It’s that time of year again, when thoughts turn to Champagnes and sparkling wines. Prosecco may have changed the category, becoming the year-round drink of choice for many people, but the festive season still sees overall sales of sparkling wines soar. For most of us Christmas and New Year celebrations are only complete with a soundtrack of corks popping and bubbles pouring.
I’m a huge fan of sparkling wine, occasionally frustrated that it is not always seen as ‘real’ wine. Its subtleties and complexities are so often under-appreciated. But of course that does not apply to every sparkling wine, and nor should it perhaps: there’s no denying that the feel good factor of enjoying without too much reverence is OK too.
This round-up of over 30 examples spans wines from a variety of regions and styles, and from the cheap and cheerful to some of the world’s great sparkling wines. I’ve grouped the wines as: under £15; £15-£30 and over £30, plus I’ve included a bunch of low or no-alcohol sparkling examples, a category that seems to be growing.
I’ve yet to taste an alcohol-free wine, sparkling or still, that could perfectly substitute for the real thing, but as there are some interesting innovations in this sector and very pleasant drinks, so I thought it worth having a sniff and taste of a few.
(2018) A sparkling drink, like the duo from Eisberg, made in Germany, in this case from grape must infused with green tea. The result is actually very quaffable, frothy and bright aromas and flavours, plenty of sweetness, but the green tea just giving an earthy, herby, slightly umami character to sit beneath the froth and sweetness into a nice balanced, fresh finish. A good alternative to a light sparkling wine for the driver or tee-totaller.
(2018) The rosé version of the Bees Knees is made to the same formula of grape must with the addition of green tea, and is very similar, acheiving a little bit of strawberry pulp fruitiness, again nicely cut by the herby and earthy undertone of the tea, to leave this medium-sweet but crisp and refreshing.
(2018) How to judge a wine like this is an interesting conundrum: little is revealed about grape varieties or the exact provenance of the wine, except that it is made in Germany and goes through a post-fermentation process to remove the alcohol. How do the bubbles get there? Again there is no information but I could only guess by adding CO2 before bottling. It is lightly effervescent, and has a pleasant pear and citrus aroma, before a palate that clearly lacks complexity and texture, but which has a lightly grassy herbal character, some mid-palate peachy sweetness and a dry finish, a little sherbetty, and clean. I try to score wines on an absolute scale, not relative to price or style, and this is a good effort and a pleasant drink, and could be appealing to the Prosecco drinker looking to avoid alcohol, or as summer in the garden grown-up soft drink. Look out for deals - £3.30 in Asda at time of review.
(2018) The rosé version of Eisberg's alcohol-free fizz is made in Germany like it's Blanc counterpart, from de-alcoholised rosé wine blended with grape must. It is fruitier than the white, small red berry fruits aromatically and in flavour, a pulpy strawberry sweetness and even if no more residual sugar, certainly a sweeter impression thanks to lower acidity perhaps. It's enjoyable and in many ways more convincing than the white version, a distant family relation in style to some pink moscatos perhaps.
This price range is dominated by Prosecco of course. There’s a lot of wine labelled Prosecco that does not distinguish itself, but you’ll find some exampls of interest below, and I recently wrote about a dozen more expensive Proseccos too. Many of the Crémant wines of France hit this price point too, wines made by the traditional method in various regions other than Champagne. Cava is seeing something of a revival of interest, though many that I have been tasting recently have been superior cuvées at slightly more ambitious prices around £20, so do not feature in this category.
(2018) Nothing remarkable about this Prosecco from The Wine Society, and nothing objectionable either: pre-requisite fresh pear, lemon and icing sugar aromas, a lively and sherbetty palate, and it is Brut, so a bit drier than your average supermarket label, which is for the good. Very decent quaffing Prosecco.
(2018) Another Brut Prosecco, so with less than 12g/l of residual sugar, this is a forthy and crowd-pleasing style, though with a deal of elegance and refinement. The nose is filled with crisp pear aromas, with delicate floral and icing sugar nuances, before a palate that has a good backbone of acidity, and that moderate sugar giving both a hint of sweetness and a nice lemony, sours freshness to the flavour profile.
(2018) This Crémant is made from an alliance of Cabernet Franc and Semillon - certainly an unusual blend of unexpected varieties. Made by the traditional method, it is also on offer at just £8.99 from Ocado until 1st January 2019 - a big factor in making it my choice. Crisp, sherbetty and instantly light and appealing, it could not be more different from the Larmandier-Bernier Champagne tasted alongside, akin to a rather serious Prosecco, with a little more yeastiness, but bags of citrus and apple fruit and a long, clean finish. Dry, not lean or mean, but tightly-drawn, it is a fine inexpensive fizz for the party season at its offer price. One of my two sparkling wine picks for Christmas 2018, watch the video for more information.
(2018) A blanc de Noirs from Bordeaux, using typical grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this rosé crémant is made in the traditional method with a second fermentation in bottle. Pale peach in colour, there's a fine strawberry sherbet character on the nose, just a little echo of creaminess too. In the mouth the sweet ripeness of the summer berry fruit is very pleasing, an orangy tang of acidity adding a gentle but precise freshness to the finish.
(2018) A low alcohol blend of Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, St Laurent and Blaufränkisch, I guess this would count as a 'Pet Nat', a trendy new term for gently sparkling 'natural' wines and this has the credentials: biodynamic, closed with a beer bottle crown-cap and with only 10.5% alcohol. It is only gently effervescent, the colour lovely ruby/pomegranate red, with delicate strawberries and cream aromas. In the mouth the frizzante style gives a lively edge to crisp and flavourful red berry fruit, a hint of sweetness swept up in lovely, clear apple core dry acidity. Delightful.
(2018) Not a million miles away from that other great medium-sweet, gently sparkling wine style, Moscato d'Asti, here Torrontes presents a fragrant bouquet of wild flowers, nettle, orange and peach, before a palate that has plenty of sweetness and a light, gossamer mousse, before bright mandarin orange acidity balances the finish. Very unusual, great for Christmas morning with a mince pie, or with Thai cuisine.
(2018) A brut Prosecco, so drier than many and lower in sugar, hence the very modest 63 calories per 100ml, so less than 100 calories in a decent 150mm serving. It is foamy and frothy, with a crisp apple and lemon sherbet nose, the palate noticeably drier than many Proseccos, with plenty of lemony bite, but still enough pear and apple fruitiness to please fans of Italy's most popular fizz. Note that offers seem to abound on this: at time of review down £8.99 in Budgens, £9.99 in Ocado
(2018) One of the less expensive wines in my premium Prosecco taste-off, and one of my favourites - that was for its sheer zing and zip, with all the Prosecco hallmarks of delicate floral notes and lemon-sherbet freshness and clarity, but with such a surge of flavour and intensity of fruit on the mid-palate, sweetly ripe, yet this is distinctly Brut with 8g/l of residual sugar and a dry, really tangy finish. This is labelled as coming from the slopes of the San Pietro di Barbozza area, and the winery producers various cuvées, like this, from specific terroirs of Prosecco.
(2018) Crémant wines are undergoing something of a mini-boom, finding many new fans for these traditional method sparkling wines from French regions outside of Champagne. This, from Chablis producer Simonnet-Febvre, is a blend of Chardonnay (60%) and Pinot Noir, aged 24 months on the lees in bottle. It is a crisp and zippy style, but a creaminess and touch of biscuit adds to the pear and lemon fruit of the nose. In the mouth it is razor-sharp as befits a wine from vineyards surrounding Chablis, but there is a juiciness and peachy generosity to the mid-palate fruit before that long, shimmering core of acidity extends the finish. Watch the video for more information and food-matching ideas.
(2018) By all accounts there is a recent surge of interest in France's 'other' sparkling wines, the Crémants from Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace and various other regions, made by the traditional method and normally priced substantially lower than Champagne. This from Alsace is composed mostly of Pinot Blanc and aged nine months on the lees in bottle before disgorgement. Pouring a pale green/gold with a lively mousse, this has baked apple and pastry aromas, a sense of richness, and a touch of lemon peel. On the palate it's pretty straightforward, but it has a fine stone fruit juiciness and ripeness, a bit of weight and creamy texture and a generous finish with the acidity elegantly balanced against the fruit and touch of toastiness.
(2018) A highly unusual sparkling wine from Masi, masters of Amarone, who have used the same appassimento technique, drying grapes on straw mats, for the 25% Verduzzo in this blend, which is fermented along with 75% freshly-harvested Pinto Grigio. It's made by the charmat method as used in Prosecco, and has clear similarities to a good Brut Prosecco (this has around 9g/l of residual sugar), just a gentle effervesence and more of a herby and lemon peel grippiness on the palate, pear fruit and a bit of interesting texture too before a dry, nicely tart apple finish.
(2018) The high quality Prosecco house of Canevel makes its wines in conjunction with the renowed Masi estate of nearby Valpolicella, this off-dry wine from the hillsides of Valdobbiadene in Prosecco being 100% Glera. Very fine, very racy, a golden delicious ripeness, then the 16gl of sugar and a certain peachiness absorbed into the racy sherbet lemon clarity of the fruit and acidity. A balanced, dry impression on the finish despite the sweetness of the sugar being quite obvious.
(2018) Roger Goulart is now part of CVNE, as the Rioja producer purchased them earlier this year. Given a full five years on the lees, this is a blend of the traditional cava grapes Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada, and made very dry with only 4g/l of residual sugar. It pours a pale straw yellow with small bubbles, that dissipate quite quickly. The nose has a nice biscuity quality and a little fragrant herb touch, the palate has lemon and yellow plum flavours, and lemony acids. Somehow this wine just didn't catch my attention, lacking a little nerve and precision perhaps, but clearly a quality cava house to watch.
(2018) Made by the traditional method, this is a dry and very grown-up take on elderflower wine, with 7g/l of residual sugar and 12% alcohol by volume. Pale and moderately effervescent, aromas are floral and herbal, not the pungent 'cat's pee' elderflower used to describe many a Sauvignon Blanc. In the mouth it has a fine mousse and it is dry, a keenly honed acidity driving, the flavour difficult to describe: herbal, a touch of endive bitterness, with a lemon peel zestiness too. A successful wine, perhaps more akin to a Loire Crémant than a Champagne, for want of a better way of describing the flavours.
(2018) I rather liked this blend of elderflower with blackberries, rhubarb, and strawberries, with second fermentation in bottle a la Champagne.The pale colour and small bubbles are attractive, and the nose is not too sweet and not too elderflowery, the dry rhubarb and cranberry character and modest yeastiness the main players. On the palate it is dry, perhaps even a touch astringent, but that gives it a bit of sour and savoury grip against the berry fruits that are a little more obvious in the mouth. Stylish.
(2018) A remarkable wine that spent a full 84 months - seven years - on the lees. It is made by the traditional method from the Gouveio variety, one of the traditional grapes of the Alto Douro's cool upper slopes. It's a very refined wine, the delicate fruit profile salty and lemony, but with a tiny floral touch and the long ageing on the yeast adding hints of toast. Crisp and bright on the palate, there's a hint of wheat and toast again, but that lovely dry lemon and orange rind fruitiness is delightful, a very modest 5g/l dosage giving this plenty of bite and raciness, yet it is not at all tart, the long ageing on the lees seeing to that, as well as part of the juice being barrel fermented, to give a certain weight and luxurious richness. Delicious and a huge bargain at its £21.95 price.
(2018) Made by the winemaking students of England's Centre of Excellence for wine education, supervised by expert winemakers, this sparkling blend of 43% Pinot Meunier, 38% Chardonnay and 19% Pinot Noir was disgorged on 8th May 2018 after three years ageing on the lees, with little over 2,000 bottles produced. It is an absolute charmer, a touch of luscious gold to the colour and a rich butter pastry nose, loads of biscuit and ripe, juicy orchard fruits. The palate has a soft cushion of mousse and there is an open, welcoming breadth to the sweet fruit core, but then the finish sharpens up nicely with dazzling lemony acidity. Really very good indeed. Price is per bottle, available in cases of six from the college, but use the wine-searcher link to find other stockists.
(2018) What a beautiful all-Chardonnay wine this is from Greyfriars in Surrey, a little extra time in bottle post-disgorgement now showing lovely creaminess and yet full fruit, pear and apple, yes, but almost a soft summer berry character, the rich mousse leading to a taut, defined finish. The 2014 is the wine in stock with several other retailers at time of review.
(2018) Forty hectares of steep, south-facing vines have been farmed by the Gremillet family for generations. This is a Rosé d'Assemblage, the technique of fermenting Pinot Noir as a dry wine separately, and adding it to the blend before the second fermentation in bottle. Gremillet then ages its wine for 24 months. It is a particularly fruity style of pink Champagne, bold summer berries and a nice background hint of biscuity autolysis, it seems to have quite a modest carbonation, then a very dry, lemony finish.
(2018) 30 months on the lees for this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from the limestone hills of Smith & Evans Somerset vineyards. There’s a lovely golden glow to the colour, and plenty of streaming, tiny bubbles. Yeast and bready, it has fine autolytic notes, salts and nutty apple. In the mouth the balance is very good, a drier style, with some sweet mid-palate ripeness moving through to a lemons and salts acidity. Very attractive.
Dominated by Champagne and English sparkling wine, Italy’s Franciacorta is another sizeable player in this price range, though I did not come across too many in the run up to Christmas this year. But look out for superior Cavas pitching at this slot. For a change I have also focused more than usual on ‘grower’ Champagnes from small, usually family-owned estates, rather than the better-known Grand Marque houses.
(2018) The full five years this blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay spends on the lees in bottle offsets and gives richness to the very low dosage of 3g/l, and along with 40% reserve wines results in a wine that is chalk dry, but not aggressive. There's a lovely lick of seashell salinity on the nose, joining fresh lemony fruit but with a developed breadiness beneath. In the mouth it is very keen and crips, the lively mousse carrying more salts and citrus, a dry apple core acidity and just little vestiges of nuttiness and biscuit in quite a complex character, finishing dry but not austere.
(2018) What a lovely wine from the estate of the legendary Steven Spurrier and his wife in Dorset. 80% Pinot Noir with 20% Chardonnay, it’s a deeply coloured pink fizz that overflows with creamy strawberry aromas, a nice touch of something gravelly and more serious in the background, but all about open and invitingly deep red fruits really. In the mouth a lovely rolling mousse, and that full fruit expression of summer berries and peaches is briskly moved along with finely-etched acidity and more of that minerals and gravel-stone firmness. Delightful. On offer at £27.95 at time of review.
(2018) A small proportion of the Chardonnay for this cuvée from Nyetimber was barrel-fermented, and the wine was released only after a full five years on the lees. Pale straw/gold, with very small bubbles, the yeasty development is inviting, a touch of biscuit against the crisp summer orchard fruit. In the mouth it seems to have quite a sweet edge to the fruit, perhaps towards the top of the 'Brut' range I'd guess, and that, plus the creamy lees character, gives a slightly softer finish despite the wine retaining good zippy acid. It also makes it a very pleasing wine to sip, or match with white fish and sushi.
(2018) From Champagne's oldest house, founded in 1584, the blend is 45% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the balance Pinot Meunier, and this bottle is blend of three recent vintages given four years ageing in the Gosset cellars. Despite that softening time on the lees, this is a Champagne with drive and purpose, the nose nuanced with pastry and almond over citrus and stone fruits, but the palate quite steely and very focused, the vibrant but not lean focus of citrus driving through against the creaminess of the mousse in very food-friendly style. The price quoted at time of writing is the cheapest I can find (on offer), but it is quite widely available at under £50.
(2018) Just a beautiful rosé from Bellavista. one of Franciacorta's bigger houses where all base wines are barrel-fermented. From south-facing vineyards this is more or less equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. An attractive pale colour and the prettiest aromas, small wild strawberries, peach down and watermelon, all lightly touched by creamy vanilla. On the palate the mousse is very fine, very elegant, and though there is that soft and seductive strawberry, the acid balance is perfect and the shimmering length of the wine is terrific.
(2018) The Chardonnay was very special in this year, and this 100% Chardonnay cuvée is utterly convincing proof that the best English sparkling wines can stand confidently in line with the best. It has a lovely golden hue, with toffee and nutty notes over bruised pear and apple fruit and some leafy, herbal tones giving real complexity and richness. The palate pushes through with immense precision, the cool, zesty and pithy lemon rind quality and seashell mineral richness gives this lovely balance and focused length. That minerality is so pronounced from these chalky soils of the South Downs.
(2018) From a low-yielding vintage, this is a fabulous wine from Taittinger, a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with 9g/l of residual sugar. Chardonnay is sourced primarily from the Grands Crus of the Côte des Blancs, and Pinot Noir primarily from those of the Montagne de Reims. Fabulously toasty and nutty on the nose, there's an all-encompassing feeling of luxurious depth, then the palate bursts through with a deal of sweetness - fruit rather than sugar, and electrifying acidity, a gorgeous, fleshy plum fruitiness and lovely weight and texture, the finish long with more of those toasty notes to beguile. Use wine-searcher to find plenty of independent stockists, plus big names like Majestic and John Lewis.
(2018) My word but I loved this. Two-thirds Pinot Noir, one-third Chardonnay, coming from Grand Cru vineyards in Bouzy, this has a moderator dosage of around 8g/l and a nose filled with buttered toast and wheatgerm, a spiced pear fruitiness beneath. Racy and fine on the palate, the mousse crisply textured, so much sweet fruit, yet a dazzling, orangey acid structure and textural richness, toast again in the finish, giving this sumptuous presence and making for fabulous drinking.
(2018) Pierre and Sophie Larmandier are among the leading growers in Champagne, farming biodynamically (though un-certified) and with parcels of old vines, in this case Chardonnay from Cramant that is up to 90 years old. It is Extra Brut with a lowly 2g/l of sugar. It's a singularly powerful Champagne, pouring with a golden hint of richness and tiny bubbles, the aromas are firm and gently earthy, with touchs of herbs, lemon and a brioche and biscuit background. In the mouth that intensity is striking: there's a powerful impression of salty minerality, fat lemony fruit that fills the mid-palate, and real length and layered complexity. It's a terrific Champagne and would be wonderful with roast chicken or other poultry. One of my two sparkling wine picks for Christmas 2018, watch the video for more information.