Champagne is associated with special occasions, and I’m guessing that almost all of us plan on popping a cork on a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the New Year. But are you going for a Champagne, a Cava or a Prosecco? Oh wait, what’s the difference?!
Sparkling wine was considered a fault in winemaking originally, with early producers losing many bottles as a result of the carbon dioxide building up inside causing enough pressure for them to burst. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the then unknown process of fermentation and therefore the creation of carbonic gas encouraged people in the Middle Ages to call sparkling wines "The Devil’s Wine". But that’s enough history.
Although it started out as an accident, today we’re purposely adding bubbles to wine to create some of the most prestigious alcoholic beverages around. There are four methods of doing that, the Methode Champenoise (also called Traditionelle), the Charmat-Martinotti Method, the Methode Ancestrale or the least widely used Injection Method. Besides the way it’s made, the place where sparkling wine comes from also plays a significant role in not only the outcome, but most importantly the name it will carry on the label.
Only sparkling wine produced in the region of Champagne (France) is allowed to be called a Champagne. In Champagne there are over 19.000 vineyards, but only 5.000 of them are dedicated to producing Champagne. But origin is not the only criteria. Each Champagne is strictly adhered to be made by the Methode Champenoise using only three grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir). If all the grapes are from the same vintage year and go under a secondary fermentation of 3 years you’ve got yourself a Vintage Champagne. Those sparkling wines which do not meet these requirements are non-vintage Cuvées (hence the abbreviation NV).
The rest of the sparkling wine made in France by the traditional Champenoise method are given the name Crémant (“creamy”). Each bottle of Crémant undergoes a secondary fermentation for a minimum of 15 months. The result is a creamy rather than fizzy sparkling due to the lower carbon dioxide pressures or small bubbles. All the remaining sparkling wine produced by other methods throughout the country are simply called Mousseux, which means "sparkling" in French.
Moët et Chandon is one of the world’s largest and most well known Champagne producers, supplying the market with over 26 million bottles of Champagne annually. Most sparkling wine lovers know that Dom Pérignon is Moët’s prestige vintage Champagne, named after the monk who was an important character in the history of Champagne. However, contrary to popular myths, he did not discover the method for making sparkling wines. A 6L bottle of 1996 Dom Pérignon Champagne Rose is holding the record for the most expensive wine ever sold - the buyer paid over £35.000 (AU$67.172) for it.
At the moment, you can get away with paying $189 for a bottle of the current 2004 vintage Dom Pérignon at Dan Murphy’s which is 15% off the average market prices. A bottle of NV Moët et Chandon on the other hand shouldn't cost you more than $50, so whatever you do, avoid buying it at Woolies who are charging an insane $72.79 per bottle.
So what about Cava? Cava is Spain’s answer to sparkling wine, which can be produced using the Champenoise method in six wine regions. Despite being a traditional Champagne grape, Chardonnay was not used in Cava production until the 1980s. Instead, in Spain winemakers use a selection of grapes such as Macabeu, Parellada, Xarel-lo, Pinot Noir and Subirat. Spanish Cava tastes a lot like Chamagne, usually a dry sparkling wine with a hint of sweetness.
Freixenet’s Cordon Negro Brut is one of the most widely sold Cava in the world exported from Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, Catalonia, Spain. The blend made from the Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo grape varieties is aged for up to 24 months resulting in a light, fruity and aromatic Cava. The long yet elegant palate with delicate aromas feature tones of green apple, pear and Mediterranean fruits such as pineapple, peach and melon over a base of citrus. Each bottle of this popular Freixenet sells for between $12.50 and $24, so it’s worth having a look around for the best price before you grab a bottle off the shelf. Dan Murphy's currently offers the lowest price available at $12.50 for each individual bottle or $11.90 in any six.
If you’re looking for something what’s a bit sweeter, Italian sparkling wines fall under the category “extra-dry” which are noticeably sweeter than “brut” wines (such as Champagne and Cava). There are two more categories on each end of the sweetness scale - semi brut, which is the driest kind and demi-sec, the sweetest kind of sparkling wine. Italians not only like their sparkling wine sweeter, but they also produce them by the Charmat-Martinotti method, which is a lot less time consuming and less expensive than the traditional technique. The secondary fermentation takes place in large tanks as well as the primary one, which gives the sparkling larger bubbles. These fruity and fresh sparkling wines are then bottled and labeled as either Prosecco, Lambrusco, Franciacorta or Asti Spumante depending on the grape varieties used/region of origin.
The best example I have found for a typical Extra Dry Prosecco, the Carpene Malvolti DOCG, was at Dan Murphy’s. Each bottle of this full flavoured sparkling wine from North East Italy is going for $19.99 (or $19 in any six). The case of six works out at $113.40, which is very reasonable for a Prosecco rated 5 stars by Dan Murphy’s customers, all claiming that is one of the best value Italian Proseccos you can find on sale in Australia.
Sparkling wines made by the Methode Ancestrale are more similar to beer. These have less bubbles and a creamy texture with delicate froth which delivers an intense grape flavour. Regardless of the method being used, most sparkling wines are white or rose, but there are some examples of reds such as our very own sparkling Shiraz.
Currently, Tasmania is the hot bed of Australian sparkling wine where winemakers are producing various styles of sparkling wines. Sparkling Shiraz’, based on Australia's most famous of wines, are traditionally sweet, but you can find some example of full bodied and tannic sparkling reds as well.
Dan Murphys is offering Tasmanian sparkling wine for between $25 and $40 a bottle, where your best value for your bucks would be on the House of Arras’ Brut Elite Chardonnay Pinot Noir. It has got superb reviews from Dan’s clientele, and an impressive 96 points by James Halliday. Alternatively you can try a more reasonably priced quality Tassie sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir for just $15.99 a bottle from Cellarmasters.
For a steaming bargain on a sparkling Shiraz, look no further than WineMarket who sells the popular Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz for $135, to which you can also apply their $50 off voucher. This drops the price down to just $85 a case ($93 delivered). Every other store (Dan’s Cellarmasters, Crackawines, Grays Online, oo.com.au, Nick’s, etc.) sells each bottle for $19-$20, which brings the cost of a case to roughly $120 before delivery.