Some European Champagne alternatives for New Years Eve and beyond
For many, seeing the New Year in, or enjoying any other celebration in the coming months, requires enjoying the event with a glass of sparkling wine. While most will think immediately of Champagne there are some well-priced and interesting alternatives. I am going to focus here on what readers can find in Italy, Spain and here in England. There are certainly many other alternatives from other wine regions as well. South Africa with its Méthode Cap Classique wines and traditional method wines from Australasia are worth noting, particularly from small, dedicated producers. Some good examples are also made in California. Among the updates for the 11th edition of Wine behind the label, Neville encountered sparklers from areas as diverse as Belgium and Nova Scotia.
So where to start? As an English based website the logical place is of course England. English sparkling wine has been going from strength to strength over the past decade with many new vineyards planted on chalk-based soils, cultivating the Champagne grapes as well as others. Nyetimber – nyetimber.com, based in West Sussex was among the first established names. The close-spaced vineyards were established in the mid-1980s and are planted on ideally exposed south-facing slopes of greensand over limestone soils. The Classic Cuvée blends mainly Chardonnay with lesser amounts of the Pinots. And is aged on lees on bottle for over three years. Gusbourne – www.gusbourne.com, which is based in Kent, was planted in 2004 to selected low yielding Burgundy clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Look out for the Brut Reserve, which displays fine biscuity flavours and has gained in weight with each successive vintage. Former Nyetimber winemaker Dermot Sugrue heads up a recently established project with vineyards planted on the Sussex South Downs. Wiston Estate – www.wistonestate.com has 16 acres of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay planted in 2006. `The excellent and finely balanced Wiston Cuvée Brut NV offers great value. Other English growers offering good Traditional Method sparkling wines include: Brightwell (Oxfodshire), Camel Valley (Cornwall), Pebblebed (Devon), Bride Valley (Dorset), Chapel Down (Kent), Herbert Hall (Kent), Hush Heath (Kent), Denbies (Surrey), Greyfriars Vineyard (Surrey), Ridgeview (East Sussex), Coates and Seely (Hampshire), Exton Park Vineyard (Hampshire).
The Prosecco wines of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions of North East Italy have become very trendy as easy drinking fizz among younger drinkers. Some quite serious and well-crafted examples are made though and in particular in the DOCG sub regional appellation of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene. Firmly established are the wines from Bisol – bisol.it. The Cartizze Superiore, the top label offers surprising richness and complexity. Some great quality and value is offered in the wines of Villa Sandi – www.villasandi.it. Cuvée Oris is their top cuvee from Valdobbiandende, very elegant with a good deal of finesse and showing residual sugar on the finish. The firm also make sparklers from the Champagne grapes. Other producers to consider: Bottega.
The closest Italy has to top Champagne in quality is Franciacorta. Here, near Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero grapes are combined in serious metodo classico sparkling wines. Satèn is a softer, creamier, low-pressure version. Bellavista – www.bellavistawine.it make brilliant, refined yet full-flavoured sparkling wines that deservedly sell for the same prices as good non-vintage Champagne. Most include at least a component of barrel-fermentation to add further complexity. The non-vintage Brut Cuvée (predominantly Chardonnay with a little Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc) is the most affordable, and made in by far the greatest quantities, of the DOCG Franciacorta. At Ca’ del Bosco – www.cadelbosco.com the wines are of high quality with fine Franciacorta sparkling wines complemented by the region’s best still wines. For the sparklers, fermentation of the base wine is finished in barrique following by some ageing before the second fermentation. The vintage Brut combines Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and a little Pinot Noir. Roberto Gatti and family at their Ferghettina – www.ferghettina.it operation, with just 3 hectares of vines on the shore of lake Sebino, produce some 350,000 bottles annually of top class Franciacorta. Good value Miledí Vintage Brut is made from 100% Chardonnay, mineral and citrusy. Il Mosnel – www.mosnel.com is an impressive and much improved producer of DOGC Franciacorta sparkling wines The regular Brut is a blend of 30% Chardonnay fermented in small barriques, 30% Chardonnay of previous vintages vinified in stainless steel, 30% Pinot Bianco and 10% Pinot Nero, both fermented in stainless steel. The bottles are left for over 2 years under the méthode champenoise before release, resulting in a crisp, biscuity flavoured wine. Other leading Franciacorta wineries: Cavalleri, La Montina, Monre Rossa, Uberti.
In Spain the sparkling wine most people associate the country is Cava, indeed it dominates the sectors output. In recent years the wines have taken somewhat of a battering with some very ordinary cheap and cheerful volume wines being made. As a result Cava has performed quite poorly in comparison with Prosecco over the past decade and few think of it alongside Champagne. However this is far from fair and some excellent artisan style wines are made, particularly from Penedes from indigenous grapes. The DO (Denominacion de Origen) has recently enjoyed a shot in the arm from a quality perspective with the identification of 12 Grand Cru sites Cavas de Paraje Calificado, full details here: https://www.winebehindthelabel.org/wine-news/new-cava-classification-announced.
The bulk of appellation output comes from vineyards in Catalunya, although wine is also made in Aragon, Castille and León, Extremadura, Rioja, the Basque Country, Navarra and Valencia. Gramona – www.gramona.com is a well-established Penedès producer with an extensive range of both still wines and fine Cavas. The Gramona family have or control 150ha of vineyard. The range of Cavas includes dry and medium styles and focuses heavily on the indigenous varieties of the area with generally very good results. The well-priced Imperial Gran Reserva has some 10% of Chardonnay in support of Xarel-lo and Maccabeo. Equally impressive are the wines of Recaredo – www.recaredo.com, where the family farm 65 ha in the Alt Penedès at an altitude of up to 300 metres and spread across six vineyards, all of which are farmed organically. The Cavas are all quality benchmarks. They are all Brut Nature, completely dry in style and are manually disgorged with the remuage all done by hand. Local varieties are also key in the style of the wines. The Terrers Brut Nature Gran Reserva (Xarel.lo, Macabeo, Parellada) is fresh, structured and its citrus fruit underpinned by subtle yeast notes.
Because of the poor association with quality and volumes a number of producers now market their sparkling wines under other classifications. In Penedès a number of wineries now release wines as Clàssic Penedès. At Albet I Noya – www.albetinoya.cat good quality Cava ranges from the bright floral Petit Albet (Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada) which spends around a year on lees to the more complex Brut Reserva, which also includes Chardonnay and Brut 21 (Chardonnay and Parellada) which is disgorge dated. Another winery well worth searching out is Colet – www.colet.cat. They produce very elegant and fresh sparkling wines from Penedès as well as wines in collaboration with Equipo Navazos from Jerez. In the Colet Navazos Extra Brut a bone dry style is produced from 100% Xarel-lo with an influence of flor yeast on the base wine. It is very unusual and characterful. Other Spanish sparkling wine producers who readers should be aware of are: Agusti Torelló Mata, Can Rafols dels Caus, Llopart, Canals Nadal, Codorniu (premium wines), Freixenet (premium wines), Juve y Camps, Loxarel, Mestres, Parés Baltá, Parxet, Raventós I Blanc, Rimarts, Torelló.