In the know: sparkling wine and champagne

In the know: sparkling wine and champagne

Wine writer Martin Isark gives us the insider's guide to champagne and recommends some great bubbly to suit every pocket

There's no doubt champagne is the top - famous, romantic and a celebration in itself. It's expensive, of course, so don't rule out the excellent sparkling wines produced in most of the world's wine regions.

Champagne can be made from white (chardonnay) or black grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier) or from a mixture of the two and can only come from France's Champagne region. The grapes, vineyards, growing, winemaking and cellaring all must conform to the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) laws of the region.

Now most of Europe's sparkling wines, like Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, Crémant from France, are required to conform to similar laws, to protect their quality and reputation. Most New World sparkling wines adhere to comparable quality goals, but don't have AOC like laws in place.

Jargon Demystified

Not sure what the labels mean? Take a look below...

Non Vintage (NV) champagne
This is a blend of wines from several different years, and must be aged for 15 months. Quality producers like Bollinger will bottle age for much longer.

NV sparkling wines
These are from lesser vintages. Aging requirements vary with the region but will not be as long as champagne.

Vintage champagne
This is a blend of champagnes from just one year, and must be aged for a minimum 3 years. Prestige brands, like Krug, will bottle age for up to eleven years. The same requirements apply to vintage sparkling wines but they are generally aged for a shorter time.

Blanc de Blancs
This is white champagne produced from white grapes only. It has a more elegant and delicate style than regular champagne, which is mostly a blend of both white and black grapes.

Blanc de Noirs
This is white champagne produced from just black grapes. The taste is softer and more rounded than that of Blanc de Blancs.

The rosé colour is obtained either by adding a small amount of red wine or by leaving the pressed grape juice in contact with the black grape skins, methods used throughout both the sparkling wine and champagne industry. Although this colour addition tends to produce a softer-tasting fizz, it can often overpower the deliciously subtle flavours. Few drinkers care, though. After all, rosé, and especially champagne, with its seductive bubbles, always hits that romantic spot.

Extra Brut
Very dry – too dry for most drinkers’ palates.

Brut (sometimes labelled sec)
Dry - the UK’s most popular style for champagne and sparkling wines.

Demi-Sec & Rich
Off dry - less popular, even though it is much better with wedding cake.

Doux Sweet
Apart from Asti, it is rare to find a sweet fizz on our shelves.

Traditional Method/Methode Traditionnelle/Crémant
The second fermentation in all sparkling wines or champagnes labelled such has taken place in the bottle rather than in a big sealed tank or by some other cheap bubble creating method. Crémant is a confusing term. It was once the name applied to a less sparkling fizz, but now is only properly used for a sparkling wines and champagnes made by this method.

Sustain that Fizz

Remember that bubbles enhance the wine’s flavour. Pour flat fizz away. It will disappoint. Do not shake the bottle before opening it. Remove the cork slowly by pulling and twisting it anti-clockwise. Then pour into clean fluted glasses that are free from washing up detergent, as any residue will kill the life of the streaming bubbles. Generally, the better the champagne, the smaller the bubbles and the longer they last in the glass.

The Flavour

Most of champagne’s flavour comes from its bottle maturation so be prepared to taste notes of apples, red fruits, brioche, nuts and dried fruits. There’ll be similar flavours in the Old World sparklers, with the exception of fizz produced from the heady Muscat grape (Asti, for example.) You’ll find riper fruit flavours in New World sparklers and the taste will be more rounded and slightly sweeter than champagne.

What to buy

Here are Martin's recommendations for great champagnes and sparkling wines at a range of prices. The handy tasting notes will give you an idea of what they're like and can help you impress your guests!

Rosé Champagne

NV Brut, Heidsieck & Co Monopole, Rosé Champagne, France, Alc. 12%, £19.99 - £23.99

Easy drinker! Soft red fruits mingle well with the acidity and yeasty notes. 7/10. Available at Oddbins, Morrisons & Tesco (discounted at Tesco down to £19.99 from 1st to 14th February.

NV Brut, Hatton Rosé Champagne, France Alc. 12%, £16.99

Good value, the spiky red fruits will hit the pink spot for the champagne drinker. 7/10. Available from Laithwaites (UKTV’s wine club or call 0870 444 8282)

Rosé Sparkling

NV Brut, Blason de Bourgogne Rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne, Burgundy, France, Alc. 12%, £8.99

Not champagne, though it would deceive many champagne drinkers. 9/10. Available from Waitrose.

NV Brut, Langlois Rosé, Crémant de Loire, Loire, France, Alc. 12.5%, £9.99

Delicate raspberries and strawberries tease from sniff to swallow. 8/10. Available from Laithwaites (UKTV’s wine club or call 0870 444 8282)

NV Brut, Bird to Hand Rosé, Sparkling Pinot Noir, Australia, Alc. 12.5%, £9.99

You’ll taste strawberries! 7/10. Available from Tanners (01743 234 500)

Non Vintage Champagne

NV Brut, Henri Chauvet, Blanc de Noirs, Champagne, France, Alc. 12%, £15.96

Worth double! Prepare for aromas and flavours of dried fruits and brioche. 10/10. Available from Private Cellar 01353 721 999 or

NV Brut, Paul Goerg, Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France, Alc. 12%, £16.99

Solid! Ripe apples mingle with yeasty aromas and flavours. 7/10. Available from Laithwaites (UKTV’s wine club or call 0870 444 8282)

NV Brut, Henriot Blanc Souverain, Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France Alc. 12%, £26.99

Elegant, with hints of white fruits and integrated dry biscuit notes. Class act!. 9/10. Available from Oddbins.

Non Vintage Sparkling

NV, Brut Reserva, Arestel Cava, Catalonia, Spain, Alc. 11.5%, £3.69

Well worth a punt! Pears and integrated yeasty notes dance from this glass. 9/10. Available from Lidl.

N V, Sweet, Martini Asti, Martini Rossi, Italy, Alc. 7%, £5.50 - £6.00

Palate pleaser for the sweet tooth, it offers floral notes and ripe apples threaded with refreshing acidity. 8/10. Widely available.

NV, Brut, Sparkling Pinot Grigio, Italy, Alc. 11.5%, £5.99

Apples and nuts will pepper your nose and palate. 9/10, Available from Asda & Somerfield

NV Brut, Fontanabella, Pinot Grigio, Italy, Alc. 11.5%, £7.29

The bubbles really bring out the apple and nut notes on this one. 8/10. (UKTV’s wine club or call 0870 444 8282)

NV Varichon & Clerc, Blanc de Blancs, Savoie, France, Alc. 12%, £7.76

Rare to see this on UK’s shelves, but it’s very good fizz at a superb price. 9/10. Available from Private Cellar 01353 721 999 or

NV Brut, Ombra, Prosecco, Italy, Alc. 11%, £7.99

Used in Venice as the base wine for a Bellini cocktail. This one, however, is good enough to drink alone. 7/10. Available from Oddbins

NV, Brut Deutz, Marlborough, New Zealand, Alc. 12%, £11.39

Made in a similar way to champagne and worth a punt as a cheaper alternative. 7/10. Widely Available.

Vintage Sparkling Rosé

2002, Brut Rosé, Green Point, Sparkling Wine, Australia, 12.5%, £13.99

No cork just a beer bottle top! But it’s a top peachy and raspberry fizz. 9/10. Available from Oddbins.

Vintage Champagne

2000 Brut, De Saint Gall Brut Champagne, France, Alc. 12%, £19.99

A steal. A classy vintage champagne for under twenty quid. 9/10. Available from Marks & Spencer.

1995 Brut, Krug, Champagne, France, Alc, 12%, from £130.00

A real treat to share with someone really special! 10/10. Available from Berry Bros & Rudd, Corney Barrow, Selfridges, Harrods and selected Waitrose Stores.


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