Bubbly Buyer’s Guide – December 2018

John Szabo’s Fizz Buyer’s Guide 2018: Sparkling Trends and Best Buys

By John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato, Michael Godel & Steve Thurlow

John Szabo, MS

Welcome to the annual year-end fizz guide, your complete reference source for sparkling wines of all types. 2018 was another year of strong growth for the sparkling wine category overall, with the number of producers in on the trend continuing to rise worldwide. In Canada, for example, there is hardly a serious producer left not producing at least one type of bubbly, and often many different types. Growth was evident just a couple of weeks ago at Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), when eighty Canadian sparkling winemakers met for the annual “Fizz Club”, a high-level technical gathering to compare notes, discuss triumphs and challenges relating to sparkling wine production, and learn about new research developments. Organized and led by senior scientist Belinda Kemp, this year’s Fizz Club was the largest gathering to date, with attendees from Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Nova Scotia.

Notable trends among the many Fizz Guide submissions sent my way this year for review include a sharp increase in the number of organically certified, and low/no sulphur added wines, a trend that has been steadily growing for many years in the still wine world, and which seems to have finally cracked into the sparkling realm.

New this year were the first vegan certified sparkling wines that have crossed my tasting table. Anecdotally, the number of vegan food purveyors has grown exponentially in the past year, especially in Toronto, so it was perhaps inevitable that vegan wines would become a thing, with production and certification on the rise in both Europe and North America. (Read my article from earlier this fall on what qualifies a wine as vegan).

But arguably the trendiest trend this year is the growth in the pétillant naturel category. “Pet-nats”, as the cool kids call them, are the natural wine movement’s contribution to the sparkling category. Just a few short years ago, pet-nats, like skin fermented white wines (aka orange wines), were not even available in Ontario. Now, the choice is an embarrassment, including local options.

Also known as ancestral or rural method sparklers, pet-nats are made by bottling still-fermenting must and allowing it to continue fermenting, trapping the carbon dioxide naturally produced as a by-product, hence the naturally fizzy moniker. They are less effervescent than a traditional method sparkling wine (fewer atmospheres of pressure), and generally not disgorged and left unfiltered and thus cloudy, like bottle-conditioned beers, with those dead yeast particles still floating around. The vast majority are made from organic/biodynamically-grown grapes and there are generally no sulphites added, as with their natural, still, brethren. They come in all colours and may occasionally have some residual sugar if the fermentation wasn’t fully completed. Although seemingly new and hip, this is exactly how the very first (likely accidental) sparkling wines were made, the OG of bubbles. What’s old is new again.

Today, hip wine bars worldwide would not be caught flat without at least a small selection of pet-nats. At their best, they are simple, refreshing, fun sparklers to chill and crack without excess contemplation. At their worst they are like apple cider gone sideways, or frothy salad dressing. Given their hip-ness and popularity, prices have inevitably climbed, often exceeding the cost of traditional method sparklers (which are far more labour intensive and time consuming, and thus expensive, to produce, and almost invariably more complex), making them some of the worst values in the wine world. I can almost hear producers giggling to themselves over how much people are willing to pay for them, like a sucker tax.

I did nevertheless find one delicious and fairly priced example this year that I’m happy to recommend, an Italian pet nat from natural wine import specialist Mark Cuff of The Living Vine. And, Sara d’Amato recommends a Canadian pet-nat from Tawse. For the rest, well, there are plenty of excellent traditional method sparkling wines from all over the world you can have for less.

Read on for my top picks out of this year’s crop, as well as additional recommendations from the WineAlign crew from both HQ tastings and recent Vintages Releases. All wines are available, either via the LCBO or in consignment; check each for details.

2018 Fizz Buyers’ Guide

Pétillant Naturel (Primary fermentation finished in bottle; unfiltered, no sulphites added, low pressure)

2017 Fattoria Sardi Toscana IGT Vino Frizzante ($24.95, consignment, The Living Vine)
John Szabo – Quite reductive off the top, this Pet-Nat from Sardi, near the pretty walled town of Lucca in northwest Tuscany, opens and blows off to reveal a pure and saline, apple and pear flavoured bubbly with moderate effervescence. Acids are balanced-high, and there’s a succulence and vibrancy that draws you in for another sip. In the genre, it’s clean and savoury, highly inviting, with better-than-average complexity and length. Certified organic; Trebbiano and Moscato bianco, no sulphites added.

Tawse Pét-Nat 2017, Ontario, Canada ($24.95, winery direct)
Sara d’Amato – Pét-Nat is a comeback of a traditional style of sparkling wine, low-interventionist and one that almost makes itself in the bottle without the complexities of technique that produce Traditional Method styles. Novel at its onset, the style is now met with more skepticism as it has, in some cases, been a way to sell unclean and uninspiring wine under the envelope of a hipster stamped trend. Thus, I must commend Tawse’s recent version of this style for being clean, aromatic, authentic and a result of an effort to showcase quality fruit in a natural style. It is non-disgorged and unfiltered, so its cloudy look is to be expected. Elegant notes of orange blossom, white flower and nettle along with marbled cherry and wet stone are airily present on the palate. A blend of organic and biodynamic fruit.

2017 Fattoria Sardi Toscana Tawse Pét Nat 2017

Prosecco and Other Charmat Method Sparkling (Secondary fermentation in tank, filtered under pressure and bottled)

La Marca Prosecco D.O.C. ($15.95, LCBO)
John Szabo – As far as regularly-available prosecco goes in Ontario, La Marca delivers reliably on pleasure and price. It’s a little sweet, even for the genre, but offers attractive, fruity aromatics, to which some evergreen and bay leaf notes add interest. The palate is light, with a typical 11% alcohol, balanced acids and modest but respectable length. Serves the purpose.

Nino Franco Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Veneto, Italy  ($21.95, LCBO)
David Lawrason – From a renowned producer, this prosecco is just a cut above, and ideal for Holiday entertaining. It’s typically light bodied with just a touch of sweetness, but aromatics are more complex than many peers. Expect poached pear, vanillin and vague almond and fennel notes. Well balanced, delicate and quite classy.

La Guardiense QUID Brut Rosato ($19.95, consignment, Rob Groh – The Vine)
John Szabo – Here’s a pleasant, fruity, well-made and fairly rare sparkling aglianico from the La Guardiense co-op, one of the largest in southern Italy with a thousand members farming 1500 hectares. It’s dry and improbably fresh considering its southerly origins, with inviting cherry-raspberry fruit, gentle, effervescence. Really quite delicious all around, and something different worth exploring.

La Marca ProseccoNino Franco Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco SuperioreLa Guardiense Quid Brut Rosato 

460 Cascina Gianluca Viberti Nebbiolo d’Alba Spumante Brut Rosé ($31.99; 17.99/375ml, consignment, Stem Wine Group)
John Szabo – I’ve often enjoyed this wine in the past, and this latest bottling is particularly good. It’s a lovely, fresh, varietally accurate Nebbiolo sparkling made in the charmat/martinotti method; I love the floral notes, the pure cherry flavours, the fully dry and savoury palate, and the back end length, invitingly saline.

Villa Maria Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand ($10.95 was $18.15, LCBO, Delisted)
Steve Thurlow – A steal at this price. This is a charming, well-made bubbly that is fresh and pure. The palate is creamy smooth with a hint of sweetness and is very refreshing. Not a lot of complexity but it is very easy to drink and should be liked by prosecco -overs. Very good length. Over 900 bottles remain.

460 Cascina Gianluca Viberti Nebbiolo D'alba Spumante Brut Rosé Villa Maria Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Cava (Traditional Method sparkling wine from Spain)

Julià & Navinès Cava Brut Nature No SO2, DO Cava ($19.95, Le Sommelier)
John Szabo – Made from 100% Xarel-lo and aged for 24 months sur lie. I’m told that when Julià & Navinès first produced a wine without any sulphur, they sent a case to both Amsterdam and Singapore and back, to see if the wine would hold up. The experiment was successful, and production of Cava with no added sulphites (“sense SO” in Catalan) was ramped up. It is indeed clean and relatively fresh all things considered, though also showing marked toasty-autolytic character, apple peel and wheat germ, kasha and barley. Effervescence is particularly gentle and dissipates quickly, on the lower side of legally stipulated max-min pressure, it appears. It has a nice range of flavours and classy, elegant styling all around. Certified organic.

Dominio De Tharsys Brut Nature, DO Cava ($17.95, consignment, 30-50 imports)
John Szabo – Here’s a classy, complex and bone dry Cava, unusual in that it’s made from pure chardonnay grown in Valencia, well south of the heartland of Cava production in the Penedès. In any case, it’s fresh and well balanced, rich without being sweet, and with very good length. It’s not a classic Cava by any stretch, but delivers pretty much everything you could want in a sub-$20 traditional method sparkling wine.

Parés Baltà Cava Brut ($17.99, consignment, Noble Estates)
John Szabo – Bold, fruity, flavourful Cava here, with abundant apple and pear aromatics in the traditional style, vaguely earthy and mushroom-inflected. Length and depth are perfectly fine in the category. Certified organic and vegan.

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava, Spain ($15.95, LCBO)
Steve Thurlow: This is my favourite LCBO bubbly under $16, great for receptions as an aperitif; essentially anywhere you would consider Champagne. Expect a fresh nose of grapefruit, mineral and pear with an elegant, delicate, soft mousse and a long, lingering finish of apple pear fruit. Lots of flavour and super creamy texture. Very good length.

Julià & Navinès Cava Brut Nature No So2 Dominio De Tharsys Brut Nature Parés Baltà Cava Brut  Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava

Crémant (Traditional method sparkling French wines from outside of champagne)

Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura Blanc Brut ($31.95, consignment, Le Sommelier)
John Szabo – Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard from the villages of Montigny les Arsures and Le Vernois, the grapes were whole cluster pressed and aged on the fine lees for 6 months, with no malolactic fermentation, before secondary fermentation. It spent 40 months sur lie, and given a dosage of 10 g/L before shipping. This is excellent quality bubbly, complex, stony, particularly savoury and mineral – I love the sapidity, the dry and crisp palate, the balance, depth of flavour and length. A classy and complete wine, ready to enjoy.

2016 Barmès-Buecher Crémant d’Alsace Brut Nature ($32.95, consignment, The Living Vine)
John Szabo – A crémant in the richer style despite having no dosage, a blend of pinot gris, blanc, auxerrois and chardonnay. It shows some later-harvest richness, a honeyed, creamy, ripe orchard fruit profile. The palate is likewise round and creamy, well-suited to richer seafood dishes or even white meats, like a chicken-chanterelle preparation. Length and depth are excellent.

Domaine Rolet Père Et Fils Crémant Du Jura Brut Blanc  Domaine Barmès-Buecher Crémant d'Alsace 2016 

Canadian Traditional Method Sparkling Wines

Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut VQA Niagara Escarpment ($29.95, LCBO)
John Szabo – Cave Spring seems to be off the main radar when it comes to traditional method sparkling wine, perhaps because of their excellence with riesling, which overshadows the whole portfolio. Yet they are quietly making some of the finest bubbles in Ontario, and this latest bottling of Blanc de Blancs continues the streak of deliverance. This is marvellously fresh, complex and complete, creamy and richly flavoured, featuring a fine mix of white-fleshed orchard fruit and gentle toasty-autolytic character, almonds and apple blossoms. At the price point, it over-delivers, easily equalling much higher-priced traditional method sparkling wine.
Sara d’Amato – Impressively complex at a steal of a price, Cave Spring’s traditional method chardonnay offers the nervy sophistication you’d expect from a top quality non-vintage Champagne. Elegantly packaged for a festive occasion, lightly austere and notably polished.

13th Street 2012 Premier Cuvee, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($34.95, VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – 13th Street remains an under-sung bubbly producer in Niagara, but they have been doing long-aged vintage sparkling wines for many years. This pale golden shaded sparkler shows a fairly complex, soft, mature, slightly oxidative nose of roasted pecan, dried peach and lemon. It is light bodied and almost delicate with racy acidity, tart-edged and notably dry. It has Champagne-like vinosity and depth. It is 50-50 pinot noir chardonnay, aged 48 months on its lees.

111249 Blue Mountain 2014 Brut Rose RD, Okanagan Valley, B.C. ($32.95, winery direct)
David Lawrason – A pale, quite delicate sparkler from estate-grown pinot noir, with a dash of chardonnay, aged 30 months on its lees. It has a fine, subtle nose of strawberry/cherry fruit, with a hint of baked bread and grapefruit. It is light bodied, dry, evenly balanced and fresh, with fine flavour continuity and very good to excellent length. Very good value.

Tawse Spark Laundry Vineyard Blanc De Noirs 2014, Lincoln Lakeshore ($30.15, winery direct)
Michael Godel – Apples are everywhere, fresh picked, tart, juicy and biting. Sprinkled with fine spice. Baking into something warm, comforting and endlessly aromatic. Lovely ethereal character and fine bitters to finish, like a sauce with calvados spiked into beurre blanc. Quite Champenoise love actually.

Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut Sparkling  13th Street Premier Cuvée 2012  Blue Mountain Brut Rose R.D. 2014  Tawse Spark Laundry Vineyard Blanc De Noirs 2014

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Brut 2015, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($34.70, winery direct)
Michael Godel – This old vines Okanagan fizz is by now one of the archetypes for B.C., a wine of great tension and surprise to teach the world a thing or two about what can be done in Canada. The increase in texture, fruit pectin and general creaminess is noted through the lemon curd in preserve both to nose and to taste. It’s still electric and reverberating though with more density and ultimately complexity. Lingers long and just as you’d hope it would.

Blue Mountain Blanc De Blancs R.D. 2010, VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($39.90, winery direct)
Michael Godel – There is something so fine and rewarding about tasting sparkling wine with this much mileage and yet remains so fresh and alive. Not just one of the best deals in Canadian sparkling wine but one of the best sparkling wines available, anywhere.

Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut Reserve 2012, Nova Scotia ($74.95, winery direct)
Michael Godel – A bottle of this was gifted to christen the first Irving Shipyard-built Arctic patrol vessel. Sophie Trudeau used the bottle to christen the Harry DeWolf during an October ceremony on the Halifax waterfront. An interesting and poignant aside, this gesture. Nova Scotia can raise grapes for traditional method sparkling wine in ways and with results that blow everything else out of the proverbial water and is second only to Champagne for making the kind of sparkling wine we should and will want to drink.

Benjamin Bridge 2013 Brut, Nova Scotia, Canada, ($44.50, winery direct)
Sara d’Amato – Nova Scotia’s premier sparkling producer is responsible for this gracefully ageing vintage number that offers a powerhouse of toasty creaminess, brine and a lasting note of citrus zest. An assemblage of 71% chardonnay and 29% pinot meunier with enough dosage to add richness but just shy of slick.  An immediately appealing style that is a versatile fit for a varied crowd.

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling Brut 2015  Blue Mountain Blanc De Blancs R.D. 2010  Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut Reserve 2012  Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut 2013

Italian Traditional Method Sparkling Wines

Ca’del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta 2016, Franciacorta,Lombardy, Italy ($41.95, VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – Tucked in alpine territory of northern Italy, Franciacorta is renowned for making Italy’s best traditional method sparklers. Pouring maturing pale lemon-gold, this shows good intensity and complexity with peach pit, wildflower and subtle toasty notes. There is a marzipan sweetness on the nose as well. It is medium weight, dry, nicely firm and very well balanced,

Ca'del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta 2016


Fleury Champagne BdN Blanc de Noirs ($67.95, consignment, The Living Vine)
John Szabo – From the original biodynamic champagne house, since 1989, Fleury’s latest Blanc de Noirs shows a richly oxidative style, a savoury amalgam of roasted orchard fruit, peach and apricot, honey and ginger, pomegranate and raspberry jam, complex and intriguing. The palate is dry and firm, with excellent length and depth. A meaty and substantial wine all in all, for current enjoyment or short term hold.

Lanson 2005 Gold Label Vintage Brut, Champagne, France ($89.95, VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – If contemplating Champagne with a course or two of an elegant Holiday meal, this is the one. It is a very mature, golden Champagne with intense, rich and very complex aromas of sponge toffee, almond butter, baked apple, hay, peanut shell and light toast. It is medium bodied, elegant with finely embedded acidity and a softer effervescence than many peers. Excellent length here.

Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Champagne, Champagne, France ($84.95, VINTAGES)
Sara d’Amato – Very few non-vintage Champagnes can rival the quality of Bollinger’s Special Cuvée, especially given the price. This classic find is made from a majority of pinot noir with the balance chardonnay and pinot meunier, half of which is aged in oak casks. A minimum of three years of ageing produces an intricate layering of those yeasty notes reminiscent of a carefully structured mille-feuille pastry or a gratifying croissant. Although sophisticates are sure to appreciate this indulgence, it doesn’t take an oenophile to appreciate the seductive qualities of this exemplary cuvée.

Taittinger Brut Réserve Champagne, France ($56.75 was $61.75, LCBO)
Steve Thurlow: Always a favourite since it is such a flavourful Champagne with soft mouthwatering acidity, probably due to the high proportion of chardonnay in the blend. It shows dried fruit aromas and flavours with buttered toast, nutty and citrus complexity. Well balanced with very good length. This is a lovely elegant wine that will appeal to many.

Fleury Champagne Bdn Blanc De Noirs  Lanson Gold Label Vintage Brut Champagne 2005 Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Champagne Taittinger Brut Réserve Champagne

Sweet Bubbles

Ca’ Del Baio Moscato D’asti 101 2017 ($19.99, Stem Wine Group)
John Szabo –Classic, marvellously fresh and fruity-floral moscato d’Asti here from Barbaresco specialist Ca’ del Baio. It’s sweet, but balanced by acids and sapidity, with good to very good length. Fits the afternoon aperitif slot, or a perfect pour with crunchy biscotti,, panforte, and similar, not-too-sweet treats.

Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto D’acqui 2017 ($26.99, Stem Wine Group)
John Szabo – Beautifully fresh, fragrant, medium-sweet, this is simply delicious, bright, clean, raspberry-flavoured sparkling wine, with a light and refreshing 5.5.% alcohol, the pink equivalent of Moscato d’Asti. This is a perfect afternoon aperitif, or after-dinner celebratory sip with the dark chocolate cake (not too sweet). An archetype.

Ca' Del Baio Moscato D'asti 101 2017  Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto D'acqui 2017

And that’s it for this report. From the entire crü at WineAlign we wish you a happy, fun-filled, frothy holiday season and see you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS