The Future of Fizz
For centuries it’s been a staple for celebrations, but the world of sparkling wine is evolving, and it’s pretty damn exciting.
No other drink is more associated with celebration than sparkling wine. Champagne may come to mind first, but all wine producing countries have their own take on festive fizz. So when the pandemic hit in 2020 and our social occasions were put on hold, it caused a dramatic drop in not just Champagne, but all sparkling wine sales across the category. Fortunately, not only have these sales bounced back, but there’s been some interesting changes in drinking habits. A 2021 Wine Intelligence report shows that consumers over the age of 55 still firmly believe that the time and place for sparkling wine is during special occasions. However those in the 25 to 39 year old bracket drink sparkling wine more casually, without an occasion to mark. Maybe this stems from the nihilistic tendencies of younger generations - ‘the world is ending so why the hell not have a glass of fizz on a Tuesday night’. Maybe it stems from recent reminders to celebrate life everyday, the very kind of joie-de-vivre that sparkling wine conjures. We suspect it's something to do with the breakdown of formality and snobbery in wine culture. Whatever the reason, it presents an opportunity to revisit and rethink sparkling wine. Far from the generic offering on the shelves of the supermarket, it’s a world full of characterful and diverse wines waiting to be discovered.
The Rise of Grower Champagne
Dom Perignon apparently said “come quickly, I am drinking the stars” on discovering the very fizz that benedictine monks otherwise considered a spoilage of their wine. It’s the stuff of myth and legend, and whatever way it actually came about, a star was indeed born. The world’s most celebrated celebratory drink comes from the cold, limestone hills of the north east of France. Advancements in science and technology have helped capture “the stars” in bottle, but marketing and branding efforts have amplified the status of this drink to a level unrivalled in the wine industry. The big Champagne houses relentlessly strive to keep their image of luxury, prestige and celebration relevant. The advertising, sponsorship, merchandise, celebrity endorsement and product placement is hard to miss. But there is another side to Champagne. Known as Grower Champagnes, these quality-focused, artisanal producers have taken the wine world by storm. Where the big Champagne houses blend across many vineyards to seek a consistent house style, grower champagnes highlight the unique character of individual vineyards. These small, single vineyards are managed with organic and biodynamic principles, and are generally estate owned. They focus on the principles that guide other great wine regions in the world like Burgundy. The care and expression of place comes first and foremost, all summed up by the French word ‘terroir’.
So how do they taste? In fitting with their individual approach, it varies. Generally however, grower champagne tends to have lower dosage, so they’re drier. They often have more natural fruit weight and texture, rather than the typical toasty, creaminess that is built with age. We’d describe them as being more vinous, which might sound ridiculous, but it implies that you see more of the grape, and less of the making. They’re definitely worth seeking out, and our favourites include Egly-Ouriet, Larmandier-Bernier, Vilmart, Jacques Selosse and Jérôme Prévost.
The Green Movement
A key factor in the production of grower champagne is the practice of organics and biodynamics. Healthy vines produce healthy grapes as they say. It’s a recognition that in order to express the best sense of place or terroir in wines, you must look after that place. The grower champagne movement demonstrates that sparkling wine production is no exception. Looking at our own backyard, you may associate New Zealand sparkling wine with the large-scale, commercial production of fizz like Lindauer. You won’t be alone if your first (sometimes regrettable) drinking experiences were with a bottle of cheap kiwi fizz. Beyond this however, New Zealand does produce sparkling wines that are akin to grower Champagnes in approach. In a sea of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, certified organic producers Huia, Clos Henri and Rock Ferry are all producing sparkling wines, made with the same varieties and meticulous methods used in Champagne. Heading further south to Quartz Reef in Central Otago, Rudi Bauer has championed biodynamic farming in the region, at the same time as producing an outstanding range of sparklings. Given the choice, we’d drink fizz from these 4 producers over Champagne from the big houses any day. In addition to a reduced carbon footprint by ‘drinking local’, these sparklings are precise, detailed wines of character and charm.
A Natural Progression
It’s safe to say the champagne method for sparkling wine production has been a hit. It’s replicated around the world to produce Cava in Spain, Franciacorta in Italy, and many sparklings in new world wine countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand. It involves two fermentations, the second in bottle producing the desired fizz, as well as years of ageing on lees. Known as the ‘Methode Traditionelle’, it’s a time consuming, technical and expensive process. It contributes to higher prices by the time wines hit the shelves. There are other methods that are more cost effective however. When making Prosecco for example, the second fermentation happens in tank rather than bottle. This avoids the need for disgorgement, and produces wines that are more fruit forward, less yeasty to be enjoyed without the need to age them.
There is a method that can forgo secondary fermentation all together. It’s actually the original way sparkling wine was made, known as the Méthode Ancestrale or Pétillant Naturel (a.k.a. Pet-Nat). The wine is bottled before the first fermentation is finished, which does so in bottle. The yeasts that have fermented the wine also remain in bottle, and the wine is unfined and unfiltered. This explains their often cloudy appearance. Generally associated with the natural wine movement, Pet-Nat is more straightforward, and less costly to produce. They’re appealing to producers because there are fewer limitations. You can make them from any grape variety, in any region. For drinkers, that’s the fun in discovering them. The styles are varied, from taut and lean, to juicy and supple. They can provide a burst of primary, fresh fruit flavour and and sometimes yeasty, savoury notes too. The fun of Pet-Nat lends itself to enjoying sparkling wines without the need for formality and occasion. We’ve enjoyed some outstanding examples from around the world like Barouillet Splash!, Niepoort Drink Me and Delinquente Weeping Juan. But what we’re super excited to be drinking are delicious local examples. Try New Zealand’s own Moonlight Mile, A Thousand Gods, and Black Estate Damsteep.