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Just as red wines are not all alike by virtue of their colour, neither are sparkling wines alike because of their bubbles.

Among sparkling wines, the other half lives well

11/12/2020 - 05:50

SPARKLING wine is made throughout the wine-producing world, in many styles using virtually any grapes. To suggest that these are all unworthy, inferior or merely imitations of Champagne is like dismissing all other red wines because they are not Burgundy.

Just as red wines are not all alike by virtue of their colour, neither are sparkling wines alike because of their bubbles. If we are open to the idea, we can see that although good wines might share certain characteristics, they are distinct in their own right.

This is not to deny that Champagne is vastly influential among producers of sparkling wine, just as Bordeaux set stylistic bench marks for producers of cabernet sauvignon and merlot around the world.

Some wines influenced by Bordeaux might be knockoffs meant to capitalise on the fame and commercial success of the original - inexpensive imitations, with few redeeming qualities. But others build on inspiration to create something distinctive. Napa Valley cabernet, say, owes a great debt to the original, but- it has achieved an identity of its own.

The elegance, finesse and complexity of good Champagne is one of the great achievements in wine. It will always have a place in the pantheon. But what of other types of sparklers? Are they destined to trail in Champagne's wake, never to be accepted or evaluated on their own terms?

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To a significant portion of the wine-drinking public, the answer is clearly yes. This group treats the notion of "champagne" as a generic term referring to all sparkling wines, differentiating among them by price, and occasionally by quality.

The Champagne region of France, the only place Champagne is made, has fought furiously against this notion. It has argued that Champagne is a geographical term and succeeded in compelling most serious wine regions not to use it to refer to their sparkling wines, although a few rogue producers insist on it.

But significant numbers of consumers either see all sparkling wines as Champagne or see all other sparkling wines as inferior imitations of the real thing. This view not only diminishes other sparkling wines but also demeans Champagne by treating it as no more than bubbles for festive occasions. It may carry enhanced prestige and status, but ultimately it's the same in the glass as prosecco or any other cheaper sparkling wine.

My hope was that trying a few different sparkling wines would demonstrate that the sparkling universe comprises many different stars rather than a single sun orbited by tiny planets.

As usual, I suggested three wines. They were Ferrari Trento Brut Metodo Classico NV, Domaine Huet Vouvray Pétillant Brut 2014 and Recaredo Corpinnat Terrers Brut Nature 2014. Each comes from a different place and is made with different grapes.

The Ferrari is from Trento, an appellation reserved for sparkling wines within the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy. It is entirely chardonnay, one of the three main Champagne grapes. And it is made by the same method as Champagne, in which fully fermented still wines are bottled with a solution of sweetness and yeast. The yeast solution induces a second fermentation in the sealed bottle, producing carbon dioxide, which, with no way of escaping, carbonates the wine.

What I found remarkable about the Ferrari, an entry-level US$25 bottle, was the delicacy and finesse of the wine. The bubbles seemed light and fine, the texture sheer, the flavours toasty, creamy and slightly herbal. The sleek lines made me think of graceful Italian designs. It was the weight and texture that seemed to set it apart from Champagne.

The Recaredo is from the Penedès region of Catalonia, in north-eastern Spain. It is a cava, though, like a number of leading Catalonian producers, Recaredo chooses to use the term Corpinnat rather than cava in an effort to differentiate itself from what it sees as a poor image brought on by the dominant, mass-market cava producers. The Corpinnat term requires that the wines be made from organically farmed grapes.

Like all cava producers, Recaredo, too, uses the Champagne production method. Unlike Ferrari, it uses a different set of local grapes: 56 per cent xarello, 42 per cent macabeu and 2 per cent parellada. This, along with the qualities of the local terroir, makes drinking the Recaredo an entirely different experience from a Trento or a Champagne.

Like the Ferrari, it, too, was graceful, with fine bubbles. Still, it seemed far more voluminous in the mouth - not weighty, but expansive and complex, stony, floral and herbal, with flavors that lingered long after swallowing.

The Huet was a contrast. It comes from the Vouvray region of France, and it's made with the local white grape, chenin blanc. But rather than using the same production technique as Champagne (and the other two wines we tasted), it's made using the ancestral method, in which the wine is bottled before it has completed the initial fermentation. As it finishes fermenting in the sealed bottle, the carbon dioxide creates bubbles, although at a softer level than with the Champagne technique.

As a result, the wine feels gentler in the mouth, the bubbles not ricocheting with the same velocity as in the other two. The flavor is entirely different as well, in the chenin blanc realm of honeysuckle and chamomile, along with a chalky, earthy quality.

The Huet uses the same method as the currently popular style of petillant naturel, but it seems more polished than most pet-nats, not nearly so rough-hewed. Is it merely Huet's stylistic preference? Or maybe attention to detail or experience? I'm not sure.

My hope in drinking these wines was to persuade doubters that sparkling wine is not a hierarchy with Champagne at the top, but rather a wide spectrum with many different and wonderful options appropriate for many different occasions. The choice should not be presented as Champagne or swill. It ought to be a pick among many wonderful sparklers. NYTIMES