Samui Wining & Dining

Is there really any difference?


Wine enthusiasts often disagree on whether all Champagne is necessarily of a higher quality than other sparkling wines. It’s a debate that slightly annoys me, because frankly, I find it very difficult to see the point of view, so forcefully argued by the exponents of Champagne’s outright superiority. These die-hard traditionalists will have you believe that Champagne is superior, simply because of the incredibly strict rules and regulations imposed to maintain quality. (The worrying fact that these rules have not been reviewed or modernized, in over 100 years, does not seem to be an issue with them.)

      Champagne is a single Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Meaning grapes must be the white Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Noir. If made exclusively from Chardonnay, they are known as blanc de blancs, and those exclusively from the red grapes as blanc de noirs. (Champagne is always a white wine, even if produced from red grapes.) It’s also true that Champagne has an advantage over sparkling wines because of the mystique surrounding its culture.

        And the iconic brand names, so often re-enforced by Hollywood and high profile sporting events. But I’m always disappointed when I hear people remark that for a special occasion, they require real Champagne. My problem with this kind of common misconception is that it suggests other sparkling wines are somehow not the same product, or they are some kind of cheap or carbonated copy. Simply not true. The term “Champagne” only refers to sparkling white wines made in the Champagne region, in the north-eastern part of France. And the French are extremely prickly about misuse of the word. Insisting that only wine that comes from this region can be called Champagne. And that’s not just a request - in Europe, it’s the law! But this geographical terminology is the only difference between the two. (I have heard a vague theory about the concentration and size of bubbles. The argument being that the higher the volume, and the smaller the size of the bubbles in the glass, the better the wine. But I have never read about any scientific studies to prove any specific wine is finer than any other.)

          Today, the choice of excellent sparkling wines from across the globe is truly awe inspiring, worthy of exploration by lovers of new and innovative wines. Yes, we all know the classic Champagnes are safe and reliable (at a high cost), but wine-making technologies have moved on in leaps and bounds in the last 25 years. Have you tried any of the marvellously crisp sparkling wines from California? Or, one of the surprisingly dry and superb, Italian Proseccos? New Zealand also has some impressive options not to be missed. And the value for money displayed by the refreshingly different Chardonnay-based sparkling wines from Argentina’s Toso range, is a joy. But probably the most exciting country, from a sparkling wine perspective at the moment, is Australia.

          Makers of many choice Champagne style wines, they also produce pink (rose) and red sparkling gems. And it’s the red varieties that capture my imagination the most, because they are so exotic. Rarely do you see sparkling red wines outside Australia, it’s almost as if they want to keep it a secret. Which is a shame, because they taste fabulous, with lots of fruit, blackberry and occasional hints of pepper, chocolate and a lot more. And contrary to what you might assume, they are not over sweet. The most common grape varietal used is Shiraz. And consequently the finished wines are endowed with much of the grape’s character and depth of flavour. Considered by many to be lighter and easier to drink than their still red wine counterparts. Australians make their sparkling Shirazes the same way the French make their Champagne. (Which means it’s a fairly complicated process.) The results come roaring out of the glass with the aroma of berries. Finish pouring and slowly the froth settles into purple red wine with a steady mousse on top. The bouquet shows traces of oak, and powerful red fruits burst on the palate. It’s dry yet seeming sweet with some acidity and tannins on the finish. Just writing about it makes me long for a glass! In fact, the only downside I can see with Aussie red bubbly is that it’s so hard to find. I suppose it’s not so surprising that they seem to keep most of it for themselves!

          There is no doubt that Champagne and sparkling wines are still people’s favourite choices for special occasions. And at New Year, weddings, anniversaries, or when celebrating landmark birthdays, most people are drinking the bubbly stuff. The overweight bottles (necessary to contain the immense pressure inside), the pop of the cork, the fizzing contents and the especially long-stemmed glasses all add to the “special occasion” ritual. Of course, spectacular actions, like normally reserved royals smashing bottles onto the bows of launching ships, and winning Formula One drivers spraying each other with Champagne, only perpetuate its iconic status. Not to mention James Bond sipping Dom Perignon 1951 on the silver screen. Clearly both Champagne and sparkling wine are suitable for celebrating in style. You can rely on Champagne’s high quality, as long as it has been stored well. And, provided you avoid some of the cheapest, there are some effervescent treasures to be discovered in the ever-growing choice of sparkling wines. It’s always worth asking advice from your wine merchant. And don’t forget your wine waiter will probably have some good suggestions. But as to which is better? In my humble opinion, that’s not a relevant question. It’s like asking if Ferraris are better than cars? A Ferrari is a car. Yes, it’s a very good one. But there are plenty of other, equally good (if not better) cars in the world. Peter James


 Peter James


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