Champagne under attack from Italy
Champagne has gathered an aura like no other wine. The very word evokes romance, sophistication and celebration even though the likes of Lidl and Aldi are peddling the stuff for under €20.
Champagne is only one of hundreds of differing sparkling wines but, as the best and most expensive, it has given its name to the style. Legally, only wines made from grapes grown in a defined area of France can be called Champagne. Producers in the Champagne region have rigorously and successfully fought in the courts to prevent the word "Champagne" being debased.
There are a number of different methods used to put the bubbles into sparkling wine but the 'methode champenoise' is the most meticulous and, therefore, the most expensive. Base wine, usually a blend of wines of vineyards and vintages, is selected and bottled with some sugar and yeast. A second fermentation converts this sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide and a period of ageing allows the wine to pick up flavours from the lees. The wine is topped up and sealed with the familiar Champagne cork.
The base wine for sparkling wines needs to have high acidity, best achieved in cooler regions. It is no accident that Champagne is made in one of the coldest wine regions in the world. In Australia, the premium sparkling wine producers tend to be in cool climate Victoria or Tasmania. The south of England, which lies on the northern tip of the same sub-strata as Champagne is also establishing a reputation for sparkling wines. And there's a region in northern Italy, Franciacorta, where I found superb wines that, in quality terms, give Champagne a run for its money.
'Bellavista' means nice view, and if ever a winery was aptly named, this is it; it overlooks a pastoral landscape of fields, small towns, towers, churches and Lake Iseo all against a backdrop of the Alps. Construction magnate Vittorio Moretti got into wine-making by accident in the 1970s, when he wanted to make a few bottles for friends and business associates. He liked making wine, and decided to create an estate. They began planting Pinot Noir -- or so they thought. "Things were haphazard then," recalls Mattia Vezzola, estate winemaker and manager. "What we were told was Pinot Noir turned out to be Chardonnay."
Franciacorta is ideally suited for sparkling white wines; wines which have defeated Champagnes in competition while keeping their own identity. I visited the region recently and the amount of uncompromising 'no expense spared' winemaking was truly amazing.