The sound of Champagne corks popping is a sure sign that the festive season is here. But what's the best bubbly to go for, and do you have to spend lots of money you don't have on Christmas Cheer? For OutUK Suzi Atkins has been trying to avoid Festive Fizz Fright Syndrome ...

If it's Christmas, it must sparkle. No, not the bleedin' frost, which never, ever seems to appear on 25 December. The wine, of course. At this time of year, you have to have at least one bottle of chilled fizz to hand, but preferably a caseload, to spread out carefully between now and the end of New Year's Day.

It's partly, of course, because bubbly, with its air of celebration and festivity, sets the tone nicely. There's nothing quite like popping a cork on Champagne to kick-start a special occasion. But it's not just that - it's the actual style of the wine too. Sparkling wine should be refreshing, clean-tasting, with high acidity and small crisp bubbles - the perfect antidote to lots of rich fatty food and powerful red wine. It's a palate-cleansing drink, one of the world's best aperitifs.

The best sparklers manage to pull off a very clever balancing act. I can think of no other wine that manages to appear at once elegant, restrained and light, yet powerful, rich and lingering, all at the same time (although fine German Riesling comes close).

The best sparkling wines and Champagnes seem to have hidden depths - the first characteristics you notice are that crisp mousse, the clean acidity, the subtle hint of yeast. Then the rich yellow or red fruits kick in, the doughy-bready aroma seems more apparent, and the creamy, chocolatey, yoghurty, buttery layers start to reveal themselves… Serious fizz is complex stuff.

But you don't have to buy this kind of sparkling wine, of course. A simple, fresh, dry brut will suffice as a general party bubbly. And you don't need me to tell you that the real headache from premium sparkling wine is not the hangover, but the fact that it costs so much. Oh, and it can be frustratingly unreliable, too. Cut-price Champagne, in particular, is fraught with danger - get a bad one and you have a wine that tastes like fizzy citric acid, but which probably cost you more than £15.

Scary stuff all this. Still, I find a few simple rules help avoid Festive Fizz Fright. So crack another bottle, and here we go:

Rule 1:

When throwing a big party for more than ten people, grab a case (or five) of cava. Why? Spain's traditional sparkling wine is made in the same labour-intensive, meticulous method as Champagne, from local Spanish grape varieties (and sometimes a bit of Chardonnay). It's reliably refreshing, clean and palatable, with a crisp appley flavour. And it comes in at less than half the price of Champagne. It won't do for a really special occasion, perhaps, but for fuelling a big Christmas bash, it's a must.

Rule 2:

Avoid the very cheapest sparklers. They stink - simple as that. Cava aside, most truly inexpensive fizz is horrible stuff - chemically, sulphurous and prone to giving your guests tooth rot. And that goes especially for the nasty French bubbly with the plastic 'Champagne' cork you picked up in Calais.

Rule 3:

Tread carefully with non-vintage Champagne - it can be dodgy, too. Buy non-vintage from a reliable name. This is one instance when buying big brands is probably a smart idea.

Rule 4:

Try premium, fruity New World sparklers - especially those from New Zealand - for dinner parties and smaller crowds. You can't beat the new-wave, sunny, ripe bubblies coming out of New World countries. The ones made in Marlborough, New Zealand, are among the very best.

Rule 5:

When it really counts, roll out the vintage Champagne. Why? Because the top Champagnes, made in a distinguished year, are still the most impressive, most complex sparkling wines in the world. One word of warning - they are all too often released too early, so pick one with a bit of maturity. The 1990 vintage, for example, is still drinking splendidly. Give immature ones a wide berth, or if you are lucky enough to be given an impressive label, cellar it for a few years and open it in Christmas 2025. And ask me round.





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