What No One Tells You About Sparkling Wine
We’ve all been there. It could be an anniversary party, an end-of-the-year bash or a tribute to a good friend: you generally have no idea what that sparkling wine is in your glass. You simply wait for the clock to strike twelve, or sing the last verses of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” before putting the flute to your lips, and tipping back.
But is it champagne? It must be, right? You don’t even know what you’re drinking. But you finish your glass in the name of tradition. As the revelers pass the bottle around, you will have another. Thank you.
And that will probably be the last time you have sparkling wine until next December.
Getting Lost in the Bubbles
With so much sparkling wine around, it is easy to believe how much sparkling wine has increased in popularity over the past 10 years. But if you think all sparkling wine is Champagne, think again. There is a lot more to bubbly wine than just Champagne. And many comparable wines have a lower price tag.
So before you go out and fill up your cupboards with Dom Perignon, take a look at what no one has ever told you about sparkling wines. You may find yourself looking at the label next New Year’s Eve.
Method in the Madness
One of the best ways to understand what you’re drinking is to consider how it is made. Many decent, European sparkling wines follow one of three primary fermentation processes (there are other methods, but we’ll limit our discussion to the three major methods). And these methods will, in part, determine certain characteristics of the wine.
There are three primary methods to making sparkling wine: Méthode Champenoise, The Transfer Method and the Metodo Italiano.
This is the most popular method (the one used to produce Champagne) and one of the oldest on record. The Méthode Champenoise – or Méthode Tradionelle outside of France’s Champagne region – is the slowest, most labor intensive and most expensive way to make bubbly wines. However, it is also the gold-standard in sparkling wine production. Experts agree this method produces the best structured, most complex and highest quality sparkling wines.
Generally, vintners add sugar and yeast to a base mixture of many grapes. This new mixture (called the liqueur de tirage) undergoes a mild fermentation. In the méthode champenoise, a second fermentation occurs when the liqueur and yeast are placed inside the bottle. The mixtures ages for a number of months before a mark on the bottom of the bottle determines its position on the rack (upside down). During a process called riddling, the winemakers turn the bottles a quarter of a turn every day, dislodging particles gathered on the sides of the glass. Within six to eight weeks the sediment and dead yeast has collected at the bottle’s cork.
The winemaker then undergoes a process of disgorgement. During this stage, she removes the dead yeast and sediments in a quick-freezing process. The winemaker adds more sugar to the bottle (creating a liqueur d’expedition) before he seals and ages the wine.
Wines of the Méthode Champenoise
Obviously, the most prestigious of the sparkling Champenoise method wines are the Champagnes. These labels are the only ones allowed to use the title “Champenoise” since they originate from the Champagne region in France.
Winemakers outside of Champagne must use another label: Méthode Traditionalle. It is exactly the same fermentation process used in the production of France’s Crémant, Italy’s Franciacorta and Spain’s Cava.
The Charmat Method is a more inexpensive way to get a sparkling wine. Instead of inducing a second fermentation in the bottles, the fermentation takes place in large stainless steel tanks. In fact, the cooling and clarification process also occur here in these tanks, as is the dosage (added sugar). The wine is then bottled and corked.
Possibly the most popular bubbly produced in this manner is prosecco. Spumante from Asti uses this process for its sparkling wine. For this popularity with Italian wines, experts call it the Metodo Italiano process.
The transfer method is a mix between the two methods mentioned above.
The process begins the same, with most of the second fermentation occurring in the bottle. But then the bottles are emptied into a pressurized tank, and their sediments filtered off. Winemakers then bottle this “clean” wine into new bottles gaining all the advantages of the traditional method, without the expensive riddling procedure.
Blowing Your Top On Great European Sparkling Wines
Now that you have gotten your head around the methods in producing sparkling wines, here is a look at some of Europe’s best (and some you may never have even heard of).
Sure. Who could go wrong here? Again, anything named Champagne must come from the French region of Champagne in France. This delicious bubbly is typically comprised of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay varietals and fermented using the Champenoise method.
You can expect to find 100% bottle fermentation (so don’t be surprised to find some residue in the bottle). These wines have a higher atmospheric pressure (around 6-7 atmospheres) which is why opening them is such a delight. That signature “pop!” is symbolic of a festive occasion.
With fine, delicate bubbles, you can discover champagnes with a wide range of sweetness ranges, from brut-nature to doux (the latter being very sweet).
However, you don’t have to drink Champagne to get its full effect. Crément de Loire made with Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc is an excellent alternative at half the price. Produced by the Méthode Traditionnelle, the only difference is their region of origin. In addition, the Blanquette de Limoux made with local Mauzac grapes (called “Blanquette” by the locals) is another noble substitute without risking your bank account.
For centuries known as “the poor man’s champagne,” Prosecco has made a staggering name for itself in Italian sparkling wines. Produced exclusively near Valdobbiadene in the Veneto, you’ll find 100% Glera grapes in these wines, fermented adopting the Charmat method. As a result, there is no bottle fermentation.
With a lower bottle pressure (2.5-3 atmospheres) than champagne, these are light and frothy wines, perfect as an apéritif with a gentle mineral appeal. The consumer can find different levels of sweetness with just brut, extra-dry and dry options.
However, there are many Italian sparkling wines made in the traditional method. Franciacorta from Lombardy is a dazzling array of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Although it comes from a warmer climate than its French counterparts, it is a fuller richer wine welcome at any festival. Especially when you are partying during our Venice Con Gusto, Verona to Salzburg or Munich to Verona bicycle adventures.
One of our favorite sparkling wines is the distinctive Brachetto d’Acqui from Acqui Terme in Piedmont. It is a sparkling rosé fermented from Brachetto grapes that grow near the village. It is delightful as a dessert wine or apéritif. You can find Brachetto – and Enrico from Acqui – on our legendary Piedmont Barolo and Truffles bike trip.
Cava is one of Spain’s hidden secrets. Excellent quality sparkling wines at a fraction of the French gold standard. Catalonia produces 95% of all Spanish Cava, fermented from Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello grapes, primarily. Using the same method as Champagne, Cava receives the traditionnelle label because of its production outside France. As a result, fermentation takes places in the bottle with a long process of riddling and disgorgement.
Bottle pressure can climb over 4 atmospheres, with fine bubbles and a wide range of sweetness.
However, Cava was the only sparkling wine in Spain for many years. Today there is a new Spanish sparkling called Corpinnat. The Penedés region contains this terroir-driven Cava, focused on organic agriculture, longer aging times, and a minimal use of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These new requirements to receive the Corpinnat label include hand harvesting and a 90% presence of indigenous grapes within the wine. The winery must make the wine on the premises, with a minimum aging of 18 months.
And what better way to taste these Spanish specialties than a bike ride through Catalonia along the Costa Brava? Or maybe Andalucia, toasting every evening’s setting sun amongst long shadows and cool evening breezes.
No matter how you pour it, sparkling wines are something to be excited about. Let us know your favorite bubbly wine when the occasion calls. In fact, call us and share!