Alternative Bubbles: Not all Sparkling Wine is Champagne, Cava or Prosecco
A Champagne, a Cava and a Prosecco walk into a bar. The joke is on anyone who thinks that these are the only bubbles worth drinking as the world of sparkling wine goes beyond the triumvirate of fizz that they seem to exert over wine lovers.
Truth is they’re the Ace, the King and the Queen, but they’re far from being the only valuable cards on the deck and any good player will know that a game can be won with an alternative hand.
Before going through the options, it is opportune to distinguish the two most common types of sparkling wines according to the method used by the winemaker: Bottle fermented and tank fermented. The first one is commonly known as Traditional Method or Méthode Champenoise and is the one used to produce Champagne and Cava. The still wine is bottled and then it undergoes a second fermentation powered by the addition of yeast and sugar. This produces carbon dioxide (that’s why it becomes sparkling) and a sediment that is discarded before placing the wine’s final cork.
The second one is called Cuve Close and Charmat Method. This method is quicker and less expensive as it allows the second fermentation of the still wine to happen on large stainless steel tanks. What can take years in the first case is done in a few weeks in the second. Prosecco is one of the most famous examples of this type of method.
WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE?
Without going too far, France is also the home of Crémant (French for creamy) a sparkling wine made outside the region of Champagne and in other seven parts of the country (Bordeaux, Die, Jura, Limoux, Alsace, Loire and Bourgogne). Although each region has its own tweaks, general rules include that the grapes are handpicked and the second fermentation must happen in bottle. Luxembourg is the only country besides France that produces crémant and theirs is also done by the Traditional Method.
A completely different French sparkling is Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestral, which has a recorded history that begins in 1531, centuries before Champagne was invented (or, if we’re feeling romantic, discovered). This wine, believe to be the world’s oldest bubbly, it’s bottled before the first fermentation is completed and therefore as it finishes within the glass, the resulting carbon dioxide stays trapped and bubbles appear. There are Blanquette de Limoux made by Traditional Method as well.
In Spain, beside’s Catalonia’s best seller Cava, there are some sparkling wines from Bierzo and Rías Baixas, where experimental winemaking has already shown that Albariño can become a lovely sparkling. And there is also Classic Penedés, a category created by former Cava producers that decided to separate from the DO and focus on more terroir oriented and eco-friendly wines.
Italian Prosecco might be all the rage nowadays but roughly a decade ago Asti Spumante was what the fizz was all about. Asti is the Marmite of sparkling wines as this Piedmontese sweet and low-alcoholic wine (can be as low as 7% ABV) made with Moscato grapes generates a love or hate type of reaction. Fresh, fruity and inexpensive, those who enjoy it know that it makes a lovely choice for dessert.
Another Italian sparkling wine that polarises palates is Lambrusco. Bright red and coming from Emilia-Romanga or Lombardy this wine is made from its namesake grape and it’s usually a sweet or semi-sweet ruby coloured bubbly that despite its tone, is best served chilled.
Portugal has a small production of sparkling, made in the coldest areas of the country. Bairrada is the main name here, acidic, aromatic and fine with fish. Croatia’s Plešivica region, with its continental climate and passionate boutique wine-makers is an area to keep an eye on. Germany’s Sekt is a very popular product domestically and as producers have taken a turn towards quality in the last few years, international tasters are starting to pay attention. Look for Sekt b.A. or Qualitätsschaumwein b.A, which is the best quality sparkling wine the country has to offer (and politely decline artificially carbonated Perlwein, unless it’s no more than to satisfy curiosity).
Sparkling wine from the UK is another one up-and-coming bubbly. In the last few years these wines have collected distinguished awards and even beat equivalent-tier Champagne at a bland tasting held last April. Regions’ names to remember? Sussex and Kent.
If we move East we can find a lovely list of hard-to-pronounce but easy-to-drink bubbles. One of the most popular ones is Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet Champagne) which was traditionally made with a blend of Aligoté and Chardonnay using the Russian Method (or Continuous Method) in which the second fermentation happens slowly as wine goes through a series of tanks where bubbles appear in crescendo. The same type of wine can be seen labelled nowadays as “Russian Sparkling Wine” or as “Sovetovskoye Shampanskoye” (Ukraine).
Moldova is another sparkling wine destination off the beaten track and despite working with the Traditional Method and offering good quality, their wines are frequently ignored. A similar fate has Romania, Europe’s sixth largest wine producer yet a rarity if spotted on a wine list or a shop (if Rhein Extra, by Halewood, is good enough to supply the Royal House of Romania it’s surely worth a try!).
Hungary, which has managed to make a name with Tokaji, has a Sparkling wine-making history that tracks back to the early XIX century. Sometimes it’s a rich and sweet fruit infused bubbly made with Furmint (the same grape that becomes Tokaji), other times it’s a blended, drier fizz with Chardonnay in the picture.
It’s hard to find New World sparkling wine in Ireland and not because it’s not good, but because it’s a difficult sale when it has to compete against European well-established styles that have competitive prices and great quality. Said that, Australia’s South East is a good place to start. Several wineries in the region are using the Traditional Method and the grape varieties that blend in Champagne (Chardonay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and the result are aromatic, toasty and nectarine-like sparklings with strong character and elegant acidity.
New Zealand also has their version of Champagne’s trifecta, but a more interesting exercise is to try their Sauvignon Blanc Sparkling, usually from the Marlborough region.
American sparkling is also having a moment and the fact that big names in Champagne’s (Taittinger, Roederer, Mumm & Moët Chandon) and Cava (Freixenet), also have wineries in California only confirms the good news. Again, Traditional Method and Chardonnay are two frequent words in the labels.
South Africa’s Methode Cap Classiques (MCC) are as good as it gets in the African nation, as the use of Traditional Method is a must and grapes vary from the popular Chardonnay (ofteh with Pinot Noir), to Moscato, Sauvignon Blanc and Cheninc Blanc.
Argentina and Chile also make lovely bubbly, and as you can imagine by now, Traditional Method and Chardonnay are two very common presences. Chile’s thirst for export has the country foreseeing and achieving fast growth in the category, while Argentina’s drinking it at home and it’s a rare thing for Argentinian bubbles to need a passport. If you happen to get one, instead of cookie-cutter Chardonnay fizz, delight yourself with a sparkling rosé Malbec.
India is in the sparkling wine game and this new player has Moet Hennessy already on the team (the French giant also runs Chandon China). If you’d rather look for a local name, Sula is one of the strongest. It’s still soon for a verdict, but things are promising in Asia, a huge market that is awakening quickly to the joys of wine.
Overall, New World sparkling wines offer consistency and quality, but their reliance to what made Champagne successful shows that they’re still in need to find their own voice. Going in the right direction, winemakers who realise that they need to show something more than an affordable and acceptable Chardo-bubbly (at least if they want to compete in international markets), are blending the classic to give it a local touch or using unexpected grape varieties.
So, dare to explore, and make it a challenge to find and taste a bottle of sparkling wine that is not Champagne, Cava or Prosecco. You’ll be forgiven for being a bit of a wine hipster as you avoid the mainstream bubbles to try something new (but we’ll roll our eyes at you if these become popular and you said you drank them before they were cool).
Now let’s go bubble hunting!
Available at O’Briens – €18.45
Australia – 11.5% ABV – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Traditional Method is used in South Eastern Australia to produce a refreshing sparkling filled with apple aromas and a hint of french toast.
A mild acidity and a sweet attack make it very friendly on the palate. Flavours of citrus fruit and a delicate nutty touch feel well balanced and show the wine is more than just a pretty fizz.
Available at O’Briens – €22.95
New Zealand – 13% ABV – Sauvignon Blanc
Tropical fruits and lemon aromas dominate in this electrifyingly fizzy kiwi bubbly. Vibrant, crispy and with a very clean finish, it showcases a playful side of a usually serious grape.
Made in a style that evokes the Loire’s Sauv Blanc sparkles, it comes from the Wairau Valley in the Marlborough region and is made using the Traditional Method.
Available at Mitchell and Son – €30
France – 12.5% ABV – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling
An organic beauty from Alsace, its five different types of grapes come from the hillsides of the town of Roufach and vineyards are in average 30 years old. Traditional Method is used.
The wine is matured for 18 months. With soft foamy head and persistent bubbles and flavours of fresh red apples, pear and lime, it shows a happy elegance and it’s lovely with shell-fish.
Available at Polonez – €14.99
Moldova – 10.5% ABV – Muscat
Intense amber coloured, this Moldovan dessert wine shows a mix of sweet stone fruit, white flowers and citrus aromas which are complemented by a slight feeling of marzipan.
Grapes from central and southern Moldova are made into sparkling with the help of the Charmat Method. It will be a nice match for citrusy desserts such as lemon meringue pie or strawberry tartlets.
Available at O’Briens – €23.95
Italy – 7.5% ABV – Moscato (Muscat)
Grapes from the Piedmontese regions of Canelli, Santo Stefano Belbo and Calosso are made into this decadently sweet Italian bubbly. The Asti Method, in which fermentation takes place in pressurised tanks and alcohol levels are deliberately kept low is the way to go.
Bright light golden, flavours remind you of candied oranges and freshly squeezed lemonade with honey. It is a classicmatch to fruit based desserts and it can also work with light salads or as a brunchy treat.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.