Sparkling Wine - Traditional Method
According to a 2016 WSTA report, currently 8 out of 10 bottles of fizz sold in the UK are sparkling wine (as opposed to Champagne) and this equates to 191 million bottles, up from 107 million bottles in 2011/12; an increase of almost 80% in five years. Naturally, a very significant proportion of this growth has been fuelled by Prosecco. But what of the traditional method sparkling wines? Due to market uncertainty as a result of Brexit and the evident influence of climate change on Champagne, the most marginal growing region, buyers are beginning to explore the many alternative high-end sparkling wines to supply the luxury market.
The IMW Events Committee held a blind tasting on the evening of 29 November 2016, featuring 78 high quality, traditional method sparkling wines from 12 countries (there were rather more wines than originally intended due to a last-minute flurry of enthusiasm from producers sending in samples). By bringing together some of the very best examples, the intention was to provide an overview of the quality of traditional method sparkling wines made around the world today.
The Cavendish Conference Centre was the venue for the tasting and lent itself admirably for the purpose, especially since it had a secure outside area where the more than 200 bottles could be kept chilled in the November air until needed. It also had an adjoining preparation room which happily made possible the opening, checking and bagging of each bottle without revealing the identity to the tasters.
All 50 tickets were sold, the majority being to MW students who appreciated the opportunity to taste blind. However, the crib sheet booklet with full technical details for each wine was also on hand for those who preferred to know the wine as they were tasting.
Talking on the night to those who attended, there was a genuine sense of surprise and pleasure at the overall calibre of the wines. These were loosely grouped stylistically: NV blends, Blanc de Blancs and Blancs de Noirs and finally traditional method wines made from grapes other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There were also five Champagnes scattered throughout the tasting by way of 'benchmarks'.
Amongst the NV blends the 2012 Apogee Tasmania Deluxe by Andrew Pirie from Tasmania attracted most interest and applause, followed by the 2007 Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Franciacorta Riserva, Ca' del Bosco, Lombardy, Italy. But the Crémant de Bourgogne Grande Cuvée, Veuve Ambal; the NV Quartet Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley; the 1864 Gratien & Meyer from the Loire and the Bründlmayer Extra Brut, from Weingut Bründlmayer, Kamtal, Austria were also much admired.
As a category, it was generally felt that the Blanc de Blancs showed the best overall level of quality but people's individual preferences ranged between the 2004 Riserva del Fondatore, Giulio Ferrari, Trentino; the 2009 Gran Reserva Blanc de Blancs, Gran Codorniu, Cava; the Cremant de Bourgogne 'Pure', Albert Bichot; the 2009 Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs, and two wines from South Africa: the NV Colmant Cap Classique, Colmant Winery, Franschhoek and the 2013 The Green Man Blanc de Blancs, Silverthorn, Robertson. Also providing a pleasant surprise to several was the Emotion Brut from Domaine Charles Baur, Alsace, which is not currently for sale in the UK.
There were one or two 'Marmite' wines which seemed to attract supporters and detractors in equal measure. The two Crémant du Jura Blanc de Blancs from Chateau Béthanie and Domaine de Montbourgeau were examples. Although both were 100% Chardonnay, some people were so uncertain that they questioned their condition while others put them in their top ten wines.
In short, it seemed there were no obvious stylistic preferences amongst tasters, whether for oak matured or stainless steel, aerobic or anaerobic handling, blocked or enabled malo, time on lees, or dosage levels . There was, however, some diffident confidence in being able to identify regional styles, especially the Cava (even though several were Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Blends). England was also more easily identifiable and showed favourably, but surprise areas for many were the Franciacorta and some of the 'New World' wines, especially those from Tasmania.
It would seem from the evidence supplied by this tasting at least, that quality for traditional method sparkling wines is not dictated by 'terroir' but rather, as Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber neatly summed up at the end: 'regions matter; producers matter more'.
Nancy Gilchrist MW
21 December 2016
The Institute would like to express its sincere thanks to all the producers who submitted samples and technical information for this tasting.