wine: Brave new fizz

Champagne's world conquest; The upstart often compares favourably in the value-for-money stakes with the senior partner
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the beginning of the Sixties, champagne companies were faced with a choice: they could rest on their laurels and push champagne as the king of fizz or they could add a new string to their bow by grabbing a slice of the lucrative worldwide sparkling wine market. With a new El Dorado beckoning in South America, Moet et Chandon were the first to grasp the New World nettle, setting up Domaine Chandon in Argentina in 1960.

Inspired by the efforts of sparkling wine producers, such as Schramsberg, in California's Napa Valley, the Champenois upped a gear in the Seventies. With a combination of the right climate, grapes and savoir-faire, they could produce sparkling wines of the highest quality. Today, along with Moet et Chandon, Roederer, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Mumm are among a group of the prestigious grandes marques with sparkling wine interests in California, Australia and New Zealand.

But there was a catch. Unwittingly, the Champenois were creating a rod for their own backs. No one predicted that champagne's New World outposts would produce such high-quality fizz quite so soon. Plummeting sales and criticism of champagne's quality in the early Nineties helped prise open the New World door. Now, the upstart often compares favourably in the value-for-money stakes with the senior partner.

Domaine Chandon's modest ambition in the Napa Valley in the Seventies was to produce a drinkable fizz for the US market. The champagne grapes - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier - were planted. No one thought to avoid trying to imitate champagne, because no one originally aspired to that level.

The results, it was thought, were bound to be different from champagne because, according to Dawnine Dyer, Domaine Chandon's winemaker, "There are features in the climate and grapes - California fruit is riper, for instance - that have resulted in the wines being stylistically independent of champagne." Domaine Chandon will be introduced to the UK for the first time later this year under the Redwood name.

In contrast, Mumm's Napa Valley winemaker, Greg Fowler, set out to be different, with the accent on fresh, clean, citrusy fruit in preference to the developed, biscuity character of champagne. Mumm's policy, like Moet's, was to develop its fizz exclusively for the US market. But a change of heart occurred when Oddbins decided they liked it. Since then it has been a runaway success, and inspired others to buy across the Pond.

More recently, the search has been on for cooler areas such as California's Anderson Valley. Of the French ventures in California, Roederer Estate, called Quartet in Europe, is the most champagne-like, although winemaker Michel Salgues claims he did not want to make champagne, but "the best California sparkling wine. There is less finesse in California, so our goal is to try to increase the finesse." Leaner than the toasty, full-bodied Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne, Quartet is an elegant sparkler with the complex aromas of champagne underscored by a tangy sharpness.

Pommery's Scharffenberger, also from the Anderson Valley, has a similar tangy crispness to distinguish it from Pommery's fuller, richer non-vintage Brut Royal Champagne. Others in California, such as Deutz, Taittinger's Domaine Carneros and the Spanish giant Freixenet's Gloria Ferrer and Codorniu, lie somewhere in between the direct New World fruitiness of the Mumm Cuvee Napa style and the leaner, crisper, but still champagne-like Quartet style.

The combination of factors that produce flavour, complexity and finesse in the New World are increasingly well understood thanks to links between Champenois savoir-faire and the talents of local winemakers. At Green Point, Moet's Australian outpost. the quality factors Dr Tony Jordan points to include cool climate (for length of flavour), the use of the traditional champagne grapes and a wide range of vineyards for blending.

Green Point, made in Victoria's cool Yarra Valley, draws on Champenois blending expertise to create a wine made from 25 different cool sites, including Tasmania. "We are not trying to make a second best to champagne, but something that can stand up right beside it - something that's world class," Dr Jordan says. The result is a delicately toasty, complex fizz of such quality that you wonder when he will be declared persona non grata in Reims. Moet Brut Imperial, to be fair, has pulled its socks up in a return to classic form, although give me two bottles of Green Point any time.

With Croser, in which Bollinger have a stake, Green Point leads the sparkling wine pack in Australia. In New Zealand, Veuve Clicquot and Deutz are the French pioneers, the former adopting a hands-off approach to Cloudy Bay's Pelorus, while Deutz, through the blending skills of Andre Lallier, plays a more active part in its partnership with Montana in Marlborough. Deutz Marlborough Cuvee is delicate but full, quite rich and creamy but not heavy, and on good form now.

Where once local sparkling wine industries were the spur for the French, today French empire-building has returned the compliment with interest, giving a huge confidence boost to the indigenous sparkling wine industries of these countries. Nearly one in ten bottles of all fizz drunk in the UK, for instance, now comes from Australia. And that's just for starters

1992 Green Point widely available at about pounds 10.49 (pounds 8.74 at 6 for 5, Oddbins; pounds 8.92 bottle/case, Majestic). Louis Roederer's Quartet pounds 12.99, Majestic (pounds 11.04 bottle/case); Wine Cellar (pounds 11.37 bottle/case). Deutz Marlborough Cuvee pounds 9.99, Oddbins (pounds 8.33 at 6 for 5); Thresher (in Wine Rack or Bottoms Up, buy 6, save pounds 10); Victoria Wine Cellars. Scharffenberger pounds 8.99, Asda. Mumm Cuvee Napa pounds 8.99, Oddbins (pounds 7.49 at 6 for 5).

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