Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sparkling Wine

This was originally published on

One of my favorite subjects is sparkling wines. I’ll start with a brief overview of how these wines are made and then discuss some of the more prominent sparkling wines from around the world. Realize that this is a subject that really could occupy several hundred pages in a book, so bear with my obvious skimping on detail.

How They’re Made

I know of a dozen ways and variants of ways to make sparkling wine. Familiarity with two will cover 95% of all sparkling wines made and will certainly make you the cocktail party expert. The classic model for making sparkling wine is the méthode champenoise, the Champagne method. A cheaper bulk process for making sparkling wine is called the Charmat process.

Méthode Champenoise. In this classic method developed in the Champagne in northeast France, a base wine is made, like any other still wine. Then the base wine, sugar, and yeast are bottled. The sugar and yeast cause a secondary fermentation in the bottle, giving off carbon dioxide, the source of those wonderful bubbles. The wines are aged and, by various processes, inverted such that the yeast sediments into the neck of the bottle. To remove the dead yeast, the necks of the bottles are placed in a tray of freezing solution, forming an ice plug in the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned right side up, uncapped, and the pressure of the wine shoots the plug out of the bottle. Finally, the bottles are topped off with more wine and sugar syrup (the dosage)—the base wines from which sparkling wines are made are very acidic and some sugar is needed to make them drinkable.

Charmat Process. In this process, the base wine, sugar, and yeast are put into a pressure tank in which the secondary fermentation occurs. The wines are clarified, generally by filtration, and then bottled with dosage.

Something special happens during secondary fermentation in the bottle, especially if the wine and the yeast (the lees) stay in the bottle together for a long period of time. The yeast gives off some very interesting flavor compounds that make Champagne method wines much more than just the base wine plus carbon dioxide. This effect seems to be lost or less effective in the bulk tank process, but the wines are much, much cheaper and faster to produce and therefore can be sold for a lot less money. In general, the best sparkling wines are made by the Champagne method.

Major Sparkling Wines

Champagne. It is fitting that we start with the archetypal sparkling wine, the justly famous Champagne. The Champagne is an area of northeast France that is entitled by French law to make wines under the Champagne appellation. I am firmly of the opinion that the word Champagne belongs to that place on earth and to those wines produced there, and nobody else is entitled to use that appellation in describing a wine.

Champagne is made from three grapes, two red, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white, Chardonnay. I find that the best wines, the ones with the most complexity, are blends of all three grapes. Increasingly, I see 100% Chardonnay Champagnes called blanc de blancs on the market. While many of them are very good, I think that the blended wines are generally better, and I wonder if this is not a marketing ploy aimed at Americans who recognize only one kind of white wine: Chardonnay.

Champagnes are generally white wines, although there are some rosés as well. Rosé champagne is now generally made by adding a little red wine in the initial blend, but increasingly rarely is it made by the traditional process of keeping the clear juice in contact with the red skins during fermentation.

Most Champagne is blended, not only from wines of the current vintage, but with wines from prior vintages, to achieve a consistent house style. In exceptional vintages, Champagne houses will produce vintage-dated wines. My first bottle of 1982 Dom Pérignon is a wine that I will never forget.

Champagne is made in four styles, named for the amount of sugar that is added in the dosage. If the wine is bottled with no sugar (very rare), it is called extra brut, brut zero, or brut intégral. Extra brut appears to be for masochists; I don’t really care for it. The vast bulk of Champagne sees 1% sugar and is called brut. Rarely seen are extra-sec (1-3% sugar), demi-sec (3-5% sugar), and doux (8-15% sugar). Demi-sec is stretching my limits and I find doux absolutely wretched.

Vin Mousseux. Vin mousseux is the French term for sparkling wine and it refers to any sparkling wine that is not Champagne. Many of the finest are called Crémant (“creaming”) and the French appellation organization INAO now recognizes many appellations such as Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Bourgogne. There are some very fine sparkling Chenin Blancs coming out of the Loire, especially from the Saumur. Each appellation allows different grapes.

Cava. Cava is a relatively new term that the Spanish started using when they gave up use of their infringing term Champaña. The Cava appellation is not geographically restricted in Spain; however, the vast bulk of the wine is made in Catalonia, home of Cordoníu, the first house to make Champagne method wines in Spain. The Cava DO on the label guarantees a wine made by the méthode champenoise. Several grapes are used in making Cava, the principal being Macabeo (which I also know as Viura and Queue de Renard). Incidentally, the Spaniards are the inventors of the gyropalette, a mechanical system of inverting sparkling wine bottles that has almost entirely replaced what was a fully manual, tedious, and very slow process called riddling.

Prosecco. Prosecco is a white grape from Friuli in northeastern Italy. The vast majority of wines made from Prosecco are made into a sparkling wine, so much so that the name Prosecco is synonymous with sparkling wine in current usage. Most Prosecco is made by the Charmat process, making it a fairly inexpensive wine.

Spumante. Spumante (“foaming”) is the Italian term for sparking wine. Over thirty appellations produce sparkling wine in Italy, in all colors, from all manner of grapes, and in all levels of sweetness. Many very good spumantes mimic Champagne in grape selection and in process. Unfortunately, the term spumante has a deservedly bad reputation in the US, thanks to Martini & Rossi and their sickly sweet, low alcohol Asti Spumante, made from the Moscato Bianco grape.

Sekt. Sekt is the German term for sparkling wine. From personal experience, I can say that most Sekt is very cheap, rarely seen in the United States, and is not worth drinking. I understand that there are some very good Sekts being produced from Riesling in part, but I have yet to have the opportunity to taste one.

Every winemaking region of the world makes some version of sparkling wine and many are excellent. For me, the standard by which all sparkling wines will be judged is Champagne. There is something about the grapes grown in that area that makes a very special wine. The rest of the world is catching up to Champagne in a hurry and that is a good thing for consumers. We have more excellent wines to taste now than ever, from everywhere, including several from right here in Virginia.

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