Eating & Drinking

All about the bubbly this Mother’s Day

Tickle mom’s fancy — and her nose! — with these bright and bubbly champagnes, selected by Ottawa Magazine’s David Lawrason and which are available at most LCBO outlets.

All that sparkles nowadays is not French Champagne. Nor is it nearly as expensive as French Champagne. It’s called “charmat,” or tank-method sparkling wine, and it’s getting better and better as technology improves. Around the world, and especially right here in Ontario, more wineries are turning out charmats that are simple, fresh expressions of local, often aromatic grape varieties. And they have energy and bloom that make them ideal for spring sipping.

Brief production background is essential. (I will wait here while you pour a glass.)

Most higher-end sparkling wines, including French Champagne, are made by what is called the “traditional method.” A mixture of yeast and sugar is added to a bottle of wine, which is then crown-capped. A second fermentation occurs in the bottle, creating the fine, tiny bubbles. After fermentation, the wine ages on the spent yeast cells, or lees, creating yeasty/toasty complexity, creamy texture, and excellent depth of flavour. The wine is then disgorged (the yeast is removed). It is a labour-intensive process and takes a minimum of two years, making traditional-method wines expensive.

With the charmat, or tank method, the second fermentation occurs in a pressurized tank that traps the bubbles in the wine. It is not long-aged, so there is very little transference of a yeasty/toasty flavour. Larger volumes can be made in weeks instead of years. The result is a sparkling wine with more pronounced, simpler fruit aromas and structure. So yes, it is lower in quality and may not receive high critic ratings. On the other hand, the wine is much less expensive, and increasingly it is perfectly enjoyable.

The tank method has long been used for high-volume wines such as the proseccos and spumantes of Italy and the sekts of Germany (i.e., Henkell Trocken) and the good old Duck family of Canada (Baby, Fuddle, and Cold). But the combination of lower cost, more straightforward fruit flavours, and improved smaller-batch production is creating a mini-boom in charmat wines around the world and across Canada — from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island — as small cottage wineries try to find something new. Closer to Ottawa, charmats are picking up steam in Prince Edward County, led by the efforts of Hinterland Wine Company, which set up shop in the mid-2000s as a sparkling wine specialist. They make excellent traditional-method wines too, but there is more buzz about tank projects such as the off-dry Whitecap and the pink sparkler called Borealis.

Hinterland has also become an incubator for other County charmats, renting out its new high-tech fermenter to neighbours like Ottawa-raised Glenn Symon at Lighthall Vineyards near Milford. Using aromatic vidal grapes grown in solid limestone soils, he has created one of the finest charmat bubblies in Ontario, called Progression (below). Over in Hillier, Casa-Dea has produced Dea’s Cuvée, which is based on pinot noir and chardonnay, while next door, on Greer Road, Rosehall Run has created Indigo, from a blend of aromatic grapes, and a pink wine called Pixie. 

Whether you order direct from an Ontario winery or shop at the LCBO, the great liberating factor about charmat “bubs” (aside from lower price) is the fact that they are now cool (or at least widely accepted). The high-brow, not-Champagne stigma is fading. This is thanks in part to the huge popularity and social acceptability of Italy’s prosecco but also to the fact that quality is better and the next generation is embracing simpler and more local pleasures. Cheers to that!

Pelee-Island

Pelee Island Secco Brut
$13.95 | Ontario | 86 points
This is a charmat made from pinot blanc and auxerrois. The nose is mild, but it shows well-defined, ripe yellow plum/pear fruit, thanks to the pinot blanc, with some honeyed aroma below. It’s medium-weight, fairly fleshy, off-dry, and fruity, yet buoyed by good acidity. The length is very good. Chill well. LCBO 225946.

Hinterland 2014 Borealis Method Charmat Rosé
$22.00 | Ontario | 88 points
This is very pretty, light, and fresh; the colour is a fairly deep pink garnet; the nose shows quite ripe crabapple, cranberry/strawberry fruit; it’s light-to-medium-bodied, vaguely off-dry, sour-edged, and well-balanced, with nice County minerality. The length is very good.
LCBO 431817.

Villa Maria

Villa Maria 2015 Lightly Sparkling
Sauvignon Blanc
$17.95 | New Zealand | 87 points
This is not exactly charmat: they have simply lightly carbonated the wine before bottling to showcase bright, intense passion fruit, grapefruit/lime, and fresh green herbs of Kiwi sauvignon blanc. It’s actually a quite delightful, well-made, and refreshing wine that doesn’t come across as too sweet. LCBO 429969.

Cuvée
$18.95 | Ontario | 88 points
Made from estate-grown pinot noir and chardonnay, this is similar to Champagne in flavour: vague apple, dried flowers, and honeyed fruit. Since it is made in the charmat method, it lacks the extra toasty complexity. It’s light-bodied, dry, and tart-edged, with typical County minerality. An oyster wine. Winery or LCBO 261263.

Villa-Sandi

Villa Sandi Prosecco
$13.95 | Treviso, Italy | 87 points
Made from the prosecco grape in northeast Italy, this light sparkler has some charm and more complexity than most. Not aromatically intense, but there is peach/pear fruit, almond, and vague grainy character. It’s light-to-medium-bodied, nicely fresh and firm, with a slightly foamy mousse. LCBO 394387.

Bottega Rose Gold Brut Sparkling
$26.95 | Italy | 87 points
The packaging is pretty slick; the wine inside is pretty good as well, but you are paying a premium for the dazzle. Made from pinot noir (nero in Italy) it’s built for elegance and freshness, not complexity and depth. It is nicely clean, vaguely sweet, with a pale dusty rose colour that matches the bottle. The nose shows vague strawberry and floral notes. LCBO 187914.

Cono-Sur

Cono Sur Sparkling Pinot Noir Rose
$13.95 | Chile | 86 points
This is a pale pastel pink bubbly made from pinot noir grown in the cool southern Bio Bio Valley, which provides the acidity necessary for good sparkling. It’s light-bodied, vaguely sweet with reserved rhubarb/cherry fruit/herbal notes. A bit frothy. The finish is dry with a bitter currant note. LCBO 365205.

Lighthall 2013 Progression
$20.00 | Ontario | 90 points
This is 100 percent vidal from estate vineyards in Prince Edward County, but vidal, as a hybrid variety, cannot — under VQA regulation — wear the PEC regional designation. I expected a simple fruity nose but found subtle generosity: lees, lemon, apple, and minerality. It’s nicely compact, with great acidity, yet has an almost creamy texture, with classic County minerality on the finish. Available at the winery and
at Supply & Demand restaurant in Ottawa.

SCORES  David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality. A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 86 to 89 very good; 80 to 85 good.