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Wines of the Heart Vol.6: Not all that Sparkles is Champagne

Written by Simone Popov · 6 min read >

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery [that mediocrity can pay to greatness].

-Oscar Wilde

 Few wines can claim this honor more than the sparkling wine from the chalky soils two hours outside of Paris. Ironically, the Champenois can’t claim to be the first to invent this method, nor were they the first region in France to intentionally produce this style. Nonetheless, when they “captured the sparkle,” they held on tight and -in doing so- elevated the wine and brought delight to the world.

But is imitation only limited to mediocrity? Is Mr. Wilde maybe exaggerating a little bit [at the very least when it comes to wine]? Though I am more than content to hand Champagne the crown, the belt, and the throne, I’d be remiss to say that the Champenois are the only ones worthy of greatness. So, just in time for one of the biggest Champagne holidays,  I went out of my way to acquire a few sparklers from outside of Champagne that exceeded expectations of “capturing the sparkle.” At the same time, they also offer that sweet, sweet value for money.

And as per usual, a disclaimer: these wines represent my palate…yadiyadiyada…you know the drill. If you disagree, you certainly wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last.


Domaine Glinavos “Paleokerisio”, Ioannina

Price: $ 25 [WineSearcher]

We start our discussion of Champagne alternatives with the wine that is the furthest from Champagne. I didn’t expect to be a fan of an orange, semi-sparkling wine from the rugged Northwestern part of mainland Greece. But the cloudy, semi-sweet, frizzante wine captured the imagination, opening the door to clear skies, warmer climates, and mountains of Greek fare. Whereas Champagne can be an example of tension and restraint, the bon-vivant Paleokerisio is generous with its flavors, welcoming in its sweetness, yet incredibly well-balanced. I first tasted it as part of my Greek wine exploration month, and it launched my fascination with the country’s viticultural diversity.

“Paleokerisio” means “old fashioned” in Greek and is a throwback to the old school wines of Ioannina PGI, a rugged and mountainous region in the North-West side of Greece, close to the Ionian Sea (hence the name).

The Note

The wine has a pleasant smell of ripe apricots studded with clove (I like the imagery), ripe mango, honey, aromatic spice, and terra cotta clay (though there are no amphoras used, as far as I understand). Maybe a hint of kombucha-like sourness (an aspect of ‘natural wine’ I strongly dislike), but this flavor gets overshadowed by other flavors almost immediately. It is sweet and a little plush but not cloying. The effervescence and acid are nice to push through any RS weight. The phenolics ( those bitter qualities of skin contact wines) are restrained and waited patiently until after the finish, and they are not too aggressive. Overall, it is a fun, decently complex, and lively wine that I wouldn’t mind having with some sharp cheeses.

Vigneron Style:

Domaine Glivanos crafts this wine from 97% Debina (white) and 3% Vlahiko (red), both grapes indigenous to the area. Fermentation on skins for 12 days, and the second fermentation happens in tank. The winery is practicing organics in the vineyard and winery.

The rugged beauty of Epirus, the Capital of Ioannina, photo credit GreekReporter

Recaredo Serral del Vell, Brut Nature, Corpinnat

Price: $64 [WineSearcher]

For far too long, the masses derided Cava as an inferior and cheap substitute for Champagne. I am the first to defend Cava’s claim to greatness,  especially its’ tetes de cuvee’ ( I recommend seeking Paradje Calificado and Reserva/Gran Reserva designations). However, the appellation is broad, and the Cava grapes are from seven autonomous regions across various soils and climates of Spain, adding to variability in quality.

Yet Corpinnat is not Cava. It is the next level in the evolution, deeply connected to the style’s roots in the heart of the originating region, San Sadurni d’Anoia. And if you desire to explore the pinnacle of Spanish sparkling, there is no better example than Recaredo, the flagbearer of Corpinnat and Catalunya.

Indeed, Recaredo boasts strong ideals that come with being from the heart of Spanish sparkling: biodynamic viticulture, calcareous soils, focus on best plots of land, meticulous hand-picking of grapes, and extended aging on lees (sometimes as long as 20 years) under a natural cork (vs bottle cap, as is a standard for most producers, even in Champagne). These powerful, complex, and age-worthy wines represent Alt Penedes, where Spanish sparkling began. Don’t you dare mix wines of Recaredo with orange juice; there are plenty of other options for that extravagance.

Vigneron Style:  

 Generally, the Serral del Vell bottling of Recaredo is an assemblage of dominantly Xarel-lo with Macabeo from the calcareous soils of the Serral del Vell plateau. The land has earned the distinction of Paradje Calificado, indicating the unique essence and inherent quality of the grapes that come from the vineyard. The wine spends 30-120 months on the lees under natural cork, allowing for the ultimate expression of autolysis and [minor] oxygen ingress.

Finca Serral del Vell, Photo credit Recaredo

Bodet-Herold, ‘Cybele’ Brut, Cremant de Loire

Price: $47 [WineSearcher]

I discovered this wine [for myself, of course] over Thanksgiving. On a personal note, I often like to run my wine selections by my mom because

  1. she doesn’t know what’s “cool” and what she’s “supposed to like,” and
  2. she is not afraid to share her honest opinion, no matter how much I hype up the wine.

I have brought by Champagne before, the crisp and linear Blanc de Blancs with soft flavors and light mousse (some worth a pretty penny, too!). Her response: is that supposed to be good?

Ah! Heartbreak!

In fairness, though, she has a point. While there is a case to make for the beautiful simplicity (see: excellent sashimi or Domaine des Ardoisieres), there is also an argument that we like to drink wine for pronounced flavors, richness, and boldness (see: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). This hedonistic pleasure of wine with “chutzpah” is what Bodet-Herold Cybele brings. This wine is oxidative, showing hints of nuttiness, marzipan, ripe pear, apple, and maybe slight hints of marmalade. But with all that flavor, there must be a counterbalance. Such counterbalance appears in the form of elevated acidity and soft mouth-filling mousse. It reminded me, in style, of Bollinger RD, which I enjoyed tasting while visiting the great Champagne house. Luckily, Cybelle didn’t cost anywhere near Bollinger and thus made a perfect cost-effective option for the abundant flavors of the Thanksgiving table.

Vigneron Style:

The wine is 100% Chardonnay, spending five years on the lees.

The Cybelle arrived in 2016, one year before the first “official vintage” for Bodet-Herold micro-negoce. There is not much information on sourcing these grapes, and from all resources, this will likely be the only release of “Cybele” (don’t quote me on this; I would love to be proven wrong).

The winery, run by Samur native Etienne Bodet with his wife, Kim Bodet-Herold, has shifted to Chenin and Grolleau for its Cremant de Loire production. Nonetheless, considering Etienne has been the understudy of Biodynamic pioneer Sylvain Pataille (along with a slew of famous winemaking icons), he likely sourced the ‘Cybele’ Chardonnay grapes from vineyards with very high organic/biodynamic viticulture standards.

A note on this wine:

I have tasted three bottles of Bodet-Herold and found that while all three were structurally sound, there was a bit of bottle variation, which one can expect from a producer of low-intervention wines. In the video recorded, the color of the wine was near amber, and the oxidation was most pronounced. However, that was not my experience with this wine’s first and second bottles—a curious and intriguing experience.

Etienne Bodet. Photo courtesy of Becky Wasserman & Co


Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve, England

Price: $49 [WineSearcher]

In the 1960s, the world experienced the “British Invasion,” with bands like the Beetles and the Rolling Stones taking over the airways with their catchy tunes and unique style. Yet in wine terms, the British Gentiles have consumed “Claret” (Bordeaux) and Champagne for many centuries with the zeal of a fan girl catching a glimpse of Paul McCartney. All the while, the Brits had very little (if anything at all) viticultural prowess to call their own. Well, the times are changing; the weather is getting warmer, and the land in Champagne is getting progressively more expensive. All of these factors are opening -slowly but surely- the eyes of the consumer to the high quality (not to mention more affordable) options from the Kimmeridgean soils of the south of the British Isles.

The white cliffs of Dover and much of Southern England, just across the channel from France, have limestone-rich soils that allow for ideal cultivating of high-acid grapes for Sparkling wine production.

My first experience with this phenomenon was tasting Hattingley Valley’s Brut Reserve, and I was immediately sold on the prospect of British bubbles. The richness of the wine, accentuated by the elegance of the mousse and counterbalanced by the bright, zingy acid, was enough to believe the hype. There was inherent complexity to the wine, blending the freshness and zinginess of the base harvest with complexity from older harvest base wines. Later, upon re-tasting, I noticed a distinct cheesy quality on the wine (as well as other British sparkling) that added to its distinctive character. There is still plenty of unrealized potential in these wines, but considering all the factors and the British wine industry’s relative youth, I am willing to follow along with the progress.

So is the world destined for a viticultural “British Invasion”? This author certainly thinks so.  

Vigneron style:

The wine is a multi-vintage blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, aged for four years on lees. Hattingly Valley hand picks and whole-cluster presses their grapes for the best and softest juice extraction without extracting color. 15% of the total blend aged in neutral oak barrels, with the rest in stainless steel. Partial malolactic conversion is executed to soften the wine’s bright acid. 32% of reserve wine (from older vintages) is blended in.

The chalky outcropping of the White Cliffs of Dover. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Conclusion

And there you have it, four -just four- glimpses into some fun and delicious alternatives to Champagne. “How can you choose only four?” you may question, “considering nearly every wine region in the world makes a sparkler, and many of those wines are also of exceptional quality.” Well, that is the magic of wine; there is always more to explore.

With that said, I hope these four examples of non-Champers sparklings fuel your desire to pave your way to discovery. And maybe- even if you don’t pick up one of these four bottles- you will be clinking the incoming 2024 New Year with great bubbles beyond Champagne.

Though Champagne is always a good option, I’m just sayin…

See more of the Wines of the Heart series.

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