If champagne is too expensive, try a sparkling Loire for your festive fizz

Bicycle and tasting tour inside the Bouvet Ladoubay cellars. Picture: Sophie Boursier

Bicycle and tasting tour inside the Bouvet Ladoubay cellars. Picture: Sophie Boursier - Credit: Archant

Liz Sagues suggests some reasonably priced fizz and fortified wines to serve at festive parties or with your Christmas feast.

Each time the festive season arrives, I’m reminded of a splendid radio series decades ago by the jolliest of Ham&Highland characters. Who now in Muswell Hill, I wonder, remembers Tom Vernon – the Fat Man on a Bicycle? On that occasion, Tom was deep in a rock-cut cellar lined with bottle upon bottle of fizz. Written words can’t equal the atmospheric sound, as occasional bottles exploded under the pressure of the bubbles within.

This wasn’t fine champagne, but a wine made in the same way and a very, very acceptable party or aperitif alternative: the sparkling wine of the Loire Valley. That brings me to the purpose of this column: to identify some lovely, easy-to-find wines which can replace posher, pricier bottles and provide the same seasonal enjoyment. But because it’s Christmas, some particularly good posh ones are included too.

Let’s start with that Loire fizz. Bouvet Ladubay was one of the first producers I visited, another happy memory. Topical good news is that the Monmousseau family, which has run the business for many decades, has taken back full control from champagne giant Taittinger and its global successors, thus guaranteeing traditional character continues.

Visitors are warmly welcomed – there are even bicycle tours deep into the cellars, a touch Tom would surely have appreciated (when he died two years ago, his Guardian obituary aptly called him “a sort of Bill Bryson on a bike”).

Loire fizz comes in various appellations, including Saumur, Vouvray and Montlouis, made principally from chenin blanc or, for the rosés and rare reds, cabernet franc, and crémant de Loire, where there’s more chardonnay. Most are delicious, and excellent value – as are crémants from elsewhere in France, such as Burgundy, Jura and Alsace.

As for the other end of the festive meal, there aren’t many alternatives to port. But many ports (vintage is the principal exception) will survive happily in the fridge for a good time after opening, so it’s worth splashing out. But for something similar yet interestingly different, try the vins doux naturels from Roussillon, made in a similar way to port though from different grape varieties. Australia offers ideas here, too – rich muscats can be wonderful – and think of Italy’s unfortified stickies.

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Such wines make splendid presents, as do fine sherries. So now for the recommendations.

Majestic has Bouvet Ladoubay Saumur NV and Saumur Rosé Brut (both £9, mix-six deal – as are all Majestic prices here), and two crémants from another excellent Loire house, L’Extra par Langlois Brut and Rosé (both £9.75), plus sweet star Pocas Colheita Port 1995 (£13.50, half-bottle).

At Oddbins, Château de l’Aulée (£12) is stylish Loire crémant, Tarlant Brut Réserve (£29) a smart, well-priced champagne, and outstanding on the sweet/fortified shelves are Pellegrino Pantelleria Passito (£10.75, half-bottle), Quinta Do Noval LBV port 2008 (£24) and Ramos Pinto 20 Year Old Tawny Port (£35).

M&S has a superb, rich, stylish sherry, 15 Year Old Oloroso Dry Sack (£23); good too are Da Vinci Vin Santo 2008 (£20, 50cl), Finest Reserve port (£12) and LBV Port 2010 magnum (£28), impressive in taste as well as size.

To end: a bargain, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Special Reserve Port (£10), and a stellar champagne, Egly Ouriet Tradition (£40, Lea & Sandeman).