Sparkling Wines are not for Special Occasions

Sparkling wine is one of the best and most underused categories of wine.  Why?  Here are the major reasons:

  • Everyone thinks they are only for some type of celebration (winning a championship, weddings, anniversaries, etc.), and
  • No one understands what the styles are and how to purchase them.

I completely understand.  If you look at the picture above, how do you know what each bottle is, so you know what you are purchasing?  This week’s article is a brief overview of the different styles to help you navigate and make a better purchase.

What is a Sparkling Wine?

To keep it simple, the definition is a wine that is made to contain carbonation (aka Bubbles).   Now, occasionally you purchase wine where some yeast is trapped in the bottle.  This yeast consumes the residual sugar in the wine and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The carbon dioxide gets trapped and becomes part of the wine.  In this case, that wine is considered faulty or bad.  I’m still probably going to drink it, but the trapped bubbles are not supposed to be there (it was not planned).

For sparkling wines, the trapped carbonation is planned on purpose to be part of the finished wine.  This is important to note as the winemaker has to make sure they keep the carbonation suspended in the wine.  There are four main production methods that they use to ensure this is consistent.

Forced Carbonation

Forced carbonation is very simple.  A base wine is injected with carbon dioxide (similar to a soda machine) to add carbonation to the wine.  Please note that this wine will tend to release its carbonation quickly and go flat the quickest out of all the methods.  The bubbles are really large and pop quickly.

Examples: New Age

Charmat Method (Tank)

This method of production is more involved than forced carbonation.  The wine blend (called a cuvee) is placed into a sealed tank.  Into this tank, sugar and yeast are added and the tank is sealed.  The yeast eats the sugar to produce more alcohol and CO2 gas, which now is trapped.  While remaining under pressure, the carbonated wine is removed from the tank, filtered and then bottled. 

This method produces a more natural carbonation that will stay in suspension longer than forced carbonation.  It also produces increased numbers of aromas and flavors from the second fermentation giving a higher quality product.

Examples:  Prosecco, Moscato (slightly modified process)

Transfer Method

The cuvee is placed into a sealed tank.  Sugar and yeast are added to the tank and blended together.  At this point, this wine is placed into bottles and sealed.  The bottles will each perform a second fermentation within.  When fermentation of the bottles is completed, the bottles under pressure are opened and the sparkling wines are blended back into a tank.  The blended wine is filtered and placed back into clean bottles.

This process, which is more production intensive, produces increased aromas and flavors.  Consider that each bottle has a small second fermentation.  Therefore, each bottle will be slightly different in aromas and flavors.  By blending all of these bottles together, the winemaker creates a more complex sparkling wine with less effort than Method Champenoise.  The bubbles are smaller than the tank method and last longer in the glass.

Examples:  Small sparkling bottles and larger Sparkling bottles

 Method Champenoise

This method gains its tradition from the Champagne region in France.  Please note, If the wine is made in this region, it legally can be called Champagne.  If the wine is made using this process outside of Champagne, it’s called Method Champenoise or Traditionalle.  This process is used throughout France (these wines are called Crémant) and the world.

The production method is briefly listed below. 

  1. The cuvee is created.
  2. Sugar and yeast are added and blended.
  3. This blended cuvee is placed in bottles, capped, and stored for second fermentation.
  4. After the second fermentation is complete, the bottle is allowed to age with the dead yeast cells to add aromas and flavors (based on regional laws).
  5. The dead yeast needs to be removed. The bottles are inverted since the objective is to get the dead yeast against the cap inside the bottle.
  6. Over time these bottles are gently shaken or rotated to get the dead yeast (which is sticky) to slide down against the cap (called riddling). This can be done by gyro palate machines or traditionally by hand.
  7. The bottles are super chilled to lower the immense pressure (up to 6 times the atmospheric pressure).
  8. Once the yeast has collected against the cap, the bottle’s neck is submerged in a super chilled solution to freeze an ice plug. This traps the dead yeast in a small amount of wine.
  9. The bottle is opened, allowing the ice plug to come out due to the pressure in the bottle. However, the chilled wine stays in the bottle.
  10. The bottle is topped off with a sugar wine solution (dosage) to fill the bottle and also ensure that the right sugar levels are met (brut to sec or dry to sweet).
  11. The bottle is corked and ready for sale.

Due to the number of steps involved and the lengthy aging process, this is a time-consuming process and therefore received a higher price in the store.  However, these bubbles are the smallest and release slowly in the glass for the longest time.

Examples:  Champagne, Cava (symbol on cork is star), Crémant (other regions in France)

What does all this mean for me?

I’m glad you asked.  Methods 2-4 produce great products, and the prices increase as the production method gets more complicated.  However, you can still find great values if you know where to look.

My personal favorites fall between Crémant and Cava:

  • Crémant is made in other French regions using the local grapes. Therefore, they will taste different than Champagnes (different grape blend) but have similar quality and are an amazing value.  The bottle pictured above is a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir and was on sale for $19.  I will always purchase Crémant for one reason – if a producer makes this for sale, I’m willing to try it.  They know they are making this for a very small niche, so it has to be good.
  • Cava is made in Spain and I’ve purchased these for years. They have recently had some major changes with their production laws which will make them a greater value for the consumer.  At TEXSOM, I tried 8 of them over a meal.  The Gran Reserva Josep Valls 2017 was aged for 48 months and retails for around $22.  That’s incredible value.

To find the above styles, you will need to go to a good wine shop as most stores will have a very limited selection (like 3).  But the larger wine shops have great selections and the representatives in the store can guide you as well.

Final Thoughts.

So why am I giving you the basics of Sparkling wines?  As always, I really do not like to see anyone struggle to select any beverage.  Hopefully, this brief overview will help.  Plus coming up will be an interesting article where I’ll be sampling these wines with food.

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