French fizz rules but Kiwis come close

A recent discovery that the inventor of the champagne process was not French Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, but an Englishman called Christopher Merret is yet another bitter pill for the Rugby World Cup finalists to swallow. Merret must have been something of a Renaissance man. He also invented the process for making bottles strong enough to withstand the extra pressure of sparkling wine.

The French can console themselves with the fact that champagne is the world’s most glamorous and successful wine. Champagne has established a unique and formidable benchmark. It gives inspiration to the world’s other sparkling winemakers with just a tinge of frustration that they can never exactly reproduce French fizz.

New Zealand’s relatively cool climate gives us an edge in the race to make truly great sparkling wines. Our best producers faithfully follow the winemaking method used in Champagne (and invented in England). We also make wine from one or more of the “classical” champagne varieties; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Can I and other wine judges pick out the difference when Kiwi fizz is anonymously judged against champagne? The answer is “yes”, well, most of the time at least. There is a subtle difference in style although in my view the quality of our best bubbly can certainly exceed that of lower level champagne.

One thing is certain. New Zealand makes the world’s best New Zealand sparkling wine.

Quartz Reef Méthode Traditionnelle – $30

Central Otago earns my votes as the region most likely to succeed in making this country’s finest fizz. Central Otago is the one New Zealand wine region that has, like Champagne, a continental-influenced climate. I’ve only tasted bottle-fermented sparkling wines from two Central Otago producers. Although both are very good it’s difficult to judge a region on such a small number of wines.

Quartz Reef was the region’s first sparkling winemaker and continues to make very good wine in vintage and non-vintage styles. This is a terrific wine at a great price. – view on

Nautilus NV Late Disgorged – $38.95

Great sparkling wine is as much a product of man as it is place. The winemaker at Nautilus certainly knows a thing or two about quality sparkling wine production – they’ve been high on my list of favourites for many years.

“Late disgorged” indicates a lengthy time in bottle on the yeasty sediment – in this case three years minimum. That process is important in building texture and introducing subtle, brioche-like flavours from the decomposing yeast cells. A blend of 70% Pinot Noir with 30% Chardonnay allows the, richer, weightier variety to dominate.

First published in KiaOra Magazine – Feb 2012.

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