It’s always wise to have a toast up your sleeve in case of emergencies. “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” is one I’ve fallen back on many a time. Some say it was coined by the painter Francis Bacon, others that it was the work of gravel-voiced troubadour Tom Waits. I’m inclined to go with the Waits theory – it sounds like just the sort of bone-dry chiasm he’d come out with.
Its wit will never wear thin. But the idea that champagne is the only bubbly fit to serve friends is, I think, one that’s starting to change. Just the other day I witnessed a rogue bottle of Wiston sparkling rosé from West Sussex outscore a dozen grandes marques champagnes in a blind tasting organised by The Finest Bubble. It led to the discovery of one of my favourite English sparklers so far, Wiston’s non-vintage blanc de blancs, a wine so pure and poised I’m tempted not to share it with my friends at all. The recent launch of Chapel Down’s Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013, a single vintage Chardonnay fizz at £100 a bottle, has also helped to give English sparkling wine a new halo that’s reassuringly expensive.
Italian sparkling wine franciacorta has also been amassing a more highbrow following of late. Often pitched as the thinking drinker’s prosecco, this product of Lombardy in northern Italy is actually technically closer to champagne: it majors on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and has its secondary fermentation in bottle à la méthode champenoise rather than in tanks, like prosecco. Like champagne, franciacorta is aged on the lees, giving it more toasty complexity, yet the grapes tend to be riper, allowing for some seriously low dosage levels; the delicious Corte Fusia Satèn contains less than 1g of sugar per litre, yet this blanc de blancs remains wonderfully rich and structured.
I tasted it over lunch at the Corinthia Hotel’s grand Massimo restaurant, where the house pour is Ca’ del Bosco, one of the most renowned producers of franciacorta. A bottle of this label’s top cuvée, Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi, would pass muster at even the most terrifying dinner party.
Franciacorta is still a small player – it only produces six per cent of the volume of champagne. But in other ways it may be ahead of the curve – around 70 per cent of the land under vine is certified organic, with plans to be fully organic by 2020. Most of its 117 producers are tiny and open to innovation. And it’s still relatively young – it was only granted DOC status in 1967. Could it be the future of alt fizz? Waits better start honing his prose.