Raise a Glass to Christmas Sparkling Wines

Written by
Vintage Cellars
December 17, 2018
Share Share to Instagram

Make your Christmas wonderful with these top sparkling drops. Let nothing stand between you, bubbles and good times!

Christmas isn’t a celebration without bubbles — be they pink, white or red. The options are infinite, from seriously complex, top-end Australian sparkling that rivals the best from Champagne, to the everyday, zesty aperitivo styles like prosecco — a huge hit with wine lovers across the globe.

Adding to the fun are the simply stunning pink fizzes and Australia’s own quirky sparkling reds, which are perfect with Christmas fare like our egg and bacon rolls or a luxe, buttermilk-brined turkey. And then, of course, there’s the real deal from Champagne, which remains at the pinnacle of this effervescent category. So, pop the cork on the very best bubbles on offer to celebrate Christmas 2018.

Australian Vintage

The rise and rise of Australia’s top sparkling wines has been led by the increasing availability of cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir — the cornerstone varieties of Champagne. The Yarra Valley kicked things off in the mid-1980s, with the Adelaide Hills in hot pursuit. More recently, Tasmania has gained traction as the preferred fruit source and home to top drops such as Clover Hill and Arras.

Vintage sparkling, as the name implies, is made from fruit grown in a single year and celebrates the innate diversity of each vintage. Grapes are picked with low sugars, good natural acidity and an abundance of flavour — a triumvirate that exists only in cool growing regions. Indeed, it’s the zesty acidity that sets the top sparkling apart from the everyday stuff.

Then it’s all about time — time to build the wine’s depth and complexity; time on the yeast lees in a cool cellar to develop the hallmark warm-brioche flavours, and then more time under cork, post-disgorgement, to add a touch of toast and marmalade.

A complex wine (and these are wines, albeit with bubbles) cries out for complex food — let's say lobster in any form or the legendary crab sandwiches made by the award-winning Australian/French chef Guillaume Brahimi. Cheese? A white mould is best — try the Holy Goat La Luna from Sutton Grange Organic Farm, located 30km south of Bendigo, Victoria.

Non-vintage Champagne

Non-vintage champagne represents 80% of the Champagne region’s production. The aim of non-vintage blends is to even out the often dramatic variations in growing conditions from vintage to vintage in the cool Champagne region. Non-vintage champagne must be cellared for a minimum of 15 months, but most houses will hold their non-vintage cuvées for three or more years. Each cuvée is based on the recent vintage blended with reserve, or still, wines typically "filed" in stainless steel tanks by vintage, variety and even individual village.

The Chef de Cave (the head winemaker) may incorporate more than 50% of these older parcels in his cuvée to create a consistent "house" style. Some exclusive houses blend 50 or more tiny parcels dating back 10 years to create a mosaic of flavours, character and complexity, each with its food allegiance.

With its high chardonnay content, Taittinger might work best as an aperitif without food. Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée is more complex and best suited to fish—perhaps pan-fried King George whiting — or Japanese chicken karaage.

Instead of narrow flutes, use a good wine glass or a tulip-shaped Champagne glass to enhance those amazing aromas and flavours.

Non-Vintage Sparkling

As the name implies, non-vintage sparkling wines are blends of different years, typically based on the current vintage, with reserve (still) wines added to even out vintage variation and maintain a consistent “house” style.

However, the NV category is wide open, with excellent sparkling wines from France (but not from the Champagne region) carrying the descriptor Crémant, often tagged with the region of their origin, such as Crémant de Loire or Crémant d’Alsace. The grape varieties each is made from differ from region to region, although those labelled Crémant de Bourgogne typically are made with chardonnay and/or pinot noir. In Australia, non-vintage styles tend to be designed for everyday or casual drinking at a lower price point.

Made in the same traditional way, NV sparklings are designed to be drunk younger. Try, for example, the Cave de Lugny Crémant with rice paper rolls or freshly shucked oysters, but hold the lemon — Blanc de Blancs wines made solely from chardonnay have a lemon fresh acidity underlying their flavour profile. The Sensi Prosecco DOC 18K Gold will add sparkle to any festive occasion, and is perfect with an old-school prawn cocktail, quiche or frittata.

Vintage Champagne

Vintage champagne parallels the philosophy of Australian vintage sparkling. But there's an added proviso: yes, the grapes must come from a single year, but, as well, the wine must be aged on its yeast lees for a minimum of three years. Even so, most vintage champagne is cellared for two or even three times that to slowly build flavour, character and complexity.

Chardonnay and pinot noir are the key grapes in vintage champagne, with pinot meunier adding support. Chardonnay brings bright stone-fruit flavours and an abundance of zesty acidity, while pinot noir provides the flesh, body, power and length to the finished wine.

Vintage champagne is ready to drink once it has hit the market. Be cautious of ageing champagne — very few Australian cellars can emulate the deep, chalky and very cold caves (underground cellars) of champagne. Bottle age will deliver more toast and marmalade characters, while ageing on the (dead) yeast cells delivers the more typical biscuit, oatmeal and bready flavours associated with premium champagne.

Vintage champagne makes the perfect gift and, although it can be pricey, it is great value. Who wouldn’t be chuffed with a bottle of vintage Pol Roger? Share a bottle of vintage Louis Roederer with the neighbours and you’ll be friends for life. Most vintage champagne is boxed, ready to wrap for that hard-to-please family member who has just about everything.

Sparkling Rosé

Like the still wine rosé category, sparkling rosé is booming — be it champagne or a blushing Australian alternative. There are two ways winemakers create them: either they add a little colour to the white base wine using the saignée method ("bleeding" in French), facilitating a brief contact between the wine and the skins of red grapes prior to fermentation; or they use the more typical assemblage method, which sees the addition of still red wine to the base wine, usually pinot noir and comprising 5-10% of the cuvée.

The colour of sparkling rosé varies from a very pale onion skin to a fuchsia pink. Likewise, the flavours can be subtle and discreet or bold and potent. Sparkling rosés are perfect with prawns, ham and turkey. Quail also works well with pink fizz.

Sparkling Shiraz

Sparkling reds are a unique Australian tipple, looked at in some horror by the French, especially when historically labelled “sparkling burgundy” — it was definitely not made with pinot noir and definitely not from the Burgundy region.

The Great Western region of Victoria is sparkling burgundy’s birthplace (way back in the late 19th century), where it was made with a still red base wine that underwent the traditional sparkling-wine process. It was hugely popular in the 1950s and ‘60s before cheap lookalikes spoiled the fun. At that stage, sparkling shiraz went underground with a small cult following.

But now the word is getting out and a wave of enthusiastic followers is building new momentum. The good news is that almost all wine regions that produce a decent shiraz are jumping on board the sparkling-red train.

The winemaking trick is to retain a little sweetness that balances shiraz’s typical tannin grip to give a smooth, easy-drinking finish. Don’t over-chill a sparkling shiraz, as the fruit flavours will be subdued and the tannins become more obvious.

The joy of sparkling shiraz at Christmas is that it is bold enough to suit turkey, ham and pork and, because it's served cool (but not too cold), it’s a pleasurable drink on a steaming-hot Christmas Day.

Prosecco

Prosecco has become so popular that even the Champenois are concerned that sales of the fizz will encroach on their fiercely guarded sparkling territory. They needn’t worry, as champagne and prosecco are like chalk and cheese.

Champagne is deep and complex, while prosecco is the very essence of fun and frivolity. The fresh-apple flavours of prosecco and its hallmark palate freshening acidity make it the ideal aperitivo. Prosecco’s home is the Veneto and surrounding regions in the cool, north-eastern corner of Italy. It’s designed to be drunk young, well chilled and without fuss or ceremony.

Prosecco is perfect drunk solo, but it doubles equally as well as a blending ingredient in other drinks and cocktails. Indeed, it's the cornerstone of the current spritzer craze that’s taking our bars and beach houses by storm.

The Champenois would die of shame if their precious bubbles were diluted or adulterated, but prosecco is perfect with Aperol or topped with peach nectar to become the classic Bellini. For a festive-season thirst-quencher, splash a dash of St Germain Elderflower Liqueur into the bottom of a cocktail glass and top up with your favourite prosecco. A heavenly combination.