With 12 days to go until Christmas, I’d like to propose a yuletide toast to Professor Gérard Liger-Belair of the University of Reims. He it was who proved earlier this year what many of us have long suspected: that sparkling wines are uniquely complex. According to the professor, the bubbles in a glass of fizz can contain as much as 30 times more aroma and flavour than the wine itself, floating above the surface like “refreshing aerosols”.
It wasn’t only Champagne that got the thumbs-up. High-quality sparkling wines using the “traditional method” of bottle fermentation and ageing on lees behave in much the same way, apparently. That said, the best sparkling wines (as well, sadly, as some of the worst) are still produced in Champagne. The gap may be closer now than it has ever been, but when it’s good, Champagne is worth the extra money.
Talking of which, there’s a lot of cheap bubbly on the market at the moment — part of a price war between the supermarkets — but I’d advise you to be extremely wary of cheap deals, unless they are on brands or supermarket own-labels that you know and trust. Otherwise, beware of what people are trying to flog you.
Better still, use my selection of the best 24 Champagnes and sparkling wines, covering everything from a sub-£5 Cava to a £50 vintage Bollinger. There’s a fizz for every mood, pocket and occasion here. Just pop the cork and wait for those aerosols.
Tesco Cava Brut, Conisua (£4.14, 11.5%, Tesco) Bargain-basement Cava has no right to taste this good. This sub-£5 quaffer is earthy, nutty and fresh, with nice weight and concentration. Great for a party.
Asda Asti Spumante (£4.48, 7%) The sweetness of Asti might put some of you off, but this is light, frothy and easy to drink. Try it well chilled as an aperitif, or as a palate cleanser at the end of a meal.
Cesarini Sforza Cuvée Brut Riserva (£6 as part of a six-bottle case, 12%, www.tesco.com) You’ll have to buy six bottles of this all-Pinot Noir Italian sparkling wine to take advantage of the low price, but that shouldn’t be a problem. This has a lovely rosehip and cherry freshness.
Lindauer Special Reserve NV, New Zealand (£8.99 each for two, 12%, Majestic) A reliable Kiwi fizz with a pinkish, coppery tinge, this is broad, soft and malty with lots of flavour and fine bubbles for a wine at this price.
Ombra Prosecco di Colli Trevisiani (£9.99, or £7.99 by the case, 11%, Oddbins) This may be on the dry side for a Prosecco, but that’s no bad thing. Spice and white pepper combine with an apple and citrus fruit tang on the palate here.
Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay, Western Cape (£9.99, 12%, Marks & Spencer) Youthful, fruit-forward Cape fizz made in a Blanc de Blancs style. The Chardonnay really comes through on the palate, providing fresh acidity and peachy fruit.
2007 Freixenet Excelencia Cava (£11.99, 12%, Waitrose) You might baulk at paying £12 for a Cava, but this is comparatively classy stuff, with none of the bitterness that often mars cheaper examples. Dry, complex and balanced.
Langlois Crémant de Loire Rosé Brut (£12.99, or £10.39 by the case, 12.5%, Oddbins) Loire fizz made from Cabernet Franc is something of a leftfield choice, but I love the grassy, green pepper notes on offer here, offset by a touch of sweetness.
2005 Green Point Rosé, South East Australia (£17.49, 12.5%, www.waitrosewine.com) Moët’s Australian outpost makes some of the best fizz Down Under. This wild strawberry-scented, Pinot-dominated blend is better than Moët’s pink Champagne.
2007 Silvano Follador Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze (£17.95, 11.5%, Great Western Wine, 01225 322 800; www.greatwesternwine.co.uk) Fine, yeasty and stylish, this engagingly fresh fizz comes from Prosecco’s only Grand Cru and is worthy of comparison with the best sparkling wines.
Louis Roederer Quartet NV, California (£17.99 each for two, 12%, Majestic) If any commercially available California fizz can lay claim to real complexity, this is it. Toasty and mature, with a dry, savoury undertone and a crisp, focused finish.
2006 Camel Valley Brut, Cornwall (£19.99, 12.5%, selected branches of Waitrose and www.waitrosewine.com) Let’s hear it for Cornwall. Sam Lindo’s blend of Seyval Blanc, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner is fragrant, elderfloral and gloriously English.
Oudinot Brut (£14.99, 12%, Marks & Spencer) The best-value Champagne in the market at its reduced Christmas price, this all-Chardonnay sparkler is crisp and minerally with a palate-refreshing finish.
Waitrose Brut Champagne (£19.99, 12%) The domination of the two Pinots (Noir and Meunier) is immediately apparent on the nose and palate here: youthful, malty and savoury with forward, gluggable fruit.
2002 Heidsieck & Co Monopole Silver Top Champagne (£20 as part of a six-bottle case, 12%, www.tesco.com) Grab your mouse and click through to the Tesco site. This mature vintage bubbly has lots of creamy, toasty autolysis-derived flavours supported by a fine mousse.
2002 Saint Gall Vintage Grand Cru (£21.99, 12%, Marks & Spencer) Well up to the high standard of Marks & Spencer’s Champagnes, this mature, all-Chardonnay bubbly is toasty, nutty and delicious.
2003 Marguet Rosé, Grand Cru (£23, 12%, The Wine Society) A Grand Cru Champagne for only £23? Who needs to spend £50 on Laurent Perrier rosé? This is rich, creamy, bold and complex with wild strawberry fruit and low acidity.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier (£24.99 each for two, 12%, Majestic) One of the most complete non-vintages on the market, this is a house blend that never lets you down: full and well-rounded but with classic Roederer elegance and poise.
Champagne Lahaye Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Noirs (£27.95, 12%, Berry Brothers & Rudd, www.bbr.com) One of a new range of growers’ Champagnes from the best independent merchant in Britain, this biodynamic fizz is complex, savoury and dry with masses of fruit.
1999 Laurent Perrier Brut Millésime (£29.99, 12%, Sainsbury’s) Down from £39.99 for Christmas, this equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is nutty, biscuity and developed, with lots of flavour and a pleasantly dry finish.
Champagne Lilbert Blanc de Blancs Brut Perlé (£31.25, Vine Trail, www.vinetrail.co.uk) The best Blanc de Blancs Champagnes age extremely well, but you will have trouble keeping your hands off this fresh, focused, youthful, minerally Chardonnay fizz.
2000 Fortnum & Mason Brut Reserve Champagne (£35, 12%, Fortnum & Mason) If you’re in Piccadilly to buy a Christmas hamper, make sure you purchase a few bottles of this elegant, tangy, refreshingly dry vintage fizz. It will keep, too.
1999 Pol Roger (£39.99, 12%, Oddbins; £37.46 per bottle by the case, Berry Brothers & Rudd, www.bbr.com) Much more developed than the recently released 2000, this is a perfect Christmas Day fizz: rich and opulent with complex brioche, honey and hazelnut flavours.
Originally published in The Observer