In last year's post about all things bubbly, we took a look into the region of Champagne & why not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne. I gave a highlights reel of sorts that briefly discussed the methods for making sparkling wines & where to find some great bottles to ring in the new year. This time we are taking a larger dive into the world of bubbles with a full breakdown on the methods of production......AND we have visual aids to spice things up! So, let's get into it!
We'll chat history for just a second. Did you know that the creation of sparkling wines was completely unintentional? Somewhere in the Languedoc region of France, early winemakers were storing away still wines in their cellars to begin the aging process in the winter season. They didn't realize that the cold temps had caused an involuntary halt in the fermentation process. When the springtime rolled around, and the temperature was on the rise again, it caused the juice inside those cellared bottles to heat up and undergo a secondary fermentation. That fermentation caused the yeast to gobble up the remaining sugars of the wine to create CO2 (a.k.a the bubbles we have come to love). We have come to call this method of production as the "Ancestral Method". The French immediately saw the bubbles as a flaw in the wine and would toss the bottles to begin the process all over again. It was the English that actually discovered how to intentionally control this variable in the winemaking process to produce drinkable sparkling wines. France & the rest of the world eventually caught on, and thus sparkling wines were born.
The Ancestral Method was just the beginning of many production methods for bubble creation. There are a couple different methods for approaching sparkling wine, but the I'll detail the top 3 most commonly used methods & make a notation on the general price point one should expect. Bear with me while I contain myself from geeking out too severely!
METHODE CHAMPENOISE/TRADITIONAL METHOD $$-$$$
1st fermentation of Base Wine - a dry, high acid still wine is vinified first after, typically, hand harvesting. The first fermentation can occur in temperature controlled stainless steel vats or be transferred over to oak barrels for that touch of malolactic acid to activate.
2nd fermentation inside the bottle - a mixture of yeast & sugar called liqueur de tirage is added to begin the creation of CO2 in the wine while being held at low temps (yeast + sugar = alcohol & bubbles). Lees aging can occur at this point as dead yeast begins to breakdown & release nutty, toasty aromas.
Riddling & Disgorging - in order to get rid of the yeast now at the bottom of the bottle, the action of turning the bottle upside down & gently turning it ¼ of an inch daily causes the yeast to fall to the neck of the bottle. The neck is then dipped into an icy solution that freezes the yeast & allows it to be pulled out, leaving only clear sparkling wine behind. A huge, mechanized tool called a Gyropallette can be used to expedite this process from months to a matter of days.
Dosage & Bottle Aging - A small amount of wine is lost after disgorging, so a doctored solution of sweetened wine is added to the dry wine for balance. The finished product is bottled with that iconic mushroom cork & cellared for a few months to 3 years (depending on the finished product type).
Examples - Champagne, Cava, Cremants
CHARMAT METHOD/TANK METHOD (......also Cuvee Close or Martinotti Method) $-$$
Building the Base Wine - various grape batches are fermented normally into a dry, still wine then blended with other wines to achieve the desired cuvee inside of a huge stainless-steel tank.
2nd fermentation inside stainless steel tanks - the yeast & sugar mix is added into the vats and the mixture ferments with the base wine under intense pressure keep the CO2 dissolved into the liquid.
Filtration & Dosage - once the sparkling wine style is achieved, the wine is then passed through a different tank to filter out the dead yeast & then the dosage is added.
Bottle Aging - these wines typically are immediately bottled after the dosage for immediate release. The wines are fresher, and more fruit forward in character typically with no flavors from autolysis due to the filtration process.
Examples - Prosecco, Moscato d'Asti, Lambrusco
FORCE CARBONATION (...... the cheapest production method, a short-cut if you will) $
Vinify the base wine as still & dry.......
Pump the juice full of CO2 and voila, you have bubbly!
Examples - Vinho Verde, Txokalina
Blanc de Blancs = White Grapes to make White Sparkling
Blanc de Noirs = Black Grapes to make White Sparkling
Sparkling wines with a listed Vintage tend to be the most expensive, second only to the Prestige Cuvees.
A majority of bubbles are labeled as NV to allow the winemaker to produce a wine that is consistent in flavor and style year over year.
Cremants refer to any sparkling wine made in France but outside the region of Champagne.
Cava is an inexpensive, Spanish alternative to traditional Champagne with its own set of aging and labeling rules. Look for Cava labeled Gran Reserva for juice that has seen 30 months of aging!
Most regions are pretty flexible on the grape varietals that can be used to make sparkling wine, but Champagne requires, rather it only allows, for winemakers to use Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier.
Lambruscos are sparkling reds with a variety of different grape varietals that fall under the Lambrusco name. These wines range from being bone dry to strawberries & cream sweet.