Think bubbles

Sparkling wines can add to that romantic feeling


Sales of sparkling wines enjoy a brief post-Christmas surge in mid-February as we celebrate St Valentine’s Day. Fizz is not essential, of course, but it certainly helps create that romantic feeling. The question is, what kind of fizz to buy? A bottle of sparkling wine will cost you anything from €10 to €200 or more. This is the most heavily marketed sector of the wine industry; style often triumphs over content. But much depends on the quality of the wine, where it comes from, and how the bubbles get into the bottle.

There are three basic methods of adding sparkle to a wine. The really posh system is the fairly laborious, time consuming and therefore expensive bottle-fermented method. This is known as méthode Champenoise in Champagne and involves putting a plug of yeast and sugar into a bottle of finished wine and resealing it. There then follows a secondary fermentation that produces bubbles. Sparkling wine that has been bottle fermented and then aged on its lees for a while will have a smaller, more subtle, almost creamy bead of fine bubbles that slips down very nicely. It should also have complex flavours brought about by the second fermentation. You get this and more in quality Champagnes.

France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa offer plenty of very good alternatives to Champagne at very competitive prices. They are usually a better option than cheap Champagne, which can be truly awful, masking high levels of acidity with high levels of residual sugar. Good Champagne, however, is hard to beat.

It is possible to use a similar process to the above method but on a grander scale, adding yeast to a large tank-full of wine.

Critics of this method (known as transfer method or tank method) say it is inferior; others argue it all depends on the quality of the base wine. Most Prosecco is made this way. Quality Prosecco can be very good – different to Champagne but with delicious complex fruits. Cheap Prosecco can be equally bad– but at least it is cheaper. If you are buying Prosecco, it is worth checking out the back label. The duty on a bottle of sparkling wine is twice that of still wine. An amazing €6.40 (excluding VAT) goes directly to the government. A bottle of Prosecco Frizzante has less fizz than a bottle of Spumante. It will also have a driven cork and a string closure rather than the usual Champagne-style mushroom cork. Because of this it is treated as a still wine and attracts a mere €3.20 duty per bottle. Not everyone notices the lower level of sparkle; some even find it easier on the digestion.

The third most basic method, known by some as la méthode pompe bicyclette, involves injecting carbon dioxide into tanks of wine in a manner similar to soft fizzy drinks. The bubbles tend to be very large and don’t last very long in the glass. Avoid at all costs.

So there is a difference, but how many people notice it, especially in the middle of a crowded social gathering? Many people actually prefer Prosecco. It is sweeter and fruitier than most Champagne and bottle-fermented sparkling wines.

My own general view runs something like this: if it is a large, casual event where the wine is not really important, buy Prosecco. If guests are likely to notice the quality of your wine, but you have a limited budget, a bottle-fermented sparkling wine or good Prosecco is probably a better bet than cheap Champagne. For more intimate affairs a decent bottle will make a real difference.

If you have the money, €50 or more will get you a bottle of seriously good Champagne. For St Valentine’s Day, the ideal is a half-bottle, followed by a glass or two of red. Half-bottles are not easy to find though. Instead you could drink Champagne throughout the meal – it is one of the great all-purpose wines, a good match for just about any food.

I am not generally a fan of Cava, but the M&S rosé is delicious and perfect for St Valentine’s Day, as is the Cuvée Jeio. This is made by a leading Prosecco house, but rosé wines cannot be labelled Prosecco.

The bottle-fermented Cremant de Bourgogne was a winner at the Noffla (National Off-Licence Association) awards last year. Over Christmas, we shared a magnum of Bollinger that I had laid down for two years; it was certainly worth the premium.

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