Sparkling wine is not just for special occasions, but for any occasion! It is the preeminent cocktail wine and can set a celebratory tone for any gathering as quickly as a cork can be popped.
Sparkling wine is not only great as an aperitif, but also underappreciated with food, as its effervescence naturally lends itself to a variety of cuisine.
The classic example of sparkling wine is Champagne from France, but many other examples are produced in other countries and regions, such as Franciacorta and Prosecco in Italy, Sekt in Germany and Austria, Espumante in Portugal and Cava in Spain. Some of these are made according the production method called "Traditional Method." This is how Champagne is produced and considered the highest quality way to make a sparkling wine.
The 4 Production Methods for Sparkling Wine
1. Traditional Method or Méthode Champenoise:
This method creates the most superior and complex sparkling wines through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. As the name suggests, this is used for the production of Champagne and other quality sparkling wines, but is also the most expensive and only used for higher-quality bubbly.
The specific method for making Champagne is a formula that is copied the world over and paid homage to on labels as a mark of quality winemaking. Whenever you see Méthode Champenoise, Méthode Traditionelle, Méthode Classique or Crémant (on French bubbles), it denotes that the maker has followed the strict method of production that the Champagne region invented. In Italy one might find it called Metodo Classico and in Germany Traditionelle Methode.
The process to create a traditional method bubbly is as follows:
After harvest, the grapes are crushed and fermented into still base wines. Those still wines are filled into the bottle they will eventually be sold in, along with a mixture of sugar, yeast and yeast nutrients (liqueur de tirage) to start the secondary fermentation. A temporary closure is put on and the secondary fermentation begins inside the bottle. Bottle fermentation is what defines Méthode Champenoise. As fermentation takes place, the carbon dioxide created gets trapped in the bottle and dissolves into the wine, thus creating the bubbles that define Champagne.
The wine is then aged on the yeast for a specified amount of time. Different regions have different regulations, but in Champagne, non-vintage sparkling must be aged for at least 15 months. Vintage Champagne must be aged for a minimum of 36 months. However, many producers at the top quality range age their Champagnes or sparkling wines for much longer time periods.
Racking & Remuage
Once secondary fermentation is complete, winemakers must remove the spent yeast cells from the bottle. To do so, they slowly move the yeast cells into the neck of the bottle in a process called remuage. Traditionally, this process is done on racks called pupitres, which hold the bottles at varying angles from horizontal to vertical. Bottles are slowly turned by hand and gradually put into steeper holes to gently move the yeast from the base to the neck of the bottle. When done in the traditional, manual method, this process takes eight weeks! Some producers now use computerized gyropallets that hold 504 bottles and reduce the remuage time to eight days.
Now that the sediment is in the neck of the bottle, the winemaker needs to remove it. This is called disgorgement. It is usually done by placing the neck of the bottles in a freezing brine solution to solidify the sediment. The cap of the bottle is now removed and the natural pressure inside the bottle blows out the sediment.
Although the neck is frozen when the yeast is removed, a little bit of wine is lost during disgorgement. Acting quickly, the winemaker must now top off the bottles and add the dosage to finish the wine. This is a solution of wine and sugar to achieve the proper sweetness or dryness level desired by the winemaker. At this point, the bottles are corked and caged.
2. Transfer Method:
In this case, the secondary fermentation also happens in the bottle, similar to the Traditional Method and allowing for additional complexity. However, after the secondary fermentation is completed the sparkling wine is filtered and transferred out of the individual bottles into a larger tank, the dosage is added and it is then rebottled.
3. Charmat Process:
During the Charmat process, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in bulk tanks and is then bottled under pressure. The Charmat process is used widely around the world to produce light, delicate sparkling wines, such as Prosecco and Asti.
4. Carbon Dioxide Injection:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is injected into a base wine, using the same process used for carbonation in soft drinks. This low cost process produces big bubbles that are hard on the palate and dissipate quickly in the glass.
Global Wine Regions with Traditional Method Production
Although traditional method sparkling wine is mostly associated with France’s Chamapne region, it is also made in many other places around the world, as well as other French wine regions. Traditional Method sparkling wines from regions other than Champagne often have great quality to price ratios. They receive the same care and attention as proper Champagne, but since they do not have the name recognition and have not been discovered by the general wine drinking public they do not command as high a price.
Sparkling wines designated Crémant are produced using the traditional method, and have to fulfill strict production criteria. In France, there are seven regions (other than Champagne) that include the designation Crémant in their name: Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant du Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the newst one Crémant de Savoie.
French appellation laws dictate that a Crémant must be harvested by hand with yields not exceeding a set amount for their AOC or region. The wines must also be aged for a minimum of one year. The Loire Valley is France's largest producer of sparkling wines outside of the Champagne region.
Sekt is the German term for sparkling wine. The majority of Sekt produced (around 95%) is made by the Charmat method with the remaining premium Sekt made according to the Traditionelle Methode. Some of the premium wines are often made using Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir grapes and much of it is drank locally rather than exported. In fact, Germans drink more sparkling wine per capita than any other country in the world, so the domestic demand is high.
Many people only equate Cava to that one ubiquitous, inexpensive black bottle on offer in many grocery stores. What a shame, since they are missing out on some of the arguably most underpriced sparkling wines in the world!
Cava is the name of a type of Catalan white or pink sparkling wine that can also be produced in other areas of Spain. Its epicenter, however, is the Penedès region in Catalonia, 40 km to the southwest of Barcelona. Cava uses a selection of three main grape varietals, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also permitted.
When it comes to Italian sparkling wine, many people are only familiar with the mass-marketed Prosecco, made in a very simple style (Charmat Method). Italy’s true gem and serious sparkling wine is Franciacorta.
Franciacorta is a traditional method sparkling wine from Lombardy with DOCG (Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status, produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). DOCG is the Italian term that regulates high-quality wine of a distinct region. All grapes in a Franciacorta must be grown within the boundaries of the territory of Franciacorta. Whereas non-vintage Champagne must be aged on its lees(on the yeast) for at least 15 months before it can be disgorged and released, Franciacorta must spend a minimum of 25 months on its lees – almost a full year longer!
Many of you may be thinking, “Wow! Those wines sound very good, but Champagne is still tough to beat.” You may be correct, but now factor cost into the equation. The aforementioned wines all have exceptional quality and are among the best produced in their respective regions. They are also generally much better values than even a modestly priced Champagne.
Still, at its best, there is very little that can compare to Champagne, especially when it is made at the hands of a great grower-producer. The most famous styles from the Champagne region are Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir and Cuvée. After trying these, you will see why people refer to something that's the best of its kind by saying: “It's the Champagne of…”
Blanc de Blancs
Blanc de Blancs is a French term that means “white of whites” and is used to designate Champagnes made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de Blancs Champagnes will be pure and focused, offering vibrant lime and tangerine flavors. They finish with racy notes of wet stone and lime zest with chalky minerality.
Blanc de Noirs
Blanc de Noirs is a French term that means "white of blacks" and is used to designate Champagnes made exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape. Blanc de Noirs will be rich, robust, round and complex with equally focused vibrant fruit and acid structure. A good quality Blanc de Noir will be highly textured with beautiful length on the palate.
The three grapes that make up a Champagne Cuvée are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They each bring something different to the table when blended together. Chardonnay is used for its acidity and elegance, Pinot Meunier brings layers of aromatics into the wine and Pinot Noir adds structure and body. When blended together in the hands of an experienced expert… Watch Out! There is nothing in the world of wine that can compare.
Food Pairing with Bubbles
Sparkling wines from around the world are best when grown in very cool climates. This gives them a wiry and nervy-like acidity making them ideal as aperitif wines. Try them with passed appetizers, and lighter foods.
- Oysters / Shellfish
- Smoked fish (Trout, Salmon)
- Sushi / Sashimi (any raw fish) – Octopus!!
- Quiche / Omelettes (any egg dish)
- Fried foods (Tempura, Calamari… hey, even onion rings!)