Champagne is the benchmark of quality for traditional method sparkling wine. However, other high quality traditional method sparkling wines from around the world are often mistaken for Champagne in blind tastings. For example, top quality cremant, Cava, Franciacorta, English sparkling wine, and high quality traditional method wine from the USA, New Zealand, and Australia all have the potential for being confused with Champagne when tasted blind.
Being a process driven wine, there are plenty of similarities between the traditional method sparkling wines of the world. A fine, creamy mousse and autolytic notes (brioche, bread, marmite, yeast etc) the most typical. And, since most are even made by the same two dominant grape varieties—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—fruit characteristics can also be pretty similar, apples, citrus, strawberries. Most quality traditional method fizz is generally grown in cool areas so they mostly (not always) share an elevated level of crisp acidity and a modest (although not always) level of alcohol.
English Sparkling wine
English Sparkling wine is a growing category. And, has high quality potential. They’re produced in a very similar climate to Champagne, have similar calcium rich soil, and are usually made form the same grape varieties. If you were arguing for English sparkling wine in a blind tasting how would you go about it?
One thing is, the English climate is typically even cooler and even less sunny than that of Champange so the acid is likely to be even more pronounced. The graphs below show that the average maximum temperature during the growing season is couple of degrees cooler than Champagne and and the average sunshine hours are always just under Champagne.
The other thing to consider is, English sparkling wine is a relevantly new thing. Therefore, when compared to Champagne, many of the vineyards are quite young, reserve wine is a lot more youthful (if used at all–many English sparkling wines are Vintage), and sur latte aging is likely to be shorter (due to pressures to get wine to market and a return on investment). Consequently, compared to the average Champagne, an English sparkling wine might be less intensely concentrated (younger vines), more youthful and fruit forward (younger reserve wine, if any), and have less intense and complex autolytic characters (shorter sur latte aging).
Franciacorta is another potentially high quality sparkling. While cool it’s not as cool as Champagne. And it’s much, much sunnier. The acidity is high and fresh but it isn’t as piercing or rapier like as Champagne or English Sparkling wine. The primary fruit also tends to be more prominent than Champagne and more on the riper side–similar to the ‘New World’ model. Franciacorta has to have a minimum 18 months on lees contact post tirage–higher than then minimum 15 months for NV Champagne. So even the ‘basic/entry level’ examples will have noticeable autolytic notes. The Riserva level requires a minimum of 60 months lees contact, which is comparable to many Vintage and Prestige Cuvee Champagnes.
Cremant can come in all shapes and sizes and much of it fairly basic. However, there’s plenty of top quality stuff out there too. Top examples of Cremant de Bourgogne, in particular, can be pretty Champagne-like. The best are made from the same dominant varieties as Champagne, grown on calcium rich soils, and have reasonably cool growing conditions–especially those produced up around Chablis, as apposed to down in the Maconnais. (As an interesting side note, before Champagne was deliminated, Chablis used to supply the region with grapes!). With the increase global demand for sparkling wine and more economic alternatives to Champagne, Cremant has seen strong growth in recent years so should be on the radar of blind tasters. Like English sparkling wine though, only the very best will have the intense, complex autolytic focus of Champagne. A new ranking system for Cremant de Bourgogne means those labelled Eminent and Grand Eminent will of had a minimum of 24 months and 36 months, respectively, on lees post second ferment. Andrew Jefford’s written a great article about Cremant de Bourgogne and their new ranking system available on the Decanter website that’s well worth a read,
Traditionally, indigenous Spanish varieties, Parellada, Xarel-lo and Macabeo, have been used to produce Cava, with Xarel-lo in particular giving the wine a distinctive earthy character. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both now permitted which to some extent can make Cava less distinctive. Minimum lees aging requirement is also much shorter for Cava. Nine months for standard examples, 15 months for Reserva, 30 months for Gran Reserva and 36 months for Cava del Paraje. So, only the top examples are likely to have the autolytic complexity or richness equal to that of Champagne. Like Franciacorta, Cava is much further south than Champagne and overall has a warmer sunnier climate. As such the acidity is not as searingly high.
New World Traditional Method Sparkling Wines
Many Champagne houses have set up shop in various New World countries. So, there’s obviously both the potential terroir and the expertise to make top quality Champagne-esque fizz. While there are plenty of cool regions in the New World, they tend not to be as cool as their European equivalents and tend to be much, much sunnier. Marlborough, for example, while it doesn’t get any hotter than Champange (both have an average summertime high of 24°C), its average temperature is only slightly warmer but it’s average number of sunshine hours is much, much higher–on average 2443 hours a year for Marlborough versus for 1712 for Champagne (www.mrc.org.nz; www.climatedata.eu). Sunshine can impact both flavour and potential alcohol. It’s not uncommon to see quality sparkling wine from the New World with alcohols as high as 13.5%, something you don’t see in Champagne, the Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged from Tasmania and the Iron Horse Classic Brut from Russian River are two examples of top quality New World Fizz with alcohol of 13.5%.
Champagne is a distinctive and unique wine. However, under the pressures of blind tasting (especially in exam conditions) it’s easy mistake other top quality sparkling wine from around the world for Champagne (or vice versa) if conclusions are drawn too quickly. All can be crisp, refreshing, with a fine persistent mousse and marked autolytic complexity. However, Champagne tends to have more focus on autolytic and tertiary notes than the others and is able to balance richness and elegence with knife-edge precision. Being aware of what drives the differences and similarities of these wines can help identify them when they’re presented blind.