Never mind diamonds. Bubbles are a girl’s best friend. Add them to still wines and bubbles could be your wingman. Diamonds may help though. Still wines with bubbles are called sparkling wines. The most recognized sparkling is, of course, Champagne. But what most people call Champagne is not Champagne at all, but sparkling wine. Champagne can only be called such if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Silly, I know, but that’s the way government regulation bounces. And just as sparkling wine has different names in different parts of the world, like Spumante in Italy and Cava in Spain, it can vary deeply from one region to the next depending on its production, sweetness and alcohol level.
The story goes that a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon invented the first sparkling wine in Champagne, France in 1690. This is not true of course as the sparkle in the wine he did help bring into notice was a result of a natural occurrence and only later developed into a production method.
The region of Champagne is one of the coolest in the world and when the monks made their wine in the fall the fermentation stage would go dormant in the cold weather of winter then thaw and continue in the spring. This refermenting process would cause the wine to “bubble”. Thus was Champagne borne, along with all the French terminology that follows.
The later method of controlled sparkling wine production involves two processes. The first being regular fermentation which takes place typically in stainless steel tanks and is halted at a specific point. The second process is a bit lengthier and time consuming for the producer as each has its own production notes but essentially the sparkling wine spends time in a bottle fermenting with yeast and sugar to produce carbon dioxide. There are a few winemakers that will use oak for fermentation but this usually follows stainless steel use.
Not only are several different grape varieties used in sparkling production, but also several different vintages of those grapes. These sparkling wines are called non-vintages, however the term multi-vintage would be more appropriate. And as some production includes red grape varieties the juice spends little time in contact with the skins of the grapes before pressing so as not to impart any coloring. Sparkling Rosé would be the exception to this.
Dozens of still wines from different years are blended in a process called assemblage to achieve the cépage, or blending formula. Especially exceptional vintages will be set aside to produce vintage sparkling wines, but a producer won’t sacrifice his money maker, the basic sparkling, for the sake of a vintage sparkling wine.
Yeasts are then added to the wines along with sugar and they are bottled and capped. Inside the bottles the yeasts eat the sugar, what you could call a second fermentation, and this produces carbon dioxide. But since the CO2 has nowhere to go, it becomes dissolved gas. Once opened, the trapped gas becomes a sparkling sensation. A sparkling wine’s bubbles are also called its bead. The more persistent the bead the better the texture and quality the sparkling.
As the bottles ferment over the next year, sediment forms and must be removed before hitting the market. Winemakers use an A-shaped wine rack to hold the bottles by their necks and capture sediment. Every day the bottles are turned slightly and upended a tad more or riddled so the sediment will collect near the opening.
Once all sediment has collected in the neck and is ready to be removed, the bottles are turned completely upside-down, and in a process called dégorgement, the necks are frozen, the corks are popped and the yeast plug shoots out of the neck. The remaining space where the plug was is filled with a combination wine/sugar blend called a liqueur d’expédition. This will set the sweetness for the finished sparkling wine.
In instances where this process of secondary fermentation would mask a sparkling wine’s natural grape characteristics, as in the case with Italy’s spumante, the base wine is fermented in a large vat or tank and chilled to near freezing temperatures to bring the fermentation process to a crawl. It is then fermented in batches, as needed. The same CO2 production takes place and it still dissolves back into the wine.
Broken down to the main sparkling wine producers of the world, here are the names used for sparkling wine and the wine grapes that make up each:
- France (Champagne region) – Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay
- France (Loire Valley) – crémant – Chenin Blanc
- USA – sparkling – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc
- Italy – Spumante – Muscat, Brachetto, Prosecco
- Spain – Cava – Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada
- Germany – Sekt – Riesling, Elbling, Gewürztraminer
- Australia – sparkling – Shiraz
Next are the styles of sparklings:
- Nonvintage: basic production sparkling wine. Blended of several vintages and grape varieties and maintains consistency bottling to bottling
- Vintage: made in only the best rated years, is unblended, and is characteristic of only that year.
- Prestige Cuvee: are highest quality blends produced, usually more expensive
- Blanc de Blancs: made of only white grapes and has the longest aging potential
- Blanc de Noirs: are white sparkling wines made from red grapes only. May have a pinkish hue
- Rosé: high quality sparkling wines either blended of a small amount of red wine or left on the skins just long enough to tint the wine
And finally the styles within the styles
- Extra Brut: extremely dry
- Brut: dry
- Extra Dry: this confuses everyone. An Extra dry sparkling wine is not as dry as a sparkling labeled “Dry”. It has a semi-dry or a tinge of sweetness to it
- Sec: slightly sweet
- Demi Sec: noticeably sweet
- Doux: dessert wine sweetness
Regardless of where a sparkling wine is made, having two fermentation stages requires the base wine of the sparkling to be low in sugar content during the first stage or the second fermentation stage will not succeed.
When we marry, have a child, land a new job, toast the New Year, or celebrate any extraordinary event, sparkling wine, no matter from where it hails, has a long-standing tradition as the premiere drink of choice and continues to possess us with its intoxicating splendor year after year, event after event, country to country.