Festive Fizz

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We tend to associate Champagne with celebrations or festive occasions and there’s no better wine to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. The trouble is that the cheapest bottle of champers will set you back Bt. 2,000 and international brands like Tattinger start at around Bt. 3,700. If your taste runs to the legendary Krug, you’ll have to fork out over Bt. 11,000 for a bottle.

 

Champagne is expensive for several reasons, largely because of the time-consuming and complicated process known in France as the méthode champenoise. Even if you don’t speak French, that shouldn’t be too tricky to translate. There are dozens of cheaper alternatives, made by using more cost-effective methods of production. Many of them use a process known as the Charmat Method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel or glass tanks. Cheaper still are wines made in much the same way as sparkling fizzy drinks, in which still wine is zonked with a dollop of carbon dioxide. European wines made using this method are obliged to use the phrase “aerated sparkling wine” or “added carbon dioxide” on the labels.

Wine tanks at Siam Winery, home of Mont Clair budget wines.Wine tanks at Siam Winery, home of Mont Clair budget wines.

The temperature of sparkling wine is important. You should drink it at between 4-9°C which is 39-48°F. If in doubt, colder is safer. A few hours in a refrigerator will be close enough, but after opening stick the bottle in a wine bucket containing ice and water. If possible, leave the bottle corked until it’s time to serve. On no account shake it in the manner of racing car drivers. Not only does it look vulgar but it’s dangerous because the pressure inside a bottle of sparkling wine is about the same as that inside a bus tyre.

So today I’m going to look at some cheaper alternatives to champagne for a New Year bash, limited to wines that I’ve tasted fairly recently. Just in case you’ve forgotten, in wine-speak the word Brut (“raw”) on the label means very dry, Extra Brut means as dry as the proverbial bone and Extra dry is a little bit sweeter than Brut. Yes, I know it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is.

Casillero del Diablo Sparkling Brut Chardonnay, Chile (Bt. 799 @ Big C, Tesco-Lotus and others)

This pale yellow sparkler has a fine race of bubbles and a highly scented aroma of sharp green apples, citrus fruits and hints of lime and herbs. It’s a light-to-medium bodied wine, slightly off-dry with a pleasing balance of fruit, rich acidity and a faint hint of yeast. There’s plenty of minerally fruit on the palate and a long dry and fruity finish. This is a very attractive Champagne-style wine with character and a zesty citric flavour. Unusually for a sparkling wine, the cork is quite narrow, so if you don’t finish the wine you can bash the cork back and leave the bottle in the fridge. Stored this way, it’ll keep its bubbles for about three days after opening.

Sassello Prosecco Extra Dry, Italy (Bt. 599 @ Tesco-Lotus and others)

Prosecco is an excellent alternative to Champagne with a bit of class too. It comes from Italy’s Veneto region and is produced using the Charmat method and the shorter tank fermentation preserves the freshness and the flavor of the grapes. This is a very pale straw colour, almost verging on colourless with a good race of bubbles in the glass. The wine has a floral aroma of pears, apples and lychee. The wine is lovely and refreshing, with a delicate and fresh-fruit taste. It’s very dry and has an attractive touch of crisp acidity with a surprisingly long and fruity finish.

Santa Julia Sparkling Extra Brut, Argentina (Bt. 599 @ Central, Tops)

Here’s a lovely transparent gold-coloured wine with the tiniest hints of pink. From the distinguished Zuccardi family, it’s an interesting blend of Chardonnay (35%), Viognier (10%) and Pinot Noir (55%) which probably accounts for the subtle pinkish hue.

Made by the Charmat Method, it has a fresh, subtle floral aroma that suggests green apples, apricots, white peaches and pineapples. There are plenty of tiny bubbles in the glass, the fruit well forward and the wine crisp and light-bodied. It’s extremely dry and refreshing, a good dash of citric acidity and a long dry finish.

Joy Sparkling Brut 2011, South Africa (Bt. 599 @ Central, Tops)

This wine is made from the Muscat d’Alexandrie grape by the well-known Bouma Company in Stellenbosch. It has a soft mouth-feel, bags of fruit on the taste and very gentle acidity. Made by the Charmat Method, the wine is straw-coloured with a greenish tinge and a gorgeous sweet rose-like floral aroma, with raisins, pears and strawberries in the background and a long citrus finish. It’s a young vibrant off-dry wine at around 13.5% alcohol content and should win many friends.

Baron d’Arignac Sparkling Brut, France (Bt. 579 @ Foodland, Villa)

This is a soft dry sparkler from the south west of France, near Bordeaux. It’s a very pale gold with plenty of bubbles and there’s a very delicate aroma of apples, with a slightly surprising hint of maraschino cherries. The wine has a very fresh and crisp mouth-feel and a good deal of fruit up-front. There are apples and citrus on the taste and a decently long finish but despite being labeled “Brut” there’s an attractive dash of sweetness. It’s very light bodied, easy to drink, with a lively refreshing quality.

Opera Prima Pink Sparkling Moscato, Spain (Bt. 519 @ Foodland)

Moscato is another name for Muscat, which is one of the oldest grape varieties in existence. Don’t confuse this wine with a similarly named one called Opéra from France.  Opera Prima wines are made in one of the most technologically advanced wine-making facilities anywhere, the J. García Carrión’s winery in La Mancha.  The wine has a heady aroma of white flowers, fresh berries, lychee and raisins. On the palate, you’ll get the sensation of delicate bubbles as well as the taste of summer fruits. There’s a lively refreshing mouth-feel, a dash of acidity to balance the pleasant sweet flavour and a very good long finish. Being a Moscato, it’s also mildly sweet.

Mont Clair Sparkling Brut, South Africa (Bt. 379 @ Foodland, Best etc.)

This bargain sparkler from Siam Winery is a very light gold with a plentiful supply of bubbles and probably the cheapest in town. It has a lovely fresh fruity aroma of peaches and passion fruit and there’s a dash of citrus and herbs in the background. Dry and light-bodied, there’s a lively refreshing mouth-feel; plenty of fruit up-front and a zesty dash of acidity that gives the taste a refreshing bite. It has a long, dry finish with fruity and peppery overtones. The South African wine was blended in Thailand with local fruit wine, but don’t let that put you off, because this light-hearted easy-drinker would be great for any social event. The bottle has a sensible plastic stopper, so if you don’t finish the wine, you can replace the stopper and put the bottle back in the fridge.

If you’re a bit apprehensive about opening a bottle of sparkling wine, have a look at some of the websites that explain the process. It’s not too tricky and you don’t need a corkscrew. One important thing is that the cork should always emerge with a gentle gasping “schlop” sound, not an explosive bang. That horrid popping noise instantly lowers the tone of any social occasion and would never do at my place because it would terrify the dogs. They don’t much care for sparkling wines anyway.