Ned Halleyassesses the wide variety of sparklers on offer.
"I am drinking stars!" exclaimed Dom Perignon, inventor of champagne, when he took his first sip from a foaming glass.
Like most champagne stories, it's a distinctly frothed-up version of the truth. But it has its charms. Sparkling wine has been adding to the joy of life since its discovery, not by a French monk, but by a Gloucestershire doctor, in 1662, and remains a source of innocent pleasure.And 351 years after Dr Christopher Merret, born in Winchcombe, presented his paper, Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines to the Royal Society, revealing how wine merchants were putting the fizz into wine by means of a sugar-induced second fermentation, we now have a vast choice before us. Sparkling wine is made everywhere. The best still comes from Champagne. England is the newest competitor in the field. Some of our southern counties have suitable soil conditions and even the right sort of weather for growing the kind of grapes that make decent sparklers. From Sussex, try Ridgeview Bloomsbury Cuvee Merret (Waitrose £24.95), made from the champagne grapes, chardonnay and the two pinots, noir and meunier. It delivers an artful balance between crisp freshness and mellow fruit and I like the nod to Dr Merret.
English sparklers can be convincing, but are rather expensive. France's rivals to champagne do rather better. My favourite regional sparkler this year is Simmonet-Febvre P100 Blanc de Noir Crémant de Bourgogne at about £15 from retailers including Wine World in Honiton, Devon (no website; ring 01404 43767) and Amazon.
Simmonet-Febvre is a major Chablis producer, but this fizz is more than a mere sideline. It's a blanc de noir, all pinot noir (a black-skinned grape) and has exactly the creamy mousse you'd hope for from a "crémant" sparkler. The alluring gold colour has the slightest hint of russet-pink and gives off a correspondingly autumnal sweet-apple aroma that contrasts with the crispness of the zesty, fruit. It's not champagne, but it's definitely in the same quality league.
Italy is now France's leading rival on the sparkling front thanks to the remarkable rise of prosecco. It's the softly sparkling fizz of Veneto, the province of Venice, made by the "tank" method in huge pressurised vats rather than the refermentation-in-bottle method of champagne and many of its counterparts.
Prosecco comes in plenty of styles, today mostly quite dry, and vigorously fizzy in the "spumante" manner as often as the more traditional, less-busy "frizzante" foaminess. This year take the advice of the Consumers' Association's Which? Magazine. It has voted Co-operative Special Cuvee Prosecco at £9.99 the top wine in its latest tasting.
I tasted this wine earlier in the year and liked its sweet pear nose, busy foam and fresh orchard fruit. And I like it even better now that the Co-op has reduced the price by a third to £6.49 until the New Year.
And so to champagne. There's nothing quite like it, but how to choose? Price is a poor guide. The brand named after Dom Perignon, who did much to refine the champagne method but certainly didn't invent it, became the first "prestige cuvee" in 1936. It is a wonderful wine, priced at about £100, but has spawned a rash of competitors aimed at the undiscriminating rich.
Forget prestige cuvees. Try Sainsbury's Blanc de Noirs Champagne Brut. It has just done very well in the Which? test, and happens to be my favourite supermarket champagne. This weekend you can buy it for £12.75 a bottle at Sainsbury's. Usual price is £21.99, but it's discounted individually to £17 until December 10. And also until December 10 if you buy any six bottles of wine at Sainsbury's, you get 25% off the lot. If you like a big name champagne, there's few better than the yellow-labelled Veuve Clicquot. At Sainsbury's this is also a bargain. Veuve Clicquot Brut, down from £36.99 to £29.99, and reduced further to £22.50 under the 25% offer until December 10.