Everything You Need to Know About Sparkling Wine

Posted September 10, 2015

Stacy Brody

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A question I get fairly regularly while working at Wine Library is "how do they actually get the bottles into Champagne?"

The answer is simple:

It's probably a long straw and a powerful exhale. Strong lungs is one of the requirements for winemakers working at Champagne houses, didn’t you know?

Just kidding.

The bubbles come from a similar process to what makes bread rise. Yeast eats sugar and makes alcohol. Carbon dioxide, which gives rise to bread and bubbles to sparkling wines, is one of the byproducts.

How are they made?

Sparkling wines start out like all other wines. In a primary fermentation, little yeast beasts eat the grape sugar and convert it to alcohol. Carbon dioxide is given off and released into the atmosphere.

In sparkling wine production, however, a second round of this same fermentation occurs. Sugar, dissolved in wine, is added. Yeasts are mixed in and quickly get to work on the fresh batch of sugar.

Where this second fermentation takes place is a key difference in the methods of sparkling wine production. This fermentation must take place within a sealed container to trap all the carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the wine to give you bubbles!

The Traditional Method, or Methode Champenoise

The French take credit for everything, don’t they? In this traditional production method, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The wine remains in contact with the spent yeast cells (aka lees, as in sur lie or sur lees), which contributes a warm, toasty, bready character to the wine. The lees are removed in a process called disgorgement (which sounds much cleaner than disgorging) before the wines are sold.

Ployez-Jacquemart Extra Quality Brut, for instance, offers notes of buttered toast and brioche.Mmmm, breakfast.

Wines made by this method include Champagne, Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant d’Alsace, Cava, and many premium domestic sparklers

The Charmat Method or Tank Method

In this method, the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank. Without significant time sur lees, these wines are often more floral and fruit-driven.

Prosecco is traditionally made in this fashion.

Where are they made?

Sparkling wines are made worldwide. Everywhere you can find still wines, you’ll likely find sparkling variations.

But, only sparkling wines made in France’s Champagne region can actually be labelled Champagne. Here, at the northernmost reaches of wine production, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier struggle for ripeness and maintain a stinging acidity, which is actually just perfect for Champagne. The limestone soil and cool climate of this region are key defining features. The terroir, along with the region’s history, have made Champagne as recognizable as it is today.

Sparkling wines are made elsewhere in France, and by the same method (though the bottles often carry a very different price tag). When made in other regions of France, the wines are named Cremant de (Insert Region Name Here). These wines are made from the varieties of the region. So, a methode champenoise sparkling wine from Burgundy is called Cremant de Bourgogne (French for Burgundy) and is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In Cremant d’Alsace, producers may use pinot blanc, auxerrois, pinot noir, pinot gris, and/or chardonnay,

Moving beyond France’s boundaries, you encounter a whole world of sparkling wines. Cross over the Pyrenees into Spain. In the Penedes region of Catalonia, you’ll find cava. While this 4-letter word is easy to remember and easy to pronounce, the varieties used are another story. Native white varieties parellada, xarel-lo, macabeo,and subirat are used as well as the red varieties trepat and monastrell. Some producers may use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well.

In northern Italy, Prosecco is produced from the grape variety Glera, a widely planted grape variety (one of Italy’s top 10) that you may have never heard of. Another unsung hero of sparkling wine!

In New World winemaking, producers are free to break boundaries. While many follow the tradition set by Champagne, using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, others forge their own paths. You can find sparkling Chenin Blanc from South Africa and bubbly Moschofilero from Greece.  

How do I know what I’m getting?

Is it dry or sweet? If the label says Brut, it is dry. If the label says Extra dry, this wine has a hint of sweetness. Counterintuitive, I know.

A few other notes about the labels, while I have you. Blanc de Blancs means the only grape used was Chardonnay. They made a white wine from a white grape, as in Domaine Bzikot’s Cremant de Bourgogne.

Blanc de Noirs means the producer made a white wine from red/black grapes. The classic red Champagne varieties are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The second one is a bit rare and grown few places outside of Champagne.  

What foods do I pair this with?

EVERYTHING. Really, sparkling wines go well with everything because the of bright acidity and palate-cleansing bubbles. Try oysters or caviar for a classic pairing. Enjoy with fried chicken for something totally different; the stinging acidity will cut right through the fat like a knife through butter. Stand a sparkler up to Mexican food. Bright acidity and vibrant fruit notes make Castellroig Rosat Cava the perfect match for quesadillas. Especially for you, our readers, I personally tested this.   

What do I use for my mimosas?

Going against all convention, I’d recommend prosecco. Try Bocelli.

--

Sparkling wines are phenomenal for cocktails, beyond your basic brunch mimosa or peach bellini. What have you made lately? Let me know @WineLib_StacyB.

 

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