Getting to Know Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine is a broad term that includes Champagne, as the classic example, and by extension any wine containing significant carbonation. Sparkling wine is made all around the world, by different methods and in a range of styles. You can find sparkling wines in many colors from pale straw to pink, rose colored and red. The range of sweetness works up from bone dry to sicky-sweet. Most people readily identify sparkling wine with celebration and revelry, but for many others sparkling wine is a regional style or a house wine with frequent consumption as the norm.
A Quick Orientation to Sparkling Wine
Champagne is from France; and a specific region within that country in fact. In Spain it is called Cava. In Italy Spumante is the generic term for sparkling wine (of which Proseco is one style representing one region) and wines with just a little fizz are labeled as frizzante. In Germany the term Sekt is used to describe sparkling wines. In America and other New World regions the straightforward term sparkling wine is typically used. I haven’t covered all the terms and locales, just those that I and the average US consumer are likely to come across.
Many sparkling wines are blends of several grapes, often both red & white, and most notably Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in traditional Champagne. Outside France, sparklers are made with indigenous or regional grape varieties as well. Sparklers made from all white grapes can be labeled as “blanc de blancs”, where the term “blanc de noirs” is used when the wine is made from all red grapes. Sparkling wines can be found in vintage and non-vintage bottlings. Non-vintage bottles are the most common and are blended from wines made in different years, typically to create a “house style”. Vintage bottlings represent those wines that were deemed to be unique and particularly meritorious to be presented on their own. Vintage bottlings are typically more expensive and producers do not generally make them in every year.
(Different styles of sparkling wine. Photo reused from WikiMedia commons.)
There are several methods to turn stable, finished wines into sparkling wine. Méthode champenoise is the traditional process and the one used in France, Spain and New World regions where it may be labeled méthode traditionnelle, or a translation into the local language. The Charmat method was developed in Italy and its use is largely constrained to production in that country. How do these methods work and what are the differences?
Method champenoise involves a second fermentation in the bottle to produce the carbonation naturally. The capped bottles are then racked with the neck pointed downward (typically starting at 45 degrees) and are turned and tapped daily until the bottle is nearly upright and the lees have settled into the neck of the bottle. This process is called riddling. The tricky part is next, and this is the disgorgement of the lees. The trick is to get the lees out without losing much of the wine and the carbonation. Before final corking a dosage of sugar and stabilizers (sulfite, typically) is added. This will determine the sweetness of the final wine and bring the fermentation to a halt. Aging for months and years follows, allowing for the continued development and integration of the components of the wine.
The Charmat method is similar to method champenoise except that the secondary fermentation is done in large sealed tanks and the resulting wine is bottled under pressure to retain the CO2. The calibration of the amount of carbonation and resulting sweetness are achieved through the secondary fermentation, which again promotes the most natural character in the finished process.
Other methods exist, but the prevailing opinion is that only wines made by the traditional method or Charmat process will express a sense of place AND the effort and care taken to produce them.
For more information on the different methods, the dry to sweet scale and tips for home sparkling wine makers check out the article “Sparkling Wine Primer” written by my winemaking friend Daniel Pambianchi for WineMaker Magazine. An article specifically on riddling, also written by Pambianchi, delves into this specific part of the process with some interesting insights. Make sure you click the link at the bottom of that article for a short video of the disgorging process at Maleta Estate Winery in Ontario where Pambianchi is the Winemaker and General Manager.
Moving Beyond Sparkling Wine as a One Trick Pony
I recently broke out a bottle of Champagne to enjoy with my family. In my experience sparkling wine never fails to please, unless it’s flawed of course, and my goal in sharing it was to inspire some conversation about sparkling wine. Wine drinkers everywhere all seem to know of it, but how much do they really know and have they considered the typical celebratory role its enjoyment is too often relegated to?
(Enjoyed with family just because!)
The bottle was from the Montaudon label and was made in the Brut style. I immediately picked up some limestone or other minerality in the nose. Flavors of tart apple and under-ripe pear emerged after an initial dose of lemon. Margot also suggested dried apricots as well. The wine is light gold in color with many columns of small bubbles streaming up from the bottom of the glass. The wine is very crisp with healthy but balanced acidity. We enjoyed the wine with an appetizer of fish croquettes and a pineapple chutney dipping sauce. The apple flavors of the wine were enhanced by the pineapple chutney and the crispy fried exterior of the croquettes was a friendly match with the wine.
Without any prompting my mother asked the operative question. “Why is this typically a celebratory beverage?” I agree, why do most people only consume sparkling wine or Champagne at celebrations or special occasions? It can be enjoyed all year round and pairs well with a great many foods, so why do we forget about it so often? The historical context for this is that sparkling wines were expensive to make and a sign of wealth so they were typically consumed by the well –off and when folks of lesser status did get them it was usually for special occasions. That was then, this is now. Drink more sparkling wine people!
My sister-in-law Abby got half way into a glass and proclaimed “I love Champagne!” Sing it loud sister!
My father piped up and said “this is a really good!” I asked what prompted him to say that and in that way. His response was that in the past his experience with sparklers was with overly bitter and unappealing wines. I could see how this well made and delicious wine could change one’s mind.
(You can also make cocktails from sparkling wine. A sugar cube, bitters and Champagne.)
My mother’s final conjecture was that “champagne might be like fine china.” I get that, almost everybody has some or will pick some up, but might only use it for a special occasion. I reject this idea wholly and totally. Break out the fine china for burgers and fries and crack open a bottle of bubbly to pair! I definitely plan to add more sparkling wine to upcoming tastings and parties. I hope the reaction is positive.
Sparkling Wine Can Be Made at Home
I haven’t made sparkling wine at home yet, that is I haven’t intentionally set out to do this although a few spontaneous referments over the years have gone this way. With no experience in hand I asked my friend and fellow winemaker Todd Traskos of Vermont Wine Media to share his experience with making a sparkler. I’m actually enjoying a bottle of his creation while I write and will share my feedback in a few paragraphs.
While I've tried and enjoyed sparkling wines wine from all kinds of cultural traditions (Champagne of course, and cremants, cavas, sekts, frizzantes) I'm no true aficionado of the bubbly, having simply sampled widely, but not deeply. For me the fascination is with the process, and the many expressions of local flavor found in sparklers.
The first bottles of wine I ever bought were as souvenirs, when we surfaced from hours in the producer's Reims cellar, on a teenage trip to France...two bottles of 78 Dom Perignon and a Moet & Chandon as well.
Having sampled the lower alcohol, high acid white wines that we can grow here in the Northeast, it seemed a natural to make it sparkle, and give it a try with a blended cuvee. A friend living in Burgundy had been visiting and suggested that the experimental cultivar ES-6-16-30 reminded him of flat cremant. That sealed it, so to speak. Research on the appropriate 'liqueur de tirage', the addition of sugar and yeast to enable the secondary in-bottle fermentation, was my biggest concern, since I did want bubbles, but not exploding bottles, or rocket cork ejections.
(Corked and caged Champage that is aging. Photo reused from WikiMedia Commons.)
Riddling and disgorgement were the other big challenges, which we decided to subvert completely. Plastic stoppers allowed upright bottle storage, sedimentation into the punts, and serving carefully to leave the yeast lees in the bottle. The results have been very well received by lovers of brut-nature dry sparklers, and with a dash of cassis, those with a need for residual sugar are also happily satisfied.
Three years ago, the blanc de blancs cuvee was a blend of Louise Swenson, ES-6-16-30, Vignoles and NY 76. The following vintage included La Crosse, La Crescent, ES-6-16-30, and Petite Amie. The 2011 cuvee is a co-ferment of Louise Swenson and Petite Amie, and is currently being prepared for the next stage.
Thanks Todd! I might just have to try this as a new project another day.
I recently secured a bottle of sparkling wine from Todd and found it to be immensely pleasing. It pours light gold and is very well carbonated. The nose is a unique one for me. Island fruits, candied oranges and ginger were the most prominent aromas. It reminded me of the first sniff I had of the Horton Viognier-based sparkling wine from Virginia last year. The carbonation is prickly in the mouth and is laden with enough acidity to easily come off dry and crisp. The aromatics cross over in the mouth and there is also a perfumed aspect to it once you get the retronasal hit from taking a sip.
Sampling Widely, But Not Deeply
I liked Todd’s quip that he has only sampled sparkling wine widely, but not deeply. My wife and celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this year and that occasion prompted me to cast a broad net and stock up on a selection of bottles for us to enjoy over the course of the few weeks surrounding our big day. Not having even sampled broadly in my imbibing life, I needed this experience. A list of some of what we purchased and drank is below as a teaser. It includes Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Proseco, Cava and products made in several countries.
· Chateau Frank Célebre Rosé
· Chandon Blanc de Noirs
· Cuvée Aurora Rosé Alta Langa
· Mumm Napa Brut Prestige
· Gruet Blanc de Noirs
· Fox Run Blanc de Blancs
· Lafitte Brut
· Banfi Rosa Regale
· Raventós i Blanc Reserve Brut
· Mionetto Moscato Dolce
· Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin Brut
· Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad
· Cuvée y Camps Brut Nature
I’m going to be sharing my experiences with these wines, what worked for us and what didn’t and some ideas on how we will be enjoying more sparkling wine in upcoming posts over at the Ancient Fire Wine Blog. Wander over there in the coming months for label pics, tasting notes and recommendations on sparkling wines to seek out and enjoy.