Whether you want splash-out sparklers or bubbles on a budget, Peter Ranscombe has you covered.
FEW dates strike fear into the hearts of wine fans like the fourteenth of February.
Should I buy bubbles? Should the wine match the food? Should I shake the bottle and spray the room like I’ve just won an F1 race?
It’s a minefield, but here’s a quick guide to those different bottles of bubbles lined up on the supermarket’s or wine merchant’s shelves – or online for this year’s lockdown lovers.
Bubbles on a budget
The style: Prosecco
Italy’s all-conquering sparkling wine is made in big pressurised tanks instead of inside individual bottles. That keeps the production costs down. What’s equally appealing to the British palate though is the ever-so-slight sweetness displayed by most prosecco. I don’t often blog about wine labelling laws, but a few words here will help to decipher the jargon. The driest sparkling wines made inside the European Union are labelled as “brut nature” or “dosage zéro” because no sugar has been added before the bottle goes on sale, and the natural sugar content needs to be lower than three grams per litre (3g/l). After that, the terms used on the labels are: “extra brut” for 0-6g/l; “brut” for less than 12g/l; and “extra dry” for 12-17g/l. So, oddly, “extra dry” – which we see on a lot of prosecco labels – is sweeter than wine branded as “brut”.
The bottle: Colle del Principe Organic Prosecco Brut (£9, Marks & Spencer)
The best of both worlds – it’s got lots of bright lemon and grapefruit aromas and then runs the whole gamut of lemons from savoury lemon rind to sweet lemon sherbet on the palate, with tangy acidity. A sophisticated package for the price. Check out prosecco’s food pairing prowess with these ideas from chef Paul Wedgwood, and – for posher prosecco – head for the Asolo, Conegliano, and Valdobbiadene areas.
The style: Cremant
While prosecco is made in a tank under pressure, bubbles are generated in other sparkling wines while they’re inside bottles. Wines made using this method in the Champagne region are called – er – Champagne, while those made using the technique in other parts of France are called cremant. These bottles tend to be better value because they don’t carry all the marketing baggage of big Champagne brands. Eight areas produce cremant, including Alsace, Limoux, and Loire.
The bottle: Comtesse de Saint-Pey Cremant de Bordeaux Brut (£14, J’Ami Jac)
An attractive nose full of lemon, apricot, white bread rolls, and brown sugar. It’s surprisingly complex on the palate for this price, ranging from lemon rind through to apricot jam, and taking in more of those brown sugar and fresh fruit flavours along the way, all wrapped up in crisp acidity.
The style: Cava
Poor old cava took the brunt of the prosecco onslaught into the UK, but Spain’s bottle-method sparkler still has plenty going for it. If you want to explore this style in more depth then look out for bottles made with the three traditional grape varieties – macabeo, parellada, and xarel-lo – and compare them to those made using chardonnay. Cava can be made throughout Spain, so you can focus on individual regions or vineyards too.
The bottle: Vilarnau Brut Reserva (£12, Tesco)
Really intense peach and red apple aromas lead into tinned peaches and apple compote on the palate. The acidity is fresh, but the overall effect is a nicely rounded mouthfeel. Easy going for an easy date night at home. It’s worth spending a wee bit extra on cava – it’s one wine for which you always seem to get more bang for you buck. I keep coming back to the freshness and delicous lemon juice and brown sugar elements in another favourite, the Roger Goulart Gran Reserva Cava (£14.99 down from £19.99, Fountainhall Wines).
The style: Champagne
Think bubbles, think Champagne. It’s as much a part of Valentine’s Day as chocolates, roses, or a night spent regretting that dodgy-smelling oyster. Arguably France’s most famous wine region, the area is best known for its use of chardonnay, pinot meunier, and pinot noir to create wines that display “autolytic” or bread-like smells and tastes.
The bottle: Champagne Pommery Rosé Brut (£33.75 until 16 February then £45, Waitrose)
A really delicate onion skin colour belies the intensity to its raspberry, strawberry, and green apple flavours. It’s full of bright acidity, but there’s enough residual sugar and raspberry jam flavour for balance, with fresher cranberry and redcurrant flavours dancing all the way to the end of its long finish. Worth it at full price, but a steal at 25% off.
The syle: English sparkling wine
England makes sparkling wines using both the tank and bottle methods. Many of those that use bottles are beginning to market themselves under the “Great British Classic Method” logo, some of which I explored in my “12 Wines of Christmas” series. By and large, the bottle-fermented wines tend to use the three traditional varieties – chardonnay, pinot meunier, and pinot noir – but look out for other credible examples using bacchus, a grape that emulates sauvignon blanc’s freshness.
The bottle: Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2016 (£59, Gusbourne)
Are these the best bubbles that winemaker Charlie Holland has ever made? I reckon they might be. Complex lemon, apricot, and red and green apple aromas, plus a superb balance between the acidity and the 8.3g/l of residual sugar. Delcious with seafood, and with enough acidity and flavour to stand-up to the spice in a southern-fried chicken burger. Really moorish on its own too.
For more Valentine’s advice – including on takeaways, cheesy gifts, and the good-ol’ steak v fish debate – check-out last year’s last-minute guide, and read more of Peter’s reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.