Among Sparkling Wines, the Other Half Lives Pretty Well

The Wine School assignment over the last month was simple: Drink sparkling wines in three different styles from three different regions — the Loire Valley of France, Trento in Italy and the Penedès in Spain.One reader responded with modest outrage.“But no…

The Wine School assignment over the last month was simple: Drink sparkling wines in three different styles from three different regions — the Loire Valley of France, Trento in Italy and the Penedès in Spain.

One reader responded with modest outrage.

“But no suggestion of an actual Champagne?” Alan of Chicago wrote. “There’s no substitute for the biscuity, chalky qualities that define Champagne.”

That, sir, is exactly the point.

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 color, neither are sparkling wines alike because of their bubbles. If we are open to the idea, we can see that though 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 benchmarks for producers of cabernet sauvignon and merlot around the world.

Some wines influenced by Bordeaux might be knockoffs meant to capitalize 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.

Here at Wine School, our aim is to respect wines for what they are, not to reject them for what they are not. We try to look past any overt similarities to find evidence of identity and originality, or at least a capacity for pleasure.

As with people, the myriad differences among wines, sometimes subtle and microscopic, and sometimes profound and obvious, are what make the subject so fascinating. 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?

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, though 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, it 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.

You might ask, if the wine is made with a Champagne grape by the same method, how is it not an imitation of Champagne?

In a sense, it is an imitation. But it’s not a knockoff, it clearly has its own personality derived from the Trento region. The question is whether this is a distinctive wine in its own right.

Sparkling wines made with the same grapes and methods as Champagne are not rare. Aside from this one, England does it. The United States does it. Even other Italian regions like Franciacorta do it.

Yet if you tasted the Ferrari alongside examples from California and England, each would be different. Speaking generally, the Californian wine would be sun-kissed, with ample fruit balanced by sufficient acidity. In the English version, the acidity would be paramount, and the wine would pulse with nervous energy.

What I found remarkable about the Ferrari, an entry-level $25 bottle, was the delicacy and finesse of the wine. The bubbles seemed light and fine, the texture sheer, the flavors 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 northeastern 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 percent xarello, 42 percent macabeu and 2 percent parellada. This, along with the qualities of the local terroir, makes drinking the Recaredo an entirely different experience from a Trento or a Champagne.

Among Sparkling Wines, the Other Half Lives Pretty Well

Credit…Pepe Serra

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 mühlet.

My hope in drinking these wines was to persuade doubters like Alan 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.

Opinions of the wines varied tremendously. VSB of San Francisco loved the texture of the Ferrari, and thought it went beautifully with buttermilk-brined roast chicken.

Peter of Philadelphia liked the Huet with roast chicken and orzo, though he said it did not go well with a mussels and chorizo dish. And he felt the Recardo tasted like bubble gum. Both Dan Barron of New York and Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., enjoyed the Ferrari with pizza, a combination that I, too, heartily endorse.

Most people, however, did not react to the individual wines. Instead, they took issue with my joking contention that 2020 had not, like other years, earned the privilege of being ushered out with sparkling wine celebrations.

Anonymous of Chicago felt that I had succumbed to the hackneyed notion that sparkling wines are only for celebrations.

William of Menlo Park, Calif., suggested that sparkling wine was just the thing for a bad day. “It makes me think about my blessings and what I’m thankful for,” he wrote. “That is more valuable than enjoying it simply as an aid to celebrations.”

But I think L from Seattle said it best:

“I haven’t had a haircut since March, I am working from home with three teenagers in the house, my new quarantine desk chair already has a permanent dent in it from overuse, my whole house increasingly smells like coffee all the time,” L wrote. “2020 may not have earned sparkling wine, but I most certainly have. Bring on the bubbly.”

That’s 2020 in a nutshell.

Source: The New York Times

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