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Champagne or sparkling wine? A battle of the bubbles

BBC Food sparkling wine and Champagne graphic

As tastes and bank balances change, will other sparkling wines end Champagne's long reign as the ultimate bubbly?

Nothing says celebration or style quite like popping a cork and enjoying a glass of Champagne - or does it?

When the occasion calls for bubbles, many people are now turning to other sparkling wines.

Prosecco is the main challenger to Champagne's crown, but English sparkling wine is also gaining fans, having even been poured for the Queen at special events.

"Champagne is faltering," says Helen Stares, drinks analyst at market research firm Nielsen, who says sparkling wine is the only type of alcohol with growing sales.

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"Over the course of the latest year, sparkling wine grew 10% in value (of sales) and 7% in volume (of sales), and Champagne has fallen 5% in value and 7% in volume," she explains.

The value of sparkling wine sales has increased partly due to an increase in alcohol duty. But sales have also risen in terms of volume because people are buying more.

That's because sparkling wine is relatively cheap.

"Consumers traditionally looking to purchase Champagne... are looking to purchase sparkling wine as it costs £10, as opposed to £30," Helen Stares says.

"If you are looking at just popping the cork and getting that experience of opening bubbles - then it is a cheaper alternative."

Sparkling wine has also become an alternative at dinner to white or red wine.

She says £320m worth of Champagne was sold in the UK last year, and £403m worth of sparkling wines from around the world.

But Italy's prosecco "has the strongest growth".

Champagne being poured into a glass

Wine expert Kate Goodman says it is the star performer, because it competes on taste.

"Prosecco is from northern Italy, and slightly lower in alcohol and slightly lower in acidity - with a touch more sweetness, so quite fresh. I love Champagne but it's a different style," she says.

Vineyards are now creating unique proseccos differing in style, says Dominic Harman, owner of specialist wine shop Corks of Cotham in Bristol.

"It's the range of proseccos that has increased.

"You can argue that Champagne is never going to be different to what it is, but we are seeing and selling smaller prosecco producers, they are prosecco innovators, and so we are selling more," he explains.

Serving tips:

  • Fizzy wines are best served very cold - at 5°C
  • Carbon dioxide is more soluble in water at low temperatures, so bubbles will be smaller and last longer in cold wine
  • The amount of bubbles can be reduced by lipstick, food oils or washing up liquid on the glass

Source: McGee on Food and Cooking

"You're not going to get a decent champagne under £20 but you can get a really interesting prosecco from £9 upwards.

"A lot of people who have bought Veuve or Moet can end up disappointed but people are much more open to prosecco recommendations," he explains.

"A few years ago Cava was the cooler drink," he says. But he feels this Spanish sparkling wine has been devalued by large-scale and cheap supermarket deals.

Most sparkling wine sold in the UK comes from mainland Europe or the New World of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

But English sparkling wine, which costs about £16-£17 a bottle, is becoming a home-grown success story.

Although "small in the grand scheme of things" with a 1% sparkling market share, it is selling well, says Helen Stares.

Jenson Button spraying champagne Would spraying a different sparkling wine at F1 podiums have the same effect?

"If we look at English wines specifically, they have grown in value sales by 97% and volume by 69% - that is a massive growth," she says.

Julia Trustram Eve from English Wine Producers says sparkling is the major growth area for UK vineyards, being mainly grown in the South East, Hampshire and South West.

There is a "similarity in taste to Champagne which people can identify", she says, which comes from a similarity in soil structure and grape varieties, particularly in the South East and Hampshire, and the method they use.

However, retaining distinctiveness is still important - as "we are not trying to produce identikit sparkling wines".

But why choose it over Champagne?

Ways to make bubbles:

Champagne in a vineyard

Traditional/methode Champenoise: Base wine is bottled with sugar and yeast and secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. Yeast is then removed by riddling and the bottle topped up and sealed with a cork. Used for top quality wines and the only method for Champagne.

Aeration: Dissolving carbon dioxide into a base wine in a pressurised tank. Used for the cheapest sparkling wines.

Cuve close or charmat: Sugar and yeast are added to the base wine in a pressurised tank, which may contain agitators to increase yeast contact. After fermentation, the yeast is cooled, clarified, and then bottled under pressure. Widely used in prosecco and German sekt.

Transfer method: Wine is bottled with yeast and sugar and undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle. Wine is cooled, bottles decanted into bulk tanks, wine filtered and re-bottled. Used in Australia and the US.

Source: Wineskills

Chef Michel Roux Junior says "in blind tasting some English sparkling wines beat Champagne". That proves just how good the wines are says Julia Trustram Eve.

"There is Englishness, a delicacy and a wonderful complexity... an elegance about them that is extremely attractive and a gentleness as well.

"As you find in Champagne houses, the style between different producers is emerging as it did with Champagne," she says.

One of those English houses, Nyetimber, has made a name for itself internationally, winning awards and producing wine to a Grande Marque standard.

"For over 20 years Nyetimber has had a single aim: to make the finest English sparkling wine, one to rival the very best the world, including Champagne," says Christian Holthausen, marketing and communications manager at Nyetimber.

Nyetimber was the first to craft English sparkling wines exclusively from the three celebrated grape varieties found in Champagne: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, he explains.

To maintain quality, sparkling wine produced from England and Wales, using the Champagne method, has been granted a protected designation of origin (PDO), and protected geographical indication (PGI), says Julia Trustram Eve.

And they seem to be to many people's taste.

"Our Classic Cuvee 2007 was served to The Queen and her guests on The Spirit of Chartwell and at the Diamond Jubilee lunch at Westminster Hall over the Jubilee weekend," says Christian Holthausen. "Our Nyetimber Rose 2008 was recently served at 10 Downing Street."

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