Sparkling Wine: A Brave New World

As demand for sparkling wine shows no signs of abating, the New World is taking its chances and offering quality like never before, as Jamie Goode reports

For as long as anyone can remember, sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region have lived under a very big shadow. And the term “sparkling wine” itself used to be a pejorative one, immediately signifying a fizz belonging to the second-rate, champagne-imitator category. But things have changed over recent years, and champagne no longer has everything all its own way. 

There’s been the rise of Prosecco, as a friendly and tasty sparkling wine in its own right, made inexpensively and sold for a decent margin. English sparkling wines, from a country where winegrowing was seen as a bit of a joke, have taken off and gained a lot of respect. 

Cava may still have a few struggles with price points, but overall, the global market for non-champagne sparkling wines is predicted to reach 202 million 9-litre cases by 2016, up from 177 million in 2010, and it has been growing worldwide at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.9% since 2005. Sparkling wines are the wine world’s quiet success story. 

Here we examine how sparkling wines from New World countries are performing, and the picture is largely a positive one. The challenge facing New World fizz has mainly been one of viticulture. 

Many of these wine regions are quite a bit warmer than the classic sparkling wine-producing areas and in order to hit correct alcohol levels picking has to take place early. You don’t want base wines of more than 11.5% alcohol, because of the extra 1–1.5% alcohol produced during the secondary fermentation, which would be difficult to complete otherwise. 

This early picking, before the grapes are physiologically ripe, leads to excessive malic acid content, which tastes harder than tartaric acid, and compromises the quality of the wine. Increased realisation that vineyards have to be selected more carefully, and managed differently, has led to a significant rise in quality in New World sparkling wines. 

One of the big success stories is in South Africa, with Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), a name developed by the Cap Classique Producers Association for top-quality bottle-fermented sparkling wine. The first South African bottle-fermented sparkling wine is thought to have been made by Simonsig in 1971, and the association was founded with 14 members; there are now 82. 

“Currently as a category in South Africa, MCC is still growing healthily,” reports fizz king Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck, “with just under double digits at around 8.5% to 9% in production estimation, with close to 150 wineries now producing a MCC.” 

He points out that the seven biggest players produce 5.8 million of the total annual production of 7 million bottles of MCC. Overall sparkling wine production (including MCC) is around 16.5 million litres, of which 8 million litres are exported. 

Ferreira estimates that MCC exports are 2.5 million bottles, with Sweden, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium the most important export markets, and Indian Ocean Islands, Russia, the rest of Africa and Japan the emerging markets. “Although we [Graham Beck] are the only MCC on the radar in the USA, I have just returned from a five-week market trip there,” says Ferreira, “and we should sell more than 350,000 bottles there this year.” 

He adds: “At Graham Beck we remain ‘bullish’ and anticipate a 10% growth on year-on-year production over the next three years.”

Chile is at last waking up to sparkling wine production and Cono Sur is one of the key players, along with the likes of Undurraga, and newcomers include Montes, Viña Leyda and Errazuriz. 

“Of the wines I’ve presented over the past three years, Cono Sur’s sparkling category has shown the highest annual growth,” says Adolfo Hurtado, general manager and chief winemaker at Cono Sur. 

“In our opinion, this is due to an enormous global increase in interest in sparkling wines, where they are no longer seen as a seasonal product – rather an attractive, sexy drink that’s all the rage, particularly among women.”

Hurtado highlights domestic sales as being particularly important. “Sparkling is especially popular in the Chilean market, having replaced our much celebrated Pisco Sour as the preferred apéritif. Consumers see it as a hip, fresher option with less alcohol and fewer calories.”

He adds: “It is amazing to see how a once highly seasonal product with limited consumption can manage to reposition itself as a stylish product, with an entire culture surrounding it, in such a short amount of time.”

Some perspective is needed: exports are still less than 1% of Chile’s total, at around 5 million bottles – but this will change.

Hurtado is taking advantage of the varied winegrowing climates in Chile, and is focusing on using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from the southern, cool Bío Bío Valley to make his sparkling base. 

“With generally low temperatures and rich red clay soils, Bío Bío produces grapes with increased acidity, resulting in fresh, expressive sparkling wines,” he says. “It’s definitely a fast-growing category that we intend to use to compete against spirits, not white wines.”

Success stories

Argentina has a much longer history of sparkling wine production than Chile. Moët & Chandon moved to Argentina in 1960 with a big investment, and is still the leader in terms of quality and quantity. 

The focus has been the large Argentinian domestic market and also exporting to other South American countries. There are now some newer players in the scene, such as the innovative Alma 4, a project of Sebastián Zuccardi, and Bodegas Mumm (which arrived in 2008). 

Brazil is another sparkling success story. “The World Cup has been an amazing opportunity to help Brazilian wines to be known,” says Ana Sofia Oliveira, who represents Wines of Brasil in the UK. “A few big retailers have taken the chance to create the category.”

Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have all listed Brazilian wines in the past year in the UK. Brazil is the fifth largest wine producer in the southern hemisphere, with 10,000ha of Vitis vinifera vineyards, 150 wineries and a production of 40 million litres in 2013. There are six main wine regions with Serra Gaúcha the largest (85% of total production).

Of the 40 million litres produced, 16 million were sparkling in 2013, which is around 40%. Twenty-three per cent of all the wine exported by Brazilian wineries from January to September 2014 was sparkling, which makes Brazil perhaps the leading producer of sparkling wines in South America. 

Moët & Chandon opened a winery in the south of the country at the beginning of the 1970s, and both traditional-method and Charmat-method wines are common. Sparkling Moscato (white and rosé) is growing in production and consumption.

Challenges Down Under

Australia, however, is struggling a little with sparkling wine. There are several producers making very high quality wines, such as Arras, Jansz, Croser, Domaine Chandon and Pirie Tasmania. But the more commercial wines are not making much headway. 

Brett McKinnon, global operations director of Pernod Ricard Winemakers, who is responsible for the Jacob’s Creek brand of sparkling wine, says: “The Australian sparkling wine category is currently challenging, with global volumes down 4% in the past three years.

“However, there are encouraging signs that the category is premiumising, with the super premium plus price segment (above US$15 per 75cl) growing at 12%. The markets driving growth of Australian sparkling wine include: China (+42%), Japan (+12%), the Netherlands (+9%) and Canada (+4%).”

The Jacob’s Creek sparkling range was launched in 1998, and is now the largest brand by value in the Australian sparkling category. 

McKinnon points out that today Jacob’s Creek is one of the only wine brands in the world to have a successful range of sparkling wines under the same brand name as its still table wines. The markets driving its growth are Thailand (+119%), the Netherlands (+28%), China (+26%) and New Zealand (+4%). 

What about New Zealand? There are plenty of vineyards in cooler areas that should be ideal for producing Kiwi fizz. Some good wines are being made, but it appears to be a bit of a sideshow. 

Montana (now Brancott) made some well-priced wines under the Lindauer brand, and even nicer wines in partnership with champagne house Deutz, labelled Deutz Marlborough. But Pernod Ricard sold Lindauer to Lion Nathan a few years ago, and outside the domestic market, sparkling is no longer a priority for Brancott. 

The most celebrated Kiwi sparkler is produced by Daniel Le Brun, who in the mid-1990s sold the rights to his name and sparkling wine business, and had to leave the market for three years, before coming back in 1999 with his No 1 Family Estate. 

Other top names include Huia, Cloudy Bay Pelorus and Nautilus in Marlborough, and Akarua and Quartz Reef in Central Otago. In export markets New Zealand sparkling wine is currently growing strongly in Sweden (+57%) and Canada (+53%). 

One recent innovation has been sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a product that was born from the surplus production in 2008. Producers found that carbonation was the method that worked best, preserving the lively grassy Sauvignon character with the added interest of bubbles. Another new innovation has been Villa Maria’s Lightly Sparkling range, which is sealed with screwcap and has less pressure than traditional sparkling wines. 

The US makes a lot of sparkling wine, and some of it is very good. Champagne houses including Piper-Heidsieck, Deutz, Louis Roederer, Mumm and Taittinger rushed to California in the 1980s, either starting their own ventures or forging partnerships; two major Cava houses – Freixenet and Codorníu – also joined in. 

The majority of this sparkling wine production has been for domestic consumption, because the foreign houses have no desire to compete with themselves in other markets, and by the time these products would have landed abroad their prices would not be terribly competitive. The exception is sparkling Moscato, which has been successful in both domestic and export markets. 

North of the border

Canada is only making a small amount of sparkling wine at the moment, but some impressive wines have been made. Niagara, the largest region, has quite warm summers, even though they are short, so may not be the best region for sparkling production. Still, Henry of Pelham, Cave Spring and Tawse are making some good wines. 

Sticking with Ontario, Prince Edward County is a bit cooler, and Hinterland (a sparkling specialist) and Closson Chase are proving that top wines can be made here. Heading to the west coast, the Okanagan has a few good examples, including Blue Mountain, but the surprise story is chilly Nova Scotia, where L’Acadie and Benjamin Bridge are doing really well.

What of the future? As the sparkling wine market continues to grow, producers are gaining the confidence to step outside the shadow of champagne and forge their own path. This is a category that is all about selling pleasure, and innovation in terms of product and packaging is going to increase. 

While alternative closures such as crown caps have yet to take off, there are fewer regulations regarding closures in New World countries than there are in Europe, so it’s likely that the novel Zork closure and even screwcaps could become more common. 

With improvements in site selection and viticulture, and more experience in the particulars of sparkling winemaking, the future for New World sparklers looks bright indeed.