Chances are, we all have tasted some sort of sparkling wine, at the very least around Christmas and New Year, or when celebrating birthdays or special occasions.
Many ways to make bubbles
What many of us might not know is that there are many different styles of sparkling wines out there and they are not all called Champagne. Actually, only sparkling wines made from grapes that were grown in the Champagne region of France are allowed to be called Champagne. But what about Prosecco and Cava? How different are these compared to Champagne? And what about the various Crémants you find all over France? They too have bubbles and are considerably cheaper than the basic entry-level bottle of Moët. Why should someone go for those?
The one basic thing that we have to remember is that sparkling wines are not made in the same way as still wines are made. In order for them to get their bubbles, they have to be made in a certain way. To make things even more complicated, there are more than one way.
“Methode Traditionelle” or “Methode Champenoise” or “Traditional Method”
Most sparkling wines are made by a process involving two fermentations. The first fermentation produces a still wine that is high in acidity and low in alcohol. This is called ‘base wine’. A mixture of sugar and yeast is added and the wine is bottled. The yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide which dissolves into the wine. So with the traditional method, the wine’s second fermentation, the one that produces all the bubbles, happens in the very same bottle that you buy! The millions of bubbles trapped in a very small space send the pressure inside the bottle very high – 5 to 6 atmospheres, equivalent to over 5kg of weight on every square centimetre of glass. That’s why sparkling wine bottles and corks are heavier and bigger than those used for still wines.
A tale characteristic of sparkling wines made by the traditional method is their pronounced bready, yeasty flavour. These are called autolytic flavours which is a fancy wine word for saying that these flavours come from prolonged contact of the wine with the dead yeast cells that remain in the bottle after fermentation.
Examples of sparkling wines made with the traditional method include:
The most prestigious and influential of all sparkling wines. Champagne wines must be made in a small protected region of Northern France. The vast majority of Champagnes are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that grow on unique chalky soils. This is a cool climate wine region where harvest and quality of grapes each year is not guaranteed. That’s why winemakers are allowed to blend wines from different years and Non-Vintage (NV) Champagnes are very common. On exceptionally good years, a vintage is declared and those wines will showcase the year on their labels.
Sparkling wine making in Champagne is governed by strict rules. From how grapes should be picked to how many months Vintage and Non Vintage Champagnes should be aged before release. Champagne’s high price tags, compared to other sparkling wines, is a result of the large costs associated with the making and ageing of the wines combined with the sky-high price of land, and years of very skilful PR and marketing nurturing Champagnes luxury image.
Cava and Corpinnat
Cava, the sparkling wine of Spain, is also made using the “Traditional Method”. Production is centred in Catalunya and most wines are made from local varieties Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. The quality and price vary widely which has led to a reputation for producing inexpensive basic wines. In 2019 nine producers from Penedès broke away and formed their own protected label, Corpinnat. Wines labelled Corpinnat must be from the region of Penedès, made from hand-harvested, organically farmed grapes, and undergo strict ageing requirements in line with those of Champagne.
The “Charmat” or “Methodo Italiano” or “Tank Method”
As the name suggests this method was partly developed in Italy. It was and still is used to produce Prosecco, the fruity, fresh sparkling wines from Veneto. In this method, wine makers make the base wine but instead of the second fermentation happening in the bottle, it is done in a big pressurised stainless steel tank and then bottled under pressure. The pressure in the tanks is less than it is in a bottle of Champagne, thus Prosecco has lighter froth and its bubbles don’t last as long. The “Tank Method” is great if the goal is to make fresh and fruity wines because there is far less influence from the yeast. It is also way cheaper and not as labour intensive as the traditional method. As a result, tank method sparkling wines are way more affordable than traditional method wines.
Prosecco is the main type of wine being made using the “Tank Method”. The grape variety used to make Prosecco is Glera, a grape variety that makes wines with fresh fruit and flower aromas. Because wines age in large tanks with less pressure, Prosecco has lighter, frothy bubbles that don’t last as long. Still, the aromas in Prosecco smell fabulous. Fine examples of Prosecco especially those made in the Conegliano – Valdobbiadene regions have aromas of white flowers, apple, pear, cream and honey.
Pét Nat/ Méthode Ancestrale
A small number of sparkling wines are made with just one fermentation. These are called Pet Nat, (Petillant Naturel) and are very fashionable at the moment. This form of fermentation actually pre-dates the Champagne method and that’s why it is called Méthode Ancestrale or ancestral method. These wines are bottled half-way through the initial fermentation without any additives (sugar/yeast). They are low in alcohol and have a gentle carbonation. They could be dry or off-dry and you can find them in France in appellations like Montlouis-sur-Loire AOC, Gaillac AOC, Limoux OAC and Bugey-Cerdon AOC but also around the world especially in the East Coast wine regions of the US.
If all these talk about bubbles made you thirsty for more I have three plus one superb recommendations to quench your thirst.
Raventos Blanc de Blanc 2017 This is superb Cava marked by the typicity of its place of origin, the Vinya del Llac, a vineyard over 40 years’ old. It is a complex sparkling wine with fresh citrus, green apple, pear and yeasty aromas, reminiscent of Champagne. An excellent pairing wine to shellfish and seafood paella or as an aperitif.
Champagne Eliane Delalot – Les Dionysiaques. A beautiful grower Champagne from organic, hand picked grapes. They produce champagne in very limited quantities from an estate that is barely more than 1 hectare. Their micro-cuvées of only 1,000 bottles are carefully handled and numbered manually. Drinking this Champagne is a true luxury! Pinot Meunier is dominant in this blend giving a lively, expressive wine with green fruit and notes of toasted brioche and hazelnuts. A very gastronomic wine, with great finesse that will pair beautifully with foie gras and Ossau Iraty cheese but can rise to every occasion.
Champagne Pierre Baillette Coeur de Craie. Pierre Baillette is a small, family-owned winery located just south of Reims. Fruit for ‘Coeur de Craie’ comes from a small lieu-dit called ‘Les Champs Chauds,’ which was planted in 1977. This is a Blanc de Noirs (white sparkling wine made from red grapes) with enticing red-fruit aromas, and bright, tasty bubbles. Perfect as an aperitif
Gaec Balivet – Cuvee Gamay – Bugey Cerdon – 2018 This is a demi-sec sparkling wine made with the methode ancestral from Gamay grapes. A superb sparkling rosé that is bubbly and joyful, fresh and delicious. A glassful of fresh sweet strawberries and cherries and with alcohol at only 8% is the perfect summer refreshment. Serve it well chilled on its own or with a slice of chocolate cake, Eton Mess or strawberry tart.
This article was first published for Vivamost.com