It's that time of year when sales of bubbly are at their highest. People, especially wine lovers, like to indulge whatever the state of the economy. However, enjoying bubbly needn't break the bank. There are plenty of good quality sparkling wines from outside Champagne.
Champagne is expensive for a few reasons, not least the aura of exclusivity given by the region's labelling laws. Then there is production involving a secondary fermentation in the bottle in a process called la méthode traditionnelle. This process takes time as the wine ages on lees (dead yeast cells). The longer the period, the more pronounced the bready, biscuity notes. By law, non-vintage champagne has to be aged on lees for a minimum of 12 months and vintage champagne for 36 months.
Champagne is a marginal grape growing area but the cooler climate means grapes, when fully ripened, retain high acidity - a prerequisite for good sparkling wine. Much sparkling wine outside Champagne is produced the same way but costs a fraction of the price.
In my view, the two outstanding sparkling wines from outside Champagne are English sparkling wine and Franciacorta DOCG from Italy. Both have the elegance and finesse of champagne. Southern England has similarly chalky soil to Champagne and climate change means varieties now ripen reliably to make top sparkling wine. These are scooping international awards and have beaten champagne in blind tastings. The few I have tried and like are Ridgeview and Camel Valley, both available in Hong Kong, plus Nyetimber and Bluebell (not yet in Hong Kong).
Franciacorta, made with chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc, must be aged on lees for a minimum of 24 months for non-vintage and 36 months for vintage.
France also produces crémant. Made by the traditional method, the wine has to spend a minimum of nine months on lees. The grapes are generally the best from each region for making still wine. Crémant de Loire is mostly made from chenin blanc and cabernet franc ; crémant d'Alsace from pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot noir and sometimes riesling; crémant de Limoux is made from mauzac, with some chenin blanc and chardonnay. Crémants cost in the region of HK$200 per bottle.
Spanish cava, with its earthy notes (some say rubbery) uses the traditional method with local grape varieties xarel-lo, parellada and macabeo for whites, and garnacha and monastrell for rosés. This is not aged, hence its modest price of just over HK$100 per bottle. Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad, with up to four years on lees, is a steal at less than HK$200 a bottle.
The New World produces good sparkling wine using champagne varieties in the traditional method. The best are from Tasmania, Australia's Adelaide Hills, Marlborough in New Zealand and Los Carneros in the US. They have riper fruit characters but a less defined structure than champagne. Cap Classique from South Africa uses mainly chardonnay, pinot noir and chenin blanc and follows the champagne method. For something new, try Casa Valduga from Brazil.
Sparkling wine can also be made using the Charmat, or tank, method, where secondary fermentation takes place in a pressurised tank. Wine made this way spends no or minimal time on lees so costs are reduced. This method suits aromatic grape varieties. These wines should be consumed young.
With its aromas of apple and melon, Italian prosecco is popular here. Priced at about HK$100 per bottle, it is great value for money, particularly the upscale DOCG.
German Sekt is worth a try, the best being made from riesling, although serious producers use the traditional rather than tank method.
The rising stars are Asti and the less bubbly Moscato d'Asti from Italy, made from the moscato bianco grape with a single tank fermentation. They are highly aromatic with lower alcohol (7 per cent and 5 per cent), medium sweetness and less pressure.
With so many choices and reasonable prices, bubbles do not need to be saved for celebrations only. Enjoy one now.