ShelfLife tasting: Bubbles on a budget
Helen Coburn highlights the wide variety of prices and styles currently available within Ireland's sparkling wine category
16 October 2014
Excise tax on a case of sparkling wine in Ireland is now €80.53. That’s €6.71 a bottle. Nowhere else comes near. France levies 83 cents a case, and Germany €12.24. Then UK rate is €30.07, Sweden is €22.95, Netherlands €22.90 and Latvia €5.76.
Ireland is also unusual in imposing a higher tax on sparkling than on still wine. This was laid down in 1930, when the rate for still wine was set at two shillings a gallon and, on sparkling, 12 shillings and six pence. In Sweden and the UK, for example, the tax on both wines is the same and nowhere is the excise gap between still and sparkling so great as in Ireland. In Denmark, for example, excise is €13.29 on a case of still wine and €17.12 on sparkling. In Belgium the excise rate is €5.13 and €17.55 respectively. In Ireland excise on a case of still wine is Europe’s highest at €38.24, making the gap between still and sparkling almost €42.
This is, quite simply, insanity. Sparkling wine is no longer the luxury product it was thought to be in the economically deprived Ireland of 1930. It is produced in most wine regions and locals generally see it as an everyday refresher wine. That’s partly because good sparkling wine needs to be made from early picked, high acid grapes and is therefore relatively low in alcohol. Dry sparkling wine ranges from 10% to 12.5% alcohol by volume, while sweet bubbly starts at around 5%. Reducing excise on bubbly to the same level as still wine would encourage consumers to drink these lower alcohol styles more often.
Despite everything, there’s more sparkling wine available in Ireland than ever before, in a huge range of prices and styles. Not all of it is expensive; in fact, given the tax rate, it’s clear that profit margins on some bubbly must be tight, especially on cheaper, non-Champagne styles. Because it’s a flat rate, excise is a smaller proportion of the price of a high end Champagne than of a mid-range prosecco and the retailer often absorbs much of the difference.
Champagne and other methode traditionelle sparklers are created by fermenting still wines for a second time in a bottle, through the addition of yeast and a little sugar. Cheaper styles, or those intended to be light and fruit driven, generally undergo second fermentation in a tank before they are bottled. Neither method is inherently better. It all depends on what the maker wants to do. For example a sweet moscato d’asti or a fruity prosecco would gain nothing from a bottle fermentation. That said, bottle fermentation is generally selected for more complex wine, so that the price you pay is related not just to the added cost of production but the superior quality of the base wines.
Getting a decent bubbly is a challenge if money is tight and as we approach the festive season we’ve brought together some wines which are good value for their price. For the Champagne we chose €50 as the cut off price.
Comte de Brismand Champagne nv (Lidl €19.99). This is the bargain that everyone is talking about. Is it like Bollinger? No. But it’s decent, with crisp citrus fruit, and perfect for a party.
Gosset Brut Excellence Ay nv (Mackenway; independents €50). It was a struggle to get this one on the list as it’s often €55 retail. Drink Store, Stoneybatter (drinkstore.ie) has it for €49.99. So it’s worth shopping around.
Canard Duchene Rose nv (O’Briens €37). This a good price for a decent pink. It’s sometimes a tad more and it’s always worth asking for the best offer.
Haya de Cadenas Cava (Cassidys; independents €19) Stylish Spanish cava; expensive for this category but it’s got decent weight and length.
Castillo Perlada Cava Brut Reserva Penedes (Corkscrew €20) Another classy cava from the traditional region. Firm green fruit and busy bubbles.
Tommasi Prosecco (Cassidys; independents €20). You’re paying a bit for the prestige of the Tommasi name, but it’s good, with refreshing citrus and pear flavours.
Jeio Prosecco Valdobbiadene (Searson; independents €21). From the heart of the classic prosecco region, this is one of the very best. Fine aperitif but can cope with dishes like risotto or roast chicken.
Le Contesse Pinot Noir Pinot Blanc Rose Valdobbiadene (Wines Direct €19.30). From prosecco-land, but made with Champagne grapes. Classy and different and great value.
Ca ‘val Prosecco Brut (Tesco €15.99) Don’t let the chunky bottle put you off – this is one of the best bubblies for the money.
Yellowglen Pink (Richmond Marketing; Tesco, independents €16). This is a lot better than you’d think from the girly label. It’s one of Australia’s best selling sparklers and it’s a tank fermented, fresh fruit style.
Jacobs Creek Dry Sparkling (Irish Distillers; multiple outlets €16). Made from Champagne grapes, this is surprisingly elegant with lively bubbles.
Chateau Moncotour Vouvray (Marks & Spencer €18). This is sparkling chenin blanc from the Loire Valley; it has firm green fruit and zingy length.
Meyer Fonne Cremant d’Alsace (Corkscrew €27). From pinots blanc, meunier and noir, this has apple and lemon flavours, with good intensity to the finish.
Henri Grandin Cremant de Loire Brut Traditionelle (Febvre; independents €26). Another chenin which has excellent weight and finish for the price.
Villa Maria Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (Barry & Fitzwilliam; multiple outlets €15). Fresh yet with a touch of juicy limes; perfect aperitif.
Hunters Miru Miru Reserve Sparkling (Independents €27) This has long been a fine alternative for Champagne lovers. Green fruit with a yeasty twist.
Oyster Bay Sparkling Cuvée Brut nv (Tesco, O’Briens, SuperValu, Dunnes Stores, Londis, independents €20.99). There are often offers on this one so it’s worth dealing on price. For the money, it’s one of the very best. There’s a pink but the white one has the edge.