I know, I know – I had been gone so long you were beginning to wonder if I had survived the skiing. Well, now I can reveal that yes, I did survive with all limbs intact! Although I’ve written nothing about it so far (hmmm, spot the trend), I have managed to post my photos to Flickr, so do have a look at my album if you are interested.
What better way to start off the New Year than with a glass of bubbly? For most people, this automatically means the French stuff: Moet for the mere mortals and Cristal for P Diddy and his ilk – but definitely French. OK, so they did come up with the original idea of champagne, but why are people still so obsessed with drinking it to the exclusion of anything else? I’m not saying that we should all be drinking cheap carbonated fizz, but there is middle ground, people!
And besides, I would bet money on the fact that many champagne snobs who go around saying "oh, I ONLY drink the real thing!" would not be able to pick out the champagne in a blind tasting of top quality bubbly from around the world…
The one thing that you do have to look for in a sparkling wine, if you are moving away from Champagne, is the way it’s been made. Cheap fizz can be made either like ordinary wine and then carbonated; or by tank fermentation, meaning that the wine is left to ferment and form bubbles naturally and then bottled. Premium sparkling wines, on the other hand, are bottled and then allowed to develop their bubbles in the bottle. After this process is complete (takes several months of painstakingly moving the bottles gradually from the horizontal storage position to a position where the cap is pointing almost vertically downwards. This makes the spent yeast from the fermentation process gather in the neck of the bottle, which is flash-frozen before the bottle is opened and the frozen cap of yeast debris removed. Each bottle then has to be topped up to its correct level of liquid and sealed. Think about all that the next time you are tempted to complain about the price of Champagne!
Strict regulations mean that only sparkling wines made in this way from grapes in the Champagne region of France may be called Champagne, but there is nothing stopping winemakers from around the world using the technique described above. And it’s an indication of this technique that you should look for when you want to explore premium sparkling wines from outside Champagne. These wines will variously be labelled as Methode Cap Classique (South Africa), Cremant (France, outside Champagne), Cava (Spain), Methode Champenoise or Methode Traditionelle and as far as I’m concerned, particularly in the New World, represent excellent value for money.
But it seems that good non-French (and particularly South African) sparkling wines available over here in the UK suffer from two things: One is its relatively high price (sometimes often almost as much as the French stuff!); and the other is a problem of perception – a PR problem if you will. Because many of us (me included…) grew up on Cinzano Spumante and JC Le Roux (sticky sweet cheap bubblies), a lot of people of my generation and older still seem to think that this is as far as the South African sparkling wine repertoire goes, and this seems to be an opinion shared by UK wine buyers. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We make some top class stuff and the picture above represents one of my all-time favourites.
Graham Beck Vineyards was started (unsurprisingly!) by entrepreneur Graham Beck in 1983 when he purchased the Madeba farm outside Robertson, South Africa, the the ambition to establish a world-class winery in the region. Nearly 25 years later, the estate’s reputation has been cemented with a cabinet full of awards, both international and local, and winemaker Pieter Ferreira (who is reputedly obsessed with getting the mousse of his sparkling wines just right) is still steaming ahead making wonderful sparkling and still wines. The estate itself is well worth a visit as it represents a radical departure from the traditional Cape Dutch homestead, and being able to taste a range of their excellent sparkling wines is always a pleasure.
The estate produces a Brut (non-vintage, classic mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes); a Blanc de Blanc (vintage, 100% Chardonnay), a Brut Rose (non-vintage, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), and a Demi Sec (non-vintage, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). Pictured above is the special Brut Cuvee 2000, made specially for the millennium celebrations, bought at the estate in 1999 and saved till recently. It’s a full-bodied sparkler with a creamy mouthfeel that’s at least as much due to the very fine mousse as to the Chardonnay grapes, with yeasty, lemony notes and is very, very appealing. Although you are unlikely to get your mitts on the Cuvee 2000 any more, look out for more recent vintages that are, I’m sure, equally delicious.
The picture used in this post is my entry into this month’s edition of Jai and Bee’s wonderful Click! food photography event. But don’t expect to see me on the winners’ podium… because I’m a judge! The theme this month is liquid comfort and you still have until 30 January to get your entries in. So get clicking!