WINE O’CLOCK: The wine that dares not speak its name
The grapes for Champagne are picked by hand and always have been since the seventeenth century when the monk, Dom Pérignon, is said to have discovered the wonderful, sparkling drink.
Of course they didn’t have much choice back then – that’s how all grapes were picked in seventeenth century France.
Today the grapes for most French wines are picked by quite sophisticated machines. They are faster than manual pickers who, in any case, are hard to recruit nowadays. The automated process is quicker, cleaner and wastes fewer grapes.
These robots are widely used, but banned in a few places. including the Champagne region.
In recent years a vintner from the Marne valley has broken the rule and used a machine for picking. Quelle horreur!
There has been a huge row and he has, apparently, received death threats.
He can’t actually sell his product as Champagne but instead markets it as ratafia. Usually ratafia is a Champagne-based dessert wine but he has been selling a lighter sparkling version as an aperitif which - quelle surprise! – tastes like a nice Bollinger at a quarter of the price.
I’m not going to take sides in this very French dispute.
Picking by hand seems a bit mad, but it’s part of the Champagne tradition. A lot of care and attention goes into the making and bottling of Champagne. That’s what keeps up the standard but it is also what pushes up the price.
So if you want bubbles that don’t break the bank this Christmas you could look for the ratafia aperitif. I don’t think you will find it in Ireland, however. What you might find is Ratafia de Champagne, which is a brandy-style liqueur produced as a by-product of Champagne, in France and also in northern Spain.
You can also find some very good sparkling wines. Not Champagne and maybe not as good as Champagne, but certainly not as expensive. There are also a few genuine Champagnes at reasonable prices.
Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut ( €19.66, Aldi).
This is widely regarded as the best value Champagne on sale in Ireland. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the main grapes in this pleasant, consistent blend.
Dominio de Tharsys Cava (€19.99 Worldwide Wines, Waterford)
Cava is made by exactly the same process as Champagne but a tendency to cut corners and speed production got the Spanish product a bad name. from which it has only slowly recovered. I am wary of very cheap Cavas but this is dry, smooth, not too fizzy.
Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore (€12.78, Lidl)
I am even more wary of cheap Prosecco. Some of it can be very sweet and quite unpleasant. But this is a nice sparkler at a decent price. It’s a spumante. That’s the bubbly one with the mushroom-shaped cork, as distinct from the gently sparkling frizzante.
Meyer-Fonne, Cremant D’Alsace (€27,95 Le Caveau, Kilkenny)
These Cremant wines are Champagne at half the price. This one is a blend of Pinot blanc, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, and has a distinctive citrus tang to it.