Champagne still sparkles

The much anticipated, much postponed BBC (‘bring a bottle club’) on the theme of sparkling wine finally took place in September, having been chosen as a theme for birthdays in July and August.  It proved very instructive with one prejudice being confirmed and a couple of others weakened.  In terms of blind tasting it does make it a more realistic game if the class of wines is confined. 

Saint-PerayAC Cornwall

We started with a flight of three white wines, two pale, one with a gold touch.  From the toasty, yeast, notes on the nose they were likely to all have been made with the same traditional method, second fermentation in the bottle and we were told (wrongly!) that they were made with the classic Champagne varieties.  Wine 1 was pale with fine bubbles, a moderately intense nose of those yeasty notes and then ripe fruit in the ripe apple to melon register.  Only of medium length but clean and with a good fruit-acid balance.  The only Saint-Péray wines we see in the UK are the good value classic Rhône whites but in fact the AC is principally devoted to sparkling wines made from Marsanne: Saint-Péray, Earl de Boignet, NV Brut.   The fruit must be picked very early to keep the alcohol level down and limit the varietal character of the base wine. 

Wine 2 was pale and neutral on the nose with a hint of green apple. Its northern provenance was confirmed by a similar profile on the palate and steely, high acidity. Refreshing, even bracing … It was true to type for English sparkling wine though without a trace of any red fruit:  Camel Valley, Pinot Noir, Brut, 2006.  Wine 3 set the standard for the night, in fact the gold standard, given its colour.  Marked aged mushroom and brioche notes on the nose, caramel and cooked oranges. Real complexity and evident ability to get better with age.  This turned out to be Le Mesnil Champagne Grand Cru from the village cooperative. This was a non vintage wine but probably 12 years old. Superb. 

Grand masterpale and paler

Our next three turned out to be three further sparkling white wines from warmer European climes, two Italians and a Spaniard.  Even though I brought it to the tasting I was rather underwhelmed by Graziano Merotto, Cuvée del Fondatore, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, 2011. The clues for identification were there – very pale colour (picture of glass on the left), lively release of bubbles on pouring into the glass (Charmat method), pear and pear drop aromas, light in the mouth.  It is a very subtle top quality Prosecco with just 7g/l residual sugar – perhaps these wines need a bit more sweetness to give them more impact?  The second up, another Italian I brought, was a decent Chardonnay sparkler with quite rich if simple peach fruit and good acidity:  Lo Sparviero, Franciacorta Brut 2007.  Others thought it was a new world wine – reasonably enough given the warmer climate of northern Italy in comparison to northern France/England. 

Our Spanish example, the first of two pink wines, was 999, Loxarel, Brut Nature, Penedes made from the Cava grape, Xarello with Pinot Noir.  Thank you to Ben who kindly provided the bottle but was not able to make the tasting but – how does one say this? – we did not particularly warm to this bottle with its bright cherry with a hint of orange colour and a rather artificial, boiled sweet, even ‘medicated’ flavours. By contrast, there was warm appreciation for the three-way Australian blend, Taltarni 2010 – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Meunier, an attractive very pale salmon pink, ripe fruit and contrasting acidity, and a quite weighty palate.  A very versatile all-rounder.

On to the sparkling red wines – always a subject of some controversy …

two depths of rubyBlack and blacker

There are some in our number who love sparkling reds and others who think they are ‘just wrong’.  For the latter the only good sparkling red is one that has been long enough in the glass to go flat …  Our two examples did do something to move on the latter view.  Lambrusco’s problem in life is the justifiably terrible reputation of the really cheap wines: sickly sweet, red and briefly fizzy. Mmm … that reminds me of another popular beverage.  By contrast, Ottocentonero, Albinea Canali, Lambrusco NV is a deep ruby red with real flavour (red plum, almond stones, something floral). The palate is only medium weight but I think that works well with bubbles and the relatively low alcohol, 11.5%.  Fine acidity, a touch of sweetness (10g/l residual sugar) and enough grippy youthful tannin to make this the perfect accompaniment for the rich food of Emilia in central Italy where it comes from.  Turkey Flat, Sparkling Shiraz, Barossa Valley, NV is rather more like a standard red wine with bubbles on account of its super-rich, expressive, red fruit with an overlay of vanilla oak. While it impresses with its ripe fruit palate it has a fully dry finish and the bubbles are more persistent as it is bottle fermented. Personally, this is a wine I admire rather than like but there was no doubt about its quality.  

This was a very worthwhile review of some of the world’s sparkling wines. There was a noticeable absence of German Sekt while new world traditional-method wines were underrepresented … so we may have to repeat the offence.  We made some progress appreciating red sparkling wines (of which Italy has quite a few more …Vernaccia di Serrapetrona – all 66 ha of it from the Marche – anyone?). But we were confirmed in our view of the potential greatness of the sparkling wines of a certain region in northern France east of Paris. 

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