As you may already have known, or perhaps learned in this post, Champagne is, in fact, a region in France and not a type of wine. Someone once told me “calling all sparkling wine Champagne is like calling all the red wine in the world ‘Napa Valley'”—which made me laugh. Today I’m sharing a few sparkling wine starter facts to keep in mind when drinking your next great glass of bubbles. And, I’ll be following up to this post with 20 of my top sparkling wine recommendations next week! (hint, one of them is in this photo)
5 Starter Facts on Sparkling Wine
The Base of Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine is in fact made from a base of still wine, and any still wine can be made sparkling. In Champagne, for example, the three main grape varieties used in the making of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, and they are blended to make a base wine. Most Champagne is white in color although many of the grapes used within it are black grapes, they are just pressed as quickly and gently as possible so as not to color the wine.
Making Sparkling Wine Bubbly
Sparkling wine is actually very complex because of the need for two fermentations; one to make the base wine and the other to make the bubbles. There are several processes by which to make sparkling wine. Below are the major sparkling wine production methods and which wines are made with each technique:
Traditional method / Champagne method
The Champagne method, or the Traditional method, if you are outside of the Champagne region is the classic sparkling production method. It is generally believed to make the highest-quality, longest-lived, and most complex sparkling wines in the world.
The traditional method goes through the first fermentation, and then requires a secondary fermentation to take place inside the bottle, which is temporarily capped after the liqueur de tirage is added to the base wine.
After some time, the winemaker will then remove the lees sediment that has grown inside the wine from the yeast by a process called riddling. They invert the bottle until the sediment sits in its upside-down neck and can be frozen. When the temporary cap is removed, the bottle’s pressure forces the sediment out, at which point a mixture of sugar and wine called dosage is added, along with the final cork.
The Champagne method is used to make Champagne, and outside Champagne, top Traditional method wines include Crémant in France, Cava in Spain, and Franciacorta in Italy.
Tank method / Charmat method
The Tank method is an alternative way of sparkling production that is less costly and therefore has gained some popularity. As the name states, in the Tank method the secondary fermentation of the wine takes place in a big tank rather than inside the bottle. Rather than separating and fermenting each bottle individually, the liqueur de tirage is added to a pressurized tank of still wine, which undergoes secondary fermentation in bulk, and the sediment is then removed by filtration before bottling under pressure. Rather than emphasizing richness and complexity, the tank method enhances clean fruit and aromatics, making wines that are youthful, fresh and fruity.
The Tank method is used to make Prosecco in Italy and also Sekt in Germany.
The transfer method is a hybrid of the traditional and tank methods, attempting to gain the advantages of a second fermentation in the bottle without the expense of riddling and disgorgement. This production method begins just like the Traditional method with the secondary fermentation taking place inside a bottle, but before the riddling process would begin, the wines are disgorged into a pressurized tank, filtered in bulk, and then rebottled into fresh bottles.
The Transfer method is mainly used in the New World, particularly in Australia.
Types of Sparkling Wines
With flavors shading from citrus fruit to ripe pear, Champagne comes from the French region of the same name as I mentioned above. Champagne will often have a cheese rind-like flavor that in the better examples comes across as a bready, toasty, or biscuity taste. Since the wines are aged in bottles under high pressure, the bubble finesse is fine, persistent and sharp. Vintage Champagnes often have almond-like flavors along with orange zest and cherry.
Crémant is sparkling wine from outside the Champagne region in France. These typically come from Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, and even Bordeaux. The location of the Crémant will be noted on the bottle in the form of “Crémant de Bordeaux”, for example. Crémant can be quite delicious, and is typically considerably less expensive than champagne, though they are made by the same method, so it’s a great type of sparkling wine to look out for when you don’t want to break the bank.
Fruitier and simpler than Champagne, Prosecco is a peachy northern Italian sparkling wine that is cheery and easy to drink. Prosecco tends to have more present fruit and flower aromas, which are a product of the Italian grape used to make it (called Glera). Because the wines are aged in large tanks with less pressure, Prosecco bubbles are lighter and frothier than Champagne bubbles. Better Prosecco wines have flavors of tropical fruits, banana cream, hazelnut, vanilla and honeycomb.
Cava is the classic sparkling wine of Spain made by the same method as Champagne, but it uses native Spanish grape varieties. It typically has hints of green apple and lime, with earthy notes. Most Cava is dry and is a little bit more smoky in taste than the toast / bread taste in good champagne. Cava is typically a great buy because you get the valued production method used in Champagne, but for a fraction of the cost.
Petillant-naturel, or pet-nat, is a French term for an ancient process that has become trendy around the world. These wines are bottled during fermentation, so bubbles are produced as the process finishes. Pet-nats are usually bottled under crown cap, so you don’t get the celebratory pop of the cork, but you’ll be right on trend.
Sparkling wine is made throughout the world, so there are many other types I didn’t get into here—South Africa’s Cap Classique, Germany’s Sekt, Italy’s Franciacorta, Sparkling Wine from the US, and even sparkling Shiraz from Australia are just a few others!
How Old is That Wine?
Sparkling wine can be vintage wine or non-vintage wine (seen on a wine list as “NV”), which is usually a blended wine from the producer of two or more years. This is a common practice for winemakers seeking a consistent style of wine that is signature to the style of the house, year after year. Another benefit to NV sparkling wines is that if there wasn’t a great harvest that year, they still produce a consistently strong wine.
How Sweet It Is…
Sparkling wine has four levels of sweetness, one of which should appear on the label:
Extra-Brut: This is the driest kind of sparkling wine you can buy. in Extra-Brut wine, the yeast has eaten absolutely all of the sugar, so there is a complete absence of it in the wine.
Brut: This is the most popular type of sparkling wine. The wine is dry, but there is just a hint of sweetness. In Brut wine, the winemaker stopped the fermentation process just before the yeast ate all of the sugar, leaving a tiny amount behind in the wine. Most Champagnes are labeled as Brut.
Extra Dry: Extra dry wine is dry, but not as dry as Brut or Extra-Brut, as it retains a slight sweetness that is noticeable to the taste. Prosecco is most often Extra Dry.
Demi-sec: This is a sweet sparkling wine. There is a prevalent amount of noticeable sugar in Demi-sec wines, and these are most often paired with dessert.
I’d love any feedback on the post or any recommendations of great sparkling bottles to try—and stay tuned for my top 20 sparkling wine recommendations next week!