by Martin Walker
Spring is almost here and a glass of sparkling wine is an excellent way to welcome its coming. But which one? The best way to find out is to recruit the wisdom of friends and fellow-imbibers and there are few happier ways than to organize a blind tasting.
Most countries now make sparkling wine so we are no longer locked into the overpriced and over-hyped grip of champagne, a region which threatens to produce more champers than it can justify. In 1850, the Champagne region produced 20 million bottles a year. By the 1960s they were approaching ten times that output.
These days the total is closer to 400 million bottles a year thanks to to some spiffing wheezes concocted a dozen years ago, when the area of the champagne appellation as defined in 1927 was so fully exploited that they could hardly squeeze out another drop. One such wheeze raised the maximum yield of grapes to an eye-watering 15,500 kilos per hectare and another enlarged the appellation area by 40 villages and their surroundings. That may explain the flood of cheap-ish champers in supermarkets, priced at around fifteen euros a bottle.
Leave this stuff on the shelf, I suggest, and explore the alternatives. But make a party of it. Gather half a dozen chums and suggest each one brings a different fizz. Provide lots of clean glasses and some thick woollen socks. Use sticky tape to secure the socks around the bottles so that the labels are hidden. Get someone else to stick a number on each disguised bottle, offer pens and paper, and then start tasting.
One good way to do this is to suggest that one guest one brings a bottle of Italian Prosecco and another a bottle of Spanish cava. A third brings a Crémant from Alsace, a fourth a Blanquette de Limoux, a fifth a German sekt and a sixth brings a good Bergerac fizz. If there are more guests you ask them to bring Crémants from the Bourgogne, the Loire and from the Bordeaux regions, or even a bottle of cheap champers. Then taste, give a mark to each of the numbered wines and tot up the results to find the favourite.
You could give X marks for appearance in the glass, Y marks for the initial taste in the mouth and Z marks for the aftertaste. A Parisian friend of mine says her only way to judge sparkling wine is to measure its gaiety effect – ‘It is supposed to bring joy, non?’ So you might want to add a section for that. I guarantee a jolly evening.
The first time I ran one of these, the winner was a Bergerac Blanc de Blancs from Château de Fayolle. (Blanc de Blancs means it is made only from white wine gapes, which in champagne means Chardonnay but in the Bergerac is usually Sémillon but can include Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadet. A Blanc de Noirs includes red wines like Pinot Noir and Pinot, which are gently pressed to release the juice and the skins then discarded to prevent their colouring the wine – unless you want a pink champagne).
The runners-up were another very good Bergerac fizz from Château Cluzeau, and a slightly less gay one from Château les Marnières. Then I discovered the two glorious examples of Bergerac fizz which are now my favourites: the gaiety-packed Brut made by Sue and Humphrey Temperley at Château Lestevenie, which is a real bargain at 9 euros; and the sublime pink fizz from Caro and Sean Feely at Château Feely at 16 euros. This is stunningly good value, since their rosé fizz can hold its head up in a blind tasting of pink champagnes that cost twice the price and more.
Each of these two vineyards makes fizz in the classic way; the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle as the sugar and yeast interact. By contrast, most of the cheap Vin Mousseux sold in supermarkets, like Italian Prosecco or German Sekt are made in giant metal vats and the wine is then bottled without further fermentation.
That classic way (known somewhat unfairly as méthode champenoise) was developed in the year 1531 at the Abbey of St Hilaire at Limoux in the Languedoc, where they also pioneered the use of corks. This Abbey was where Dom Pérignon himself learned his trade and took it up to the champagne region. Their Blanquette de Limoux (it means ‘little white’) uses the local Mauzac grape, which gives a charming touch of apple to the flavour. Their Crémant de Limoux, which is also good, uses mainly Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grapes. (The non-Chardonnays of Limoux, by the way, are excellent, worthy rivals of the more fancied and far more costly Burgundy whites.)
After more research, I’ll be holding another blind tasting of some Bergerac fizzes that have been recommended to me by my chum Marie-Pierre Tamagnon who runs the excellent magazine on Bergerac wines 24/7 (available at the Maison des Vins in Bergerac). They include Château Barouillet, Les Hauts de Caillevel, a bio from Grande Maison and one from the ever-reliable Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure, where Christian Roche is using Chenin and Sauvignon Gris grapes. And I can’t wait to try a fizz from Bruno Bilancini, the master of Monbazillac at Château Tirecul La Gravière.
Let me stress that I adore a good champagne like a Krug, Veuve Clicquot or Gosset, but I find an extra pleasure in seeking out good wines at modest prices from this under-appreciated Bergerac region. And there are few better ways to convince yourself that you can drink cheaply and well in the Bergerac than by hosting a blind tasting party of your own.
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.