The Simple Hows, Whats, and Whys of Sparkling Wine
Here are the basics on bubbly with the tech stuff toned-down and/or explained and a minimum of jargon …
What is Sparkling Wine?
Whether it is called Champagne, Cava, or Cremant, whether “bubbles,” “sparkles,” or “fizz,” sparkling wine is just wine with carbonation (CO2 or carbon-dioxide gas). There are several ways to get carbon dioxide into a wine. It could be as simple as injecting CO2 into a tank full of wine (as is done with soda pop) or as complicated as the Champagne process (Méthode Champenoise). While at its most basic, sparkling wines may be carbonated like soda pop, most everything currently in the market became carbonated via a second fermentation in a sealed vessel and so is made utilizing one of the processes outlined below.
The very first sparkling wines were products of circumstance. The weather would get cold enough to stop the yeast from working before the fermentation was complete. Once the winemaker had seen that the yeast stopped working for a period of time, he would go ahead and bottle the wine. Once the bottled wine warmed up in the spring, the fermentation would restart as the formerly dormant yeast reactivated and finished converting some or all of the remaining sugar to alcohol, carbon-dioxide, and heat. Since the CO2 is trapped in the bottle, it “dissolves” into the wine and the wine becomes sparkling.
As appreciation for the results of these “accidental bubblies” grew (people liked bubbles in their wine), winemakers tried to initiate and control the circumstances that caused them. This lead to the first intentional sparkling wines made using what is now called méthode ancestrale. The key to this and all quality sparkling wines is a second fermentation (or the second stage of an arrested fermentation) happening in a closed vessel with enough structural integrity to withstand the pressure of the CO2 generated.
Méthode ancestrale gradually evolved in the Champagne area into the Champagne process which we now call Méthode Champenoise. Well, at least we can call it that in reference to Champagne. The Champenoise (the Champagne producers) are picky about others using their name so the same process is called méthode traditionelle in other parts of France and may be called other things in many other countries.
As producers sought to improve or simplify the Méthode Champenoise, other formal processes based on a closed second fermentation evolved. The most common is the Charmat process. The Transfer Method used to have some followers but it seems to be going away. In any case, how the gas gets into the wine and how the wine is treated once it is there both have more than a little bit to do with the quality and flavor of the wine. Here are outlines of the four main techniques in order of their evolution.
Méthode ancestrale, also known as méthode rurale, méthode artisnale, or méthode Gaillacois, replicates what happens when sparkling wine is made naturally by circumstance. To create effervescence using the Méthode ancestrale, fermentation is temporarily stopped by chilling the fermenting juice – called “must” – to a temperature cold enough to make the yeasts inactive. The chilled, partially fermented must is then bottled cold and the fermentation process allowed to resume as the bottled wine warms up. The by-products of this fermentation (and all sugar-to-alcohol fermentations) are heat – which transfers out of the wine and bottle – and carbon dioxide – which cannot escape the sealed bottle and so creates bubbles in the bottled wine. Méthode ancestrale sparkling wines are often cloudy unless they are processed further to remove the sediments left by the fermentation and dead yeasts.
Very few wines, mainly those from Limoux and Gaillac, are still made using méthode ancestrale. In general, it has been replaced by Méthode Champenoise for higher-quality bubbly or by the Charmat process for cheaper fizz.
As the name indicates, the Champagne process or Méthode Champenoise evolved in France’ Champagne region. Champagne started off as still wine – sometimes red, sometimes white, sometimes pink – that nature occasionally made fizzy by circumstance. The original attempts to control that circumstance closely approximate the méthode ancestrale described above. Méthode Champenoise as it is today is the evolved process by which the Champagne producers artificially and consistently generate a predictable frothy outcome. What follows is a description of the Champagne process or méthode traditionelle as it is used in Champagne and around the world.
Méthode Champenoise starts in the vineyard. The process requires high acid, physiologically mature grapes with low sugar contents. Champagne producers use Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay but the process will work with most any grape varieties. Alsace producers use Pinot Blanc and Loire producers use Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. In Spain, Cava producers use mostly Parellada, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo, sometimes with some Chardonnay.
Picking begins when the grapes reach 18 to 20% sugar and still have very high acid levels. After picking, the better producers practice a hand sorting or triage of the clusters to remove any rotten or damaged grapes.
Once in the winery, the grapes are pressed in either the traditional basket press or the more modern bladder press. In either case, the object is to remove the juice from the skins as quickly as possible so as to eliminate extraction of color (anthocyans) and tannin. The juice is then allowed to settle and clarify in preparation for the primary fermentation. The initial fermentation is usually carried out in temperature-controlled tanks to insure a fresh, non-oxidized result. A very few producers still barrel-ferment a portion or even all of their wines. After the newly fermented wine falls bright (drops its deposit of cloudy sediments), it is kept in large tanks until needed for a particular blend. Most, but certainly not all, of these base wines go through a full malo-lactic fermentation while in tanks or barrels. The result of this first fermentation is a thin, acidic, bone dry, low alcohol, usually white wine. It is the raw material from which sparkling wine is made.
Blending the wine that will undergo the second fermentation to make it bubbly requires a special skill. The blender has to predict what a blend of these virtually undrinkable base wines will taste like after another fermentation, aging in the bottle, and the addition of a sweetening dose of sugar. Once the blender decides on the blend or cuvee, it is assembled in large quantities and bottled.
As the cuvee is bottled, a carefully proportioned mixture of sugar and yeast known as the liqueur de tirage is added to it. The yeast ferments the sugar and, as in all fermentations, produces alcohol, carbon-dioxide, and heat. The alcohol brings the alcohol content of the Champagne to the desired level. The heat passes through the glass and out of the bottle without any effect. The carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle and dissolves into the wine.
When this second fermentation is completed, the spent yeast falls to the side of the bottle where it breaks down in a process called autolysis and gives the distinctive yeasty-toasty-bready-doughy character to the wine. In Champagne, this en tirage (on the yeast) aging process must continue for a minimum of one-and-one-half years for the wine to be called Champagne. Some producers will shake the aging bottles to stir-up the yeast sediment and aid extraction. Some producers will continue this aging process for ten or more years to draw out the most yeast character possible. Some will age the wine six months or less. It all depends on the producing area’s regulations – or lack of them.
Riddling and disgorgement are the processes by which the yeast and sediments are removed from the bottle to yield a bright, clear wine. Riddling may now be done by hand or machine. Either way the process uses sharp twists and gravity to slide all the sediments into the neck of the bottle. Disgorgement is the way the neck is then cleared of the sediment. The neck of the bottle is dipped into freezing brine which causes the wine in the neck to freeze into a plug of ice containing the sediment. The bottle is then opened and the pressure of the dissolved carbon-dioxide gas causes the sediment-filled ice plug to shoot out.
Once the sediment is gone, the liqueur d’expedition containing the dosage is added, the wine is topped up, and the bottle is corked with its final closure. The dosage is a small amount of sugar that is added to the bone dry product of the second fermentation to bring out a little more fruit flavor and balance the crisp acidity. The sugar for the dosage is dissolved in a liquid called the liqueur d’expedition which may consist of a number of different things. Different producers use varying blends of old or young wines sparkling or still (some in oak), unfermented grape must, and even brandy. As this medium for the dosage has an enormous influence on the character of the finished product, the exact mixture of the liqueur d’expedition used by each producer is a closely guarded trade secret.
After the dosage is added, the wine is ready to be corked and to have its wire harness, labels, and top dressing applied. The sealed bottle is then shaken to better mix the liqueur d’expedition and dosage with the new Champagne and left to rest for a time to allow the disparate elements to merge. Wines that undergo this full process in the bottle in which they are ultimately sold may be labeled “Naturally Fermented in This Bottle.”
The Transfer Process
The transfer process follows Methode Champanoise up to the point of riddling and disgorgement. Instead of using those techniques, the transfer process wines are deeply chilled (but not frozen), opened, and filtered under pressure to remove the sediments, After filtering, the wine is bottled, and the dosage is added. The process removes the most labor-intensive part of the Champagne process. Transfer wines are good for shorter term drinking but do not have the longevity of comparable base wines put through the Champagne process. Due to the bottle fermentation and the potential for en triage aging in the bottle, transfer process bubblies can have much of the toasty yeasty-character of Champagne process sparkling wines. The transfer process was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s but is little seen today. From years past, Paul Masson and Taylor New York State have used the transfer process. The wines may be labeled “Naturally Fermented in The Bottle”; note the “the” used instead of the “this” used in Methode Champenoise.
The Charmat Process
The Charmat process (also called cuvee close) mimics the Champagne process in that the base wines undergo a second fermentation in a pressurized sealed container. In this case, that container typically holds hundreds or even thousands of gallons of wine instead of the 750ml or 1.5L in a typical bottle used in the Champagne or transfer processes. Once the second fermentation is over, the now sparkling wine is filtered and bottled with the addition of the dosage. Because of the speed with which Charmat process sparklers are made, there is rarely any yeast character that makes it into the finished wine.
The Charmat process is used for the lowest priced US Sparkling wines (Andre, Cook’s Cribari, Franzia, etc.) as well as for all Italian Prosecco and Asti Spumante. For these Italian specialities, the transfer process can offer an advantage as the toasty-yeasty flavors of Méthode Champenoise might interfere with the fruit flavors of the wine.
HOW DRY IS YOUR CHAMPAGNE?
Sec or “dry.” Is the original style of Champagne. These wines run in the 2-4% residual sugar range. While today we don’t consider them dry, they were what was available and were very popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sec is now defined in the Champagne regulations as a range of from 1.7% to 3.4% RS. Sec tastes from off dry to pleasantly sweet but it is still in balance. Although hard to find, Sec is ideal with spicier foods and can be super with ham and melon. The fashion is now for much drier wine but good quality Sec Champagne remains useful at the table.
Extra Dry was originally made for a British market that wanted a Champagne drier than Sec. The producers obliged reducing the sugar of the dosage to about 1.8% with a range from 1.2% to 2%). They thought the wine wouldn’t sell anywhere but England so they used the English words “Extra Dry” rather than the French “ultra sec” to describe the new style in the official regulations. Within a few years, the new Extra Dry had surpassed Sec to became the best selling style of Champagne. Although it doesn’t say “Extra Dry” on the label, Moet & Chandon’s Extra Dry “White Star” is the world’s best selling Champagne.
Brut was created in the 1890s when the Paris restaurants requested a style of Champagne drier than Extra Dry. Again the Champagne producers obliged (this time reducing the sugar dose to a mere 1% or so for a dry but still balanced taste) but, again, they thought this new, very dry style was going to be a passing fad. With in a few years, Brut had supplanted Extra Dry as the best selling style of Champagne. The Champagne regulations now define Brut in a range of from .6% to 1.5% RS.
Natural, Cuvee sans Dosage, Ultra Brut, Brut Nature, Extra Brut, and Brut Sauvage are all names for Champagne made drier than Brut. The style evolved in the as Champagne with little or no dosage. These bone-dry cuvees were given different names by different producers. Most properly, Extra Brut indicates a very low dosage and Brut Nature or Natural indicates no dosage. In the Champagne regulations, they all indicate a dosage of .5% or below – very dry indeed as the recognition threshold for most people is around .7% for sugar. This driest of all styles did not take off as had its predecessors and now enjoys only a limited but higher end (and by some highly regarded) market niche.
Demi-Sec and Doux, the two sweetest styles of sparkling wine, were developed for other markets including Switzerland and Russia. Demi-Sec (or “semi-dry”) builds on the sweetness of Sec with an in-the-regulations dosage level ranging from 3.5% to 5% RS. Demi-Sec, if purpose made and in balance, can be delightful when served with spicier or mildly sweet dishes. This is becoming more common as more houses are purpose-making wines for Demi-Sec rather than merely adding more sugar to their Extra Dry or Brut cuvees. Doux (pronounced “dew”) is the sweetest style of Champagne with a dosage that is required to exceed 5% RS. While I have tasted a couple of Doux Champagnes in France (they weren’t very good), I have never seen a bottle for sale in the US. Doux fails because there is too much sugar for the amount of acidity in the wine.
Rosé sparkling wine is now more popular than ever before and its so far mostly wine-geekish fans are serving it with lots of different foods. Rosé Champagne has been around for centuries. Originally, it was made from all or mostly all black grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne – and it picked up its very variable color from the skins of those grapes during the time the juice was in the press and perhaps for a few hours together with the skins in a tank. From a flavor standpoint, this may be the best way but this skin contact method of making rosé (called rapid cuvaison) has fallen from favor. It is too hard to control the color and get a consistent result in aromatics and flavor. Almost all Rosé sparkling wine is now made by blending a bit of red wine into a white base wine before the second (in the bottle) fermentation or – less commonly – as part of the dosage. This gives the winemaker more control over the final flavor of the fizz as well as a more consistent and predictable color result.
For a long time, Rosé sparklers were as out of favor as dry still rosé from the south of France, Spain, or Portugal. At the same time that still Rosé has become popular again, Rosé bubbly has made a huge comeback. Pink Champagne now enjoys its largest market ever. While the initial attraction of Rosé sparkling wine may be the festive color, the avid consumer quickly realizes that the extra richness and earthiness (not to mention the vinosity or wine-like character) imparted by the addition of red wine makes pink fizz work better at the table with a wider range of foods. Many wine lovers feel that Rosé bubbly is THE fizz for food.
BUBBLY BUZZ WORDS
Autolysis is the breakdown of yeast cells inside the sparkling wine bottle after the second fermentation is completed. It contributes to wine’s complexity and elegance as it layers in bread/yeast/toast/pie-crust/marzipan aromas and flavors.
Blanc de Blancs are traditionally made wines made from 100% white grapes. In the highest quality areas, this means Chardonnay. Some producers are now calling wines with just a predominance of white grapes “Blanc de Blancs”.
Blanc de Noirs are traditionally made from 100% black grapes. In the highest quality areas, this means Pinot Noir and maybe Pinot Meunier. Some producers are now calling wines with just a predominance of black grapes “Blanc de Noirs”.
Cava is Spanish Sparkling wine made using the Champagne process in the delimited but not contiguous Cava Zone from grapes including Parellada, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo along with some Chardonnay and others.
Cremant is traditionally a style of Champagne or sparkling wine with two-thirds the effervescence of most Champagne (four as opposed to six atmospheres of pressure). Cremant has become a term to describe French Sparkling wines from areas other than Champagne. Cremant from Alsace and Burgundy are commonly seen as Cremant d’Alsace (usually made from Pinot Blanc) and Cremant de Bourgogne (usually made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, often with some Aligoté). Most French Cremants are made using the Champagne process.
Bottle Aging allows sparkling wine to acquire complexity, depth and fine texture while in bottle; also known as aging “on the yeast,” or en tirage.
The Cuvee is the blend of many parcels of still base wines into the base that will be re-fermented into a well-balanced sparkling wine.
Dosage is the sugar added in the liqueur d’expedition that sweetens the Champagne into balance after riddling and disgorgement.
En Tirage is the time the wine spends on the lees between bottling and disgorgement.
The Mousse is the bubbles rising in the glass.
Non-Vintage (or NV) refers to sparkling wines with cuvees containing wine from previous vintages.
Prosecco is a variety of white grape grown in the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene wine-growing regions north of Venice, Italy, and also gives its name to the Charmat Process sparkling wine made from the grape. Its late ripening has led to its use in dry sparkling (spumante) and semi-sparkling (frizzante) wines.
The Punt is the dome-shaped indentation in bottom of wine bottle. It is there to add strength to the bottle.
Reserve wines are wines from previous vintages added to cuvee for consistent quality and style or to make it richer.
Rosé sparkling wines usually are produced by adding red wine to the cuvee, sometimes with the dosage as part of the liqueur d’expedition.
Still Wine is wine without bubbles.
SPARKLING WINES & FOOD
In addition to its role as a toasting wine and as an aperitif, sparkling wines find a place at the table with food. While food to accompany Sparkling wines used to be limited to used to bring caviar (maybe in beggar’s purses), oysters-on-the-half-shell, and smoked salmon on toast points. Things have opened up. People now dare to drink Pinot Noir with salmon and Cabernet Sauvignon with rare tuna. The same is true with sparkling wines and food.
Brut and extra brut sparkling wines can be great not only with oysters-on-the-half-shell but with many cooked oyster dishes. A not-too-dry-Brut or an Extra Dry can be super with sushi, delightful with dim-sum, or terrific with tapas. Brut bubblies work well with salty foods such as Prosciutto or Serrano ham or Parmesan cheese. A fine Brut Cava with Manchego cheese (I’m partial to the three month old version but the older typoes work well with bubbly) and Marcona almonds and maybe some salty olive oil fries potato chips is perfect. In fact Champagne is perfect for hard, crumbley, long-aged cheeses and also for goat cheeses whether soft, medium or hard. I love Champagne with flash fried seafoods like calamari or fried baby soft shell crabs or fried sardines.. A fine lemony Blanc de Blancs can be brilliant with sole meunier. Bubbly even works with the breaded fried foods sometimes seen on happy hour buffets.
As sparkling wines have gotten richer and more flavorful, they are able to go deeper into the meal. Rosés are especially adept with food as they have more of a vinous character. An earthy dry Rosé can handle a mushroom brushetta, grilled salmon, beef carpaccio, steak tartar, rare roast beef or even duck gumbo. A favorite match is a fine Rosé with corn popped in truffle oil and dusted with sea salt ground with a bit of dried porcini mushroom. Rosé’s earthy richness can even allow some of it to handle game birds.
A Sec or even Demi-Sec Champagne has the sweetness to off-set the peppery spice of Pacific Rim cooking (Thai, Vietnamese, or spicier-style Chinese). Try a Sec Champagne with spicy potstickers or spicy fried spring rolls. Or try a Sec or Demi-Sec with melon and prosciutto on a lazy Sunday afternoon.