This investigation began life as a romantically inspired attempt to recreate a Kir Royal with limited resources.
We were honeymooning in Hugh Town on St Mary’s – the largest of the Isles of Scilly. Everyone in Hugh Town shops at the Co-op, because it’s the only grocery shop on the island. A pretty decent deal if you’re into wine, but not if you’re into cassis, as it happens.
I don’t know if the nearby off-license sells it because it was shut from 5pm onwards, so when I wanted to make Kir Royals to go with an ill-fated steak dish (there was a blueberry and blue cheese sauce waiting to ruin it – damn my culinary inventiveness), I had to improvise.
Ribena was the nearest thing I could find to cassis, so – suspecting that this might downgrade the “royalty” of my Kirs somewhat, I decided to balance it out by spending as much as the shop would allow me to on sparkling wine. You only get one honeymoon, after all. (Assuming all goes well.)
Now, I’d decided a few weeks before that there was no point me drinking expensive Champagne because I wouldn’t appreciate it. But that was before I had the pocket-money and a decent excuse. I still felt embarassed taking it to the till, in its fancy paper-covered box – sort of imagining the woman at the till might ask me for a bank statement, or perhaps a WSET advanced certificate, before zapping the barcode and taking my money. As it happens it was fine; she just asked me for ID, like they usually do. Because there’s obviously a massive problem on the Isles of Scilly with vagrant youths chugging vintage Moët & Chandon under park benches and scaring off the tourists.
A little about Moët & Chandon, in case you don’t already know. Moët & Chandon is France’s biggest producer of Champagne. They supply it to the Queen of England, and Cliff Richard. They own more than 2,500 acres of Vineyard space, which is an area the size of Wales. They annually produce “approximately 26,000,000 bottles of champagne”, which is enough to fill an enormous spaceship from Mars eight times over. They were founded in 1743, which is actually over a hundred years before France existed as a political entity, and a few decades before wine was invented. They actually anticipated the invention of wine by sheer luck.
Other than that, they have massive billboards in urban population centres advertising their product using malnourished-looking blonde women heavily made-up in the eye department. That’s my previous experience of them anyway. But it turns out their product is actually flipping amazing.
Now, I’ve always liked the savoury element in the liquid of France’s most litigious AOC. So tasting this 10-year-old vintage gave me benefits beyond the big black box and the little polyglot tasting-notes booklet; the poached-pear fruitiness, the brioche-like moreishness, the cracker-dry finish. The whole thing was deeper and heavier (not a word usually associated with dry sparkling wine) than I expected. It had such a balance of flavours that rather than suggesting in its particularity a good accompanying food dish it actually felt like a whole five-course meal in itself. Like the magic chewing gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Only not in chewing gum form, thank goodness.
All that, and you get the added bonus of imagining what you were doing ten years ago when the bottling was going on. And that’s quite an amazing thing to experience. (“Tasting history“, as Al Stewart put it.)
“This is much better than the stuff we usually drink. If Champagne normally tasted like this, I’d drink it all the time,” concluded the wife. So once we’d established, much to my annoyance, that you can in fact enjoy better wine by spending more than you’re comfortable with, I decided to try to disprove this – or at least contextualise it – by finding wines that were at least a quarter as good, for about a quarter of the price.
The Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay Pinot Noir was a natural next step, being available in the same shop for just over a tenner and being composed of more-or-less the same constituent grapes. (Although I’m not sure if the lesser-known Pinot Meunier made it in.) It’s an alright sparkling white. Enjoyable for its fruitiness and, indeed, if the fruitiness is what you tend to prefer in your sparkling white, you won’t really like the taste of Champagne so much. As Alya pointed out in her sparkling rosé article – and I’ll have to take her word for it! – the more expensive the vintage gets, the more likely it is to have those distinctive savoury flavours. For better or worse, you ain’t getting them in the low-price New World stuff.
I’d usually say it was to the detriment of the wine, sadly. But – and this brings me to my third sparkling white – there are all sorts of interesting experiences to be had with fruit. (And, yes, you can quote me on that.)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never knowingly tried a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc before. And that’s exactly what New Zealand’s Lindauer offer, also for just over a tenner, also from the Co-op.
I was hugely impressed with how well this works. Anyone who’s tried a NZ Sauvignon will be struck by the zesty green freshness of the fruit: it hits you on the nose like a snowball full of freshly cut grass and it tends to be shot through with green fruit flavours: apple, pear – often even lime.
In its sparkling form it really tastes like one of the top-notch NZ Sauvignons (and there are too many to cite) that’s been fed through a soda stream. The zippy, explosive fiziness takes nothing away from the character of this grape and what it adds actually seems entirely natural. It makes me wonder why more – hell, maybe even all – Sauvignon Blancs of this style aren’t allowed to sparkle.
While I have no problem with imitation Champagnes in general, and have enjoyed many and disliked very few, I have to say that this Lindauer offering is a lot more exciting.
It’s more along the line of Prosecco than anything like a true alternative to Champagne, but with its added New World clout, I think this qualifies as a characterful sparkling white with an identity quite unlike anything I’ve tried from Europe.
Oh, and the Ribena and Champagne thing?
That didn’t really work.