Joe Wadsack hunts down the best value bubbles from the shadows of the likes of champagne and prosecco.
Yes, I know. There is good prosecco, but at a price. However, you wouldn’t catch many wine lovers spending north of £20 on any prosecco, certainly not £60 in a restaurant or bar, unless there was no alternative. Sparkling wine drinkers have never been so spoilt for choice, and this sort of money has never offered so much.
The phrase “Champagne quality” still means something. The Champenois have been at it longer than any other wine region, and very few wine regions can compete to this day. Not really. I think that it is important to retain some sort of perspective here. Sure, there are individual special wines in many small regions around the world that are beacons of quality, like Franciacorta and England (and you can definitely add premium cava to that list on recent showings), but sparkling wines that have a reputation for being very good appear to be elevating themselves to the excellent.
Pound for pound, Franciacorta (halfway between Milan and Verona) and southern England have genuinely stunning wines, but you pay Champagne money, so they aren’t diamonds in the rough to be discovered, but merely an alternative way to spend lots of money. So, what does that leave us? What’s changing the landscape at a price that most of us can afford? Well, strap yourselves in…
My first pick comes from a region that has been making world-class dessert wines for 350 years, but only recently has turned its hand to premium sparkling production. Tokaji in Hungary makes a mere 1% of global wine production, but what is made tends to be of very high quality, largely because of the local variety Furmint. Complex, taut, racy and age-worthy, it is regarded as one of the finest white grapes in the world. On a recent visit, I tasted several sparkling Furmints, and Chardonnay blends which took my breath away. The final evidence that these mouthwatering wines are worth consideration was the move to Sauska, Hungary’s finest sparkling producer, by Régis Camus, former chef de cave of Charles Heidseick, Champagne’s most decorated house.
» Sauska Sparkling Brut, Tokaji, Hungary, £13.50 (Enotria & Coe)
South Africa has been making premium sparkling wine for over 50 years now. It all started with Simonsig’s Kaapse Vonkel in 1971, a beautifully crafted wine that you can still buy from London shippers Lay & Wheeler for under £10, which is quite extraordinary. Other marques such as Graham Beck and Pongracz have continually bettered themselves and are Champagne quality these days, if riper and more exuberant in style. Either way they offer extraordinary value for money. Wine giant KWV also makes a truly stunning all-Chardonnay fizz under its Laborie brand.
» Laborie Blanc de Blancs 2017 South Africa, £9.50 (North & South Wines)
Any cash-conscious fizz enthusiast nowadays will know that France doesn’t just do Champagne, and will be well-versed in the crémants of the Bourgogne, Loire and Limoux, all deep mines of great sparkling wine drinking for less than £20. Crémants from the path less well trodden, such as Bordeaux and Alsace, are fast catching up. I have stumbled across some pretty delicious Alsatian fizz of late. Before you start buying up stocks of Crémant d’Alsace, it’s important to know that it is quite different stylistically. Creamy and softly-textured, it is my favourite French fizz with smoked salmon, because it does the texture of pillowy-soft, cured salmon justice. Usually Pinot Blanc-dominant, it reminds me of ripe creamy Californian fizz for a lot less dough. Try this one on for size.
» Crémant d’Alsace Blanc de Blancs Dopff and Irion, France, approx. £10 (Tanners Wine Merchants)
Portugal is finally starting to get the credit it deserves for its fantastic wines, many of which also represent some of the finest value in the world. Bairrada is a tiny region near Oporto where many households and small holding would previously tend a small plot of vines for their family. Over the past 20 years, many small producers have galvanised and formed cooperatives that can now compete in volume with other regions. Better known for quite robust reds, Bairrada also makes some dry, really well-crafted sparkling wines, both white and rosé. Now is their time…
» Aplauso Bairrada Brut Regateiro, Portugal, approx. £10 (Amathus Drinks)
» (All prices quoted in this article are trade ex. VAT prices