Friday, 31 August 2012

The other French fizz

“Champagne, in victory I deserve it.  In defeat, I need it.”  This quote, attributed to Napoleon, says a lot about Champagne.  It is an emblematic, almost talismanic, substance which transcends mere wine.  When marking an important event, nothing fits the bill like Champagne. 

You can test this out by popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne and just wait for someone to ask “What’s the special occasion?”  Don’t try this when on your own, obviously.

Sometimes though, we might just fancy a bottle of fizz, without the extra baggage (and hefty price tag) of Champagne.  British drinkers have taken Italian Prosecco to their hearts in recent years.  Very different in style from Champagne, it’s all about fresh fruit, lightness and frothiness, allied to a little sweetness.  I’m all for a glass of it at the start of the evening, but one is usually plenty.

If you are craving the more restrained and dry style of Champagne, then the other French fizz – Crémant – could be for you.

And what is Crémant?  Very simply, it is sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne, but from outside the Champagne area.

French wine law is based on the principle of guaranteeing the origin of what you are drinking – that the wine in the bottle is from the area designated on the label.  Champagne, for drinkers, may just be shorthand for any sparkling wine.  However, in legal terms, in order for Champagne to appear on the label, the contents must be sparkling wine from the Champagne region around Reims in northern France.

It also has to conform to a certain method of production – more of that in a moment.  So, if you are a winemaker in any other part of France, and wish to make a sparkling wine in the same way as Champagne, your product can be called Crémant.

How is wine made to sparkle?  In its simplest form, carbon dioxide can be forced into any still wine, resulting in a fizzy one.  Anyone with a SodaStream will be familiar with the process – and if you do have one, why not do a little experiment with any cheap bottle of wine and see the result?  I’m confident that a bottle of Gallo White Zinfandel could be immeasurably improved in this way.

The other, more classy way, to make a sparkling wine is to provoke a second fermentation in a still wine.  This is done by adding yeast, and sugar for it to feed on, to the wine.  Alcoholic fermentation produces carbon dioxide and, if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, will become dissolved in the wine.  This second fermentation can take place either in the bottle, which is the only way permitted for Champagne, Crémant or anything labelled “traditional method” sparkling wine.  Or it can be carried out in a sealed tank, which is used for Prosecco and many other good quality sparkling wines around the world.

Sediment in the bottle

"pupitre" with hand-riddled bottles
Second fermentation in the bottle permits long ageing on the dead yeast cells (or lees) and the development of complex flavours and fine, long-lasting bubbles.  However, those dead yeast cells need to be extracted somehow, if the final wine is to be crystal clear and not murky with sediment.  This is achieved firstly by gradually tipping the bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position over a number of weeks (if done by hand) or days (if done in a specially designed machine named a gyropalette), a process known as riddling. 

a gyropallette

Then, to extract the sediment the process of disgorgement takes place.  The necks of the upturned bottles are dipped in a sub-zero temperature solution, creating a frozen plug of sediment.  This is then ejected by turning the bottles upright and removing the bottle cap.  The frozen sediment shoots out under pressure from the carbon dioxide-induced fizziness in the wine.  The bottle is then topped up with wine, plus some sugar solution (or dosage) to give the required sweetness level from ultra brut (no sugar) to demi sec (40grams per litre or so).  Cork on and voilà, the wine has completed its transformation into fizz and just needs to rest and recover from all the excitements of riddling and disgorgement.
Sediment in the neck of the bottle post-riddling
 Many French wine regions produce Crémants, some of which more or less resemble Champagne, especially if they use the traditional Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Crémant from the Loire will be dominated by Chenin Blanc, which is plentiful there, giving it a different flavour profile.  Alsace, which is the biggest Crémant producing region, tends to make its Crémant from the fruity and neutral Pinot Blanc.  Here are some that you might come across in this country.  But the best fun is to be had – and of course keenest prices - if you come across a crémant producer on your own travels in France.

Langlois-Château Crémant de Loire - £11.50 from
Langlois is part of the Bollinger stable, so they know a thing or two about creating quality bubbles.  Chenin Blanc is complemented by Chardonnay, and lees ageing has given it bready aromas and flavours.

Pfister Crémant d’Alsace - £14.65 from
Unusually for Alsace, this is 50% Chardonnay, giving the wine elegance to complement the fruit of the Pinot Blanc.  Made by a young female winemaker who clearly knows what she’s doing.

Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Crémant de Bourgogne - £9.99 a bottle when you buy 2 at Majestic
Crémant de Bourgogne is geographically closest to Champagne and is the Crémant that we see most often in this country.  This one is a  reliable quality fizz from a big producer where noble Chardonnay and Pinot Noir rub shoulders with lowlier varieties Gamay and Aligoté.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Grouse-ing about wine

Last Sunday was the Glorious Twelfth, when the grouse shooting season opens.

I don’t know about you, but the closest I’ve come to a live grouse is when picking up a bottle of a certain brand of Scotch whisky.

The red grouse, the bird in question, is native to the British Isles and can legally be shot from now until 10th December.  As young heather forms an essential part of the grouse’s diet, the hunting takes place predominantly on the heather-rich moors found in the north of England and in Scotland.  Unlike pheasant, which are commercially reared in huge numbers, grouse are truly wild birds, whose population will vary from year to year, hence they are harder to come by.  Additionally they are apparently fast and unpredictable flyers, making them the ultimate challenge for a game bird shooter.

A day’s grouse shooting is not a pleasure that everyman (or woman) can indulge, with the cost involved making it primarily a rich man’s game.  If you wanted to go shooting a few brace this week, you could be looking at in excess of £20,000 per person for a day. 

Having your own grouse moor is, of course, one way to ensure access to a few days’ shooting.  A brief perusal of Country Life a few years ago enlightened me on the importance of such things in upper class mating rituals:  apparently a key question when assessing a potential bride was, “How many acres of grouse moor does she come with?” 

And what wine to serve with your bird?

If you are heading north to bag a few dozen brace of grouse yourself, then clearly money is no object and you will doubtless be plucking a fine mature Burgundy or 1982 claret laid down by your father in your capacious wine cellar.  Or you’d get the butler to get it for you, obviously.

If, on the other hand, you have more modest means, there are plenty of restaurants who will be serving up special grouse and other game menus from now on.  Grouse is the first game to come into season, but will be joined by partridge in September and woodcock and pheasant from October.  A game dealer advised me that the best way to enjoy grouse is when someone else has cooked it for you - sound advice that will resonate with many a cook.

Buying from a game dealer will cost you around £10-12 per bird for grouse around now, with prices dropping as the season progresses.  Remember they are small creatures and you need to allow one per person.

And to drink:

The traditional match for anything labelled game is red Burgundy.  Pinot Noir, the red grape of Burgundy, develops what are politely called gamey (sometimes even farmyardy) aromas as it ages.  It is also relatively low in tannin and light in colour, making it a good match for game, which falls somewhere between the traditional white and red meat divisions.

All game is not identical of course and even the same species will taste different as the season progresses.  A young grouse shot in August with little or no hanging time is going to be a very different beast to one you eat later in the Autumn.  The older bird will have more flavour, but also be more chewy.  Similarly, young pheasants are tender enough to make suitable roasting birds early on, but by the time you’ve got to Christmas, a slow-cooked stew is the best option.

If you have access to mature Burgundy or claret, then I would heartily recommend uncorking it with your game.  If not, then try one of these:

Beaujolais-Villages, Château de Souzy 2010/11 - £10.70 from
If the sun is still shining when you tuck in to your game, then a lightly chilled Beaujolais, made from the Gamay grape, could be just the ticket.  Get hold of the 2011 if you can:  a hint of savoury animality along with juicy, cranberry fruit and a hint of bitterness give a palate-cleansing feel to the finish.

Côtes du Rhône

Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2011 - £7.99 from Waitrose
Southern Rhône reds have the right combination of peppery, weighty dark fruit and a herbal dimension to get along nicely with game – roast pheasant would be fine with this.  This one also has a definite mineral grip to give the palate a wash and brush up between mouthfuls.


Diane de Belgrave Haut-Médoc 2008 - £15 from Oddbins
Not a 1982 classed growth, but a charming and refined claret that is just beginning to show some maturity.  Enticing aromas of blackcurrant, plum and pencil shavings (enticing to me anyway) lead onto a smooth palate of dense black fruit with a hint of twiggy bramble.  The tannins in this are a definite step up from the previous two, making it a match for later season game birds or the darker meat of wood pigeon, which is always in season, as it’s regarded as a pest. 

Friday, 3 August 2012

Fifty Shades...and other guilty pleasures

I don’t need to fill you in on the subject matter of the Fifty Shades series of novels I’m sure.  In any case I haven’t read any of them so, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I will not pretend that I have, even for the purposes of an almost entirely spurious wine-based pastiche of the guilty pleasure genre.

Sometimes I want to read something challenging, absorbing, demanding and densely written which will stay with me long after the book has been finished.  Other times I just want a page-turner to while away a few hours:  it will grip at the time but I’ll barely remember having read it in a few days.

When choosing what to eat, sometimes I will relish the prospect of spending time in the kitchen, lavishing attention on what I hope will be a delicious result.  At other times, a takeaway curry will do nicely thank you.

I think you get the drift here. 

Drinking wine should always be a sensory pleasure, but sometimes it is also an involving, almost intellectual exercise.  I have enjoyed some of Bordeaux’s finest wines, and at their very best they can offer an almost transcendent drinking experience.  But equally they can have an austerity that requires attention and appreciation from the drinker.  What I’m saying is that I do have to be in the mood to appreciate them.

When I don’t want to make that effort, what do I reach for?  What is my wine equivalent of a few pages of Fifty Shades?

Sweet and bubbly
Liking sweet wines does feel like an intellectual failing – these are wines for the novice and the young; a childish appetite that should have been lost along the way to becoming a fully functioning adult.  Sweet AND bubbly – well, I can practically feel the noses being looked down.

I am not alone in my love for moscato, as it has become the fastest growing wine style in the US.  Sweet, fizzy, sometimes even pink to boot, it is the most unreconstructed of guilty pleasures.

Asti, in Italy, produces sparkling Asti by the lakeful (or, more accurately, tankful).  It used to be called Asti Spumante (meaning sparkling) but the spumante has now been dropped.  If Beverly of Abigail’s Party were going to offer you something fizzy, it would surely have been this.

Regular Asti, with its sweet, fizzy grapiness is great for sloshing onto a fruit salad, but it does have a slightly more well-groomed, but still fun-loving cousin in Moscato d’Asti.

Moscato d’Asti is usually made by smaller producers, in a rather more artisan way.  It is still sweet and fizzy; in fact it is often higher in sugar than regular Asti, though it doesn’t taste it.  It is more lightly sparkling and has wonderful aromas and flavours of ripe pear.  Allied to low alcohol, this is a great wine for rounding off a lunch party – with or without fruit salad.

Recommended moscatos (moscati for sticklers)

Moscato d’Asti 2011, Elio Perrone - £6.50 from The Wine Society
Just 5% alcohol means this is barely wine, but it has plenty of grapey, aromatic fruit to satisfy a sweet toothed wine lover.

Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato 2011/12 – around £6.50-6.99 for a 37.5ml bottle from, Guildford Wine Company
Not content with being sweet and fizzy, this adds being pink to its list of crimes against good taste.  A half-bottle with a beer bottle style crown cap it may be, but you won’t find many men propping up the bar with this in their hand.  No matter, they will miss out on the hints of rose petal and red fruit that burst out of this perfect picnic fizz.

Blanquette de Limoux
By the time the Champenois documented their method for making sparkling wines in the late 1600s, the locals of Limoux down in the Languedoc had been making wines with fizz for over a century.  Unfortunately they didn’t get a patent lawyer onto the case and it is Champagne that has become the global brand, rather than Blanquette de Limoux.

Most Blanquette de Limoux is dry, but there is a small production of sweet Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale.  This “ancestrale” method involves a second fermentation in the bottle, like Champagne.  Unlike Champagne, some sweetness remains and the alcohol is lower.

Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale NV - £9.50 from The Wine Society
The Mauzac grape used to make this has a real appley tang, making this taste like superior Appletiser for grown ups.  It may only be 6.5% alcohol, but probably best to keep an eye on the kids with this super quaffable stuff around.

Brachetto is not half of an Italian cross-dressing comedy duo, but the name of a grape.  This is a step further towards a red wine from the Pink Moscato above, but it is still light, frothy and sweet, with strawberry flavours.  I’ve recommended a fairly pricey and relatively serious (for the style) Brachetto here, but look out for cheaper versions too.

Contero Brachetto d’Acqui 2011 - £15.99 from Virgin Wines
Red fruits, rose petals and only 5.5% alcohol make this a fun fizz on its own, but you could try it with one of those pretty French patisserie glazed strawberry tarts or even as a foil to things chocolatey.

Just as man (or woman) cannot live by bread alone, or indeed read only the most edifying of literature, sometimes a little of what you fancy….well, you know the rest.