Still, there are times when only fizz will do, and I had a few reasons for wanting to feature "Champagne like" wines this week. Aside from returning home after a month of wandering, we were getting together with some friends for possibly the last time on this side of the Atlantic. They are moving to Canada soon, and I felt a taste of England's finest would serve them well as a taste of what they'd be missing. Waitrose were on my side and offering a 25% discount against one of the UK's most successful sparkling wines. The Nyetimber Classic Cuvee (2008 £22.49) was a great way to start off the evening's celebrations. Nyetimber are based in the South Downs, and benefit from a similar chalky soil and a similar climate to the Champagne region. They're in complete control of the process, using only grapes from their own vineyards and use the same methods and grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) as used by all the Champagne houses. So, this is probably as close as you can get to Champagne without being in France. In fact, Nyetimber wines have caused a bit of a stir in France, with wines receiving international accolades. It's clearly all about the quest for perfection. The wine maker decided not to bottle a vintage in 2012 because the grapes were not up to standard, given the very poor summer we had in the UK. Aside from the demi-sec, Nyetimbers are generally vintage wines in style. So you're getting Vintage style, "champagne-like" qualities for the price of a blended bottle of a mid-range Champagne house.
So if it all starts from still white wine, how does Champagne get it's fizz. The difference that makes the difference in "traditional method" sparkling wine production is a secondary fermentation in the strong, thick bottle that you eventually buy. The still white wine is bottled, and a little yeast and additional sugar is added. This enables the wine to "referment" itself, producing, as a by-product, carbon dioxide which is trapped within the bottle. This is a very ferocious process, and the bottles are sealed with a crown (or beer style) cap during this time, rather than the familiar popping cork we know and love. It's called autolysis, and this is what also imparts those very dry yeasty, bread and pastry flavours that Champagne drinkers love.
After the magic happens, the wine inside the bottle is now fizzy. Still, it also contains all those dead yeast cells that have been killed off by the creation of additional alcohol or the lack of sugar. And let's face it, no-one likes cloudy champagne. So this is where the riddler comes into play. While much of this is now done by machine in the largest houses, many of the smaller manufacturers still prefer to do this by hand.
But how do we get rid of these yeasty deposits in an upside down bottle of fizz? Here it gets even cleverer... the necks of the bottles are plunged into a freezing solution which instantly freezes and solidifies the yeast "plug". In a deft movement the cap is removed, the yeat plug flies out under the pressure of the contained fizz, the bottle receives it's "dosage" (essentially a top up to replace any lost wine in the process - from the reserves of still wine, and occasionally another spoonful of sugar), and the cork is thrust in, caged and foiled ready for you to open it ceremoniously whenever the occasion demands.
So when you see "Champagne" or "traditional Method" you know what they mean.
My guests and I could understand why this has been garnering so much praise. It's got real character. The mousse is delicate and with such fine bubbles, Mr Purple Teeth was happy to drink a second glass. And that's unusual for fizz. We noted nutty flavours, perhaps hazelnut, and digestive biscuit. Our intrepid future Canadian noted cloudy apple, and perhaps even an apple pie flavour, bringing out a sense of pastry which the makers also mention on their tasting notes. It's got some complexity, and was very drinkable on a hot summer's evening. I'd buy it again, despite the price tag. It may not be a frequent visitor to my table but I'm sure it will be back.
If you do want to catch this at a bargain price, today (June 18) is the last day for Waitrose's 25% off offer.
There are plenty of other English sparklers out there and I recently tasted the Sainsbury's own brand with a group of local wine aficionados. It went down very well, though sadly not before a good deal was spilled in the opening process. Remember to super chill your fizz as that reduces the pressure and ensures less bubbling over. Julie from Grape Expectations recommends the Danebury Cossack 2006 (£24.95) which has just been released after spending over 5 years maturing in the bottle. The message is, there's plenty of English fizz out there that's giving the French a run for their money, so why not give some a go next time you want to pop a cork.