish about putting a supermarket label fizz on the table (and I’m not) then get thyselves to Sainsbury’s pronto.

Waitrose’s Champagne Brut Special Reserve Vintage 2004 (reduced to £25.99 from £30.99 from now until January) is a Pinot Noir dominated blend (60%), with the rest Chardonnay. It has lovely maturing flavours of bread, toast and spice along with baked apple.  The long ageing (3 years on the lees, then further in bottle before release) has given it a fine mousse that makes it particularly suitable for food.

These supermarket labels are far better value than the “never heard of them before” Champagnes that supermarkets offer at “half price” at this time of year. I’d always rather see a tried and trusted supermarket name on the label. Here endeth the lesson. 

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