With global consumption of sparkling wine at all all time high, I thought it was time to look at why we've gone bonkers for bubbly booze...
In the world of on-screen stardom, there are A-list actors: glamour in spades, a high price tag, perceived top quality, huge demand and a recognisable brand face. Sound familiar? Yes, Champagne is the Movie Star of sparkling wines. The thing is, sometimes we want to toast those mini mid-week successes, but without the need for spanx and spending a fortune on a dress. Enter Prosecco: the fresh-faced, easily consumable, daytime TV presenter of wine. Yes, there's a frisson of glamour so it still feels like a treat, but it's one we can have with a takeaway while hanging out in our pyjamas.
Everyday, affordable luxury
The financial downturn helped us discover Prosecco as we traded down price-wise from Champagne, but then we got used to the fresher style, lower acidity, lower alcohol and lower price tag. Here was a fizz that was approachable, affordable and recognisable as brand in its own right. As the global financial crisis began to ease, we started treating ourselves again, drinking fizz not just at Christmas, but like the Italians do: as an aperitif and every day.
"The ongoing Prosecco boom has led to the democratisation of sparkling wine consumption due to its affordability and approachability...Consumers no longer view sparkling wine as a festive drink reserved for special occasions but as something that can be enjoyed midweek without ceremony" Lucy Shaw, Drinks Business
This 'democratisation of sparkling wine' has had a knock-on effect with English wines and other sparkling styles. Global production of sparkling wines has seen a massive increase of 40% over the last ten years compared to just 7% for still wines. The industry has a lot to thank Prosecco for. But whatever happened to Cava?
Sales of Cava, the traditional method, Spanish wine increased dramatically during the downturn but they've since trailed off and are now pretty stagnant. Why? Well, although it's made in the same way as Champagne which is both time consuming and expensive, Cava is much cheaper (partly due to less premium, indigenous Spanish grapes used; partly because of sheer volume, produced on cheaper sites) but in comparison, it can sometimes feel less like a movie star and more like a gritty, character soap actor with its slightly rubbery, more rustic flavour profile, especially at the cheaper end. Since the world's finances started improving, we've seen 'premiumisation' happening with sparkling wines. And as Cava now has a reputation for being permanently on offer (often making it even cheaper than Prosecco), it seems to be suffering an image problem as consumers trade up from Cava to Prosecco.
Who's drinking what?
So who is drinking all this fizz? What else is going on? The short answer is the millennials. Yes, Generation Y is officially getting into wine. These twenty-somethings don't need an excuse to drink wine mid-week with their meal, they're becoming more knowledgeable about wine and are not afraid to ask questions. What's more, they're social by nature, telling the world what they're drinking.
Prosecco and Cava aside, a huge trend for Moscato is enduring amongst this group. It started in the US as music stars such as Lil' Kim and Nicky Minaj endorsed this sweet, frothy fizz in their songs. Sales of the MYX brand of Moscato owned by Nicky Minaj increased in the US by over 400% just in the last six months of 2014. The brand was launched in the UK this year and is expecting a similar reaction. You may not be drinking it yourself, but Moscato is officially now more popular globally than Sauvignon Blanc according to The Independent Wine Review. The young'uns are leading the way, smashing down class barriers as they go. The exciting thing is that for them, Moscato might just be the beginning of a journey into wine.
Beyond Prosecco and Champagne
Prosecco's star is still rising and Champagne sells no matter what, but what else should we be be trying?
If you like Champagne, then look for 'traditional method' on the label which means that the wine gets its fizz in the same way as Champagne; with a second fermentation in the bottle to give finer, more enduring bubbles and a toasty complexity. Traditionally made sparklers from anywhere in the world outside Champagne can be pretty awesome, often with a touch more fruit, less screeching acidity and offer great value for money. South Africa is one country offering amazing value as Andy Leach from Cape London Wines explains:
"Méthode Cap Classique (the SA version of Méthode Champenoise), is now often so good that it can compete with some Champagnes on the world stage. Plus, because of the Rand's tumultuous decline in recent years against Sterling and the Dollar, it can offer superb value, with many terrific examples in the £12-20 range. One such producer is the renowned Graham Beck Estate, whose bubbles have graced the inaugurations of both Presidents Obama and Mandela, yet retail at under £15 a bottle."
Here are three other 'traditional method' sparklers to try:
You'll often see the word 'Crémant' on the label of French fizz from outside the Champagne region. These wines will be made using the traditional method though grape varieties vary.
Franciacorta is Italy's answer to Champagne. From the Lombardy region, wines are made in tiny quantities using Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc). It's Prosecco's more sophisticated cousin, made in the traditional method and with lots of lees ageing to give it a seductive, toasted brioche flavour.
English Sparkling Wine
2015 was a fabulous year for English fizz. Ideal weather conditions meant a high quality, bumper harvest and producers are racing to buy land in the UK (there's been a 41% growth in English winery applications just in the past year). With the awards piling up and production increasing, English fizz is on the map! Key grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from similar soils and a similar climate to Champagne.
Two other styles to look out for:
If you like Prosecco, you'll like 'Pig'. Pignaletto is the grape, which is also known as Grechetto. Hailing from Emilia-Romana in Italy, it has a frothy, ripe pear flavour similar to Prosecco, is made using the same 'charmat' method and sits at a similar price point. Prepare to start seeing it in restaurants and wine bars.
'Pét Nat' is short for 'Pétillant Naturel': a lightly sparkling, natural wine that is currently pretty trendy. The Pét Nat movement originated in France's Loire Valley and has since expanded out. The juice is made without any chemical additions or filtering and is put straight into the bottle with a crown cap to ferment. The Co2 from fermentation gets trapped in the liquid to create a gentle sparkle. These wines are risky, cloudy, flavoursome and have loads of bottle variation, but that's part of the charm. It's the boutique hipster of wine styles!
It's clear that we are spoiled for choice for sparkling wine these days. The big question now however, is how do we mark special occasions with fizz if we're drinking it all the time? To my mind, the answer is simple: every style of sparkling wine has several levels of price and quality. Trade up and and blow the budget!
This article features in the Dec-Feb issue of House Four: in-house magazine for Soho House & Co.