It is important to get a grasp of the top options most commonly available in the modern market, because they really can sell out at this time of year.
The range can be dizzying, with the majority of the big hitters on our shop shelves these days coming from old world mainstays. For the sake of brevity, I am going to divide these into four categories: Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and (forgive me for condensing this one) new world sparkling.
All of these sparkling wine carry an odd tradition in that they are a type of wine where not having a vintage marked on the bottle isn’t a problem – indeed some, particularly Champagnes, will specifically mark that it is non-vintage (or “NV” on the bottle). This comes from traditions of blending different vintages to a specific ‘house style’, because remember that Champagnes were amongst the first truly global branded culinary products.
Where a vintage is indicated, this tends to imply higher quality wines (many Champagne houses only produce vintages on exceptional years), but it will invariably mean more interesting – if slightly more expensive – wines as they deviate from pre-dictated house styles year on year.
Most good sparkling wine (and all Champagne and Cava) is prepared using the ‘traditional method’ of secondary yeast fermentation in the bottle in order to produce carbonation. As this is done individually, by the bottle, it is a painstaking and expensive process, but really adds to the quality of the wine.
So, to Champagne! Wines from this northerly French region are the most famous and prestigious of all fizz, and the wines from here invariably maintain incredibly high quality levels throughout. They are always made from variations of the same three grapes; one white (Chardonnay) and two red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).
Big names, house styles, traditional methods and high price tags rule the roost in Champagne, with wines that can range from the most robust and bodied to the most delicate and elegant. You will often have to pay a little extra for vintages, rosés, Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay only) or Blanc de Noirs (white Champagne made from the two red grapes only).
Cava – a name derived from the Catalonian for cellar – is the Spanish alternative to Champagne. Influenced by the methods used there, this stuff is produced in set areas up and down the country, with a different and wider range of grapes than Champagne, meaning a greater variation in style and character. It generally represents a lighter, dryer wine than its French antecedent, but most often still retains a lovely rich biscuity character on the finish. There is a lot of really good, affordable Cava on the market these days, although you still need to fork out a little more for the best stuff.
Prosecco, from Italy, is named after its grape (also known as Glera) rather than its region, and is the youngest protected name in this list of European sparklers. With a very high sugar yield, Prosecco is the softest and most candied of these wines too. Make sure when buying these wines to note that unless marked “metodo classico”, they will invariably been given their second fermentation in stainless steel tanks, rather than the bottle, so will lack some of the rich complexity of Champagne and Cava. Equally, unless you buy a dryer style (usually marked “Brut” like in Champagne/Cava) expect a relatively high level of sweetness.
As for all the rest of the sparkling wines of the world (that I don’t have time to go into) you get great fizz from most wine producing countries like Australia, America, Chile, Argentina, and – believe it or not – England! Most of the above can apply to these wines except that they will invariably declare the grapes on the front label.
For great wines from these territories, avoid really big brand names, and expect to pay a little more than you might for Cava and Prosecco. While English sparkling wine is something of a fledgling industry they really can produce top kit, albeit at price levels more like Champagne.
So, to help you out when on your travels, here is a list of the top five fizzes as recommended by myself and some of Glasgow’s local wine merchants!
5 Mas Miralda Cava, 2010 (£5 at time of writing, normally £7.98, ASDA)
Very cheap, and very cheerful. I was really surprised at the richness of this Cava, which I initially bought to use as an ingredient in cocktails, but ended up having on its own. Great for a cheap party fizz that won’t betray its price tag; this has a lovely zingy, lemony flavour and a dense finish with hints of brioche.
4 Taste the Difference Conegliano Prosecco Superiore Brut, 2012 (£7.32 at time of writing, normally £10.49, Sainsburys)
This one is an old go-to of mine. A really affordable vintage Prosecco with a vibrant and sherberty character, and a refreshingly bitter finish, this one is a crowd-pleaser with its fine balance of dryness and sweetness. A good one to welcome visitors at the door with.
3 Champagne de Castelnau, Brut Reserve (£31.25, Spirited Wines)
Lesser known Champagne houses are invariably a great bet for value, due to the quality of the region and the fact that you aren’t paying for the name. Jane Wilson, of spirited wines in Glasgow marks this one out as a dark horse, describing it as “almondy, with cocoa beans, and roasted toasty notes – the soul of vintage Champagne in the body of a non-vintage!”.
2 Pierre Gimonnet, Premier Cru Selection Belle Annees (£30, Oddbins)
This is an incredible example of a 'Blanc de Blancs' champagne where the wine is 100% chardonnay. It's a wine that just shouldn’t be this cheap. Ross McKenzie of Oddbins Woodlands Road says that “this particular Premier Cru wine shows real vibrancy of fruit, a rounded acidity and subtle toasted brioche. Properly hedonistic stuff!”
1 Bollinger Rosé, NV (£52, Good Spirits Company)
An absolute blockbuster – Bolly is the rock star of Champagne. Andrew Glencross of the Good Spirits Company describes it as having “the typical richness and toastiness you get with Bollinger, but with aromas of strawberry and cream... the perfect his and hers champagne for Christmas.”