The facts behind your fizz: Sparkling wines demystified

February 9, 2018

There is nothing more fitting than a glass of bubbles to celebrate a special occasion or holiday. For me, avoiding the flu and successfully navigating logistics of my children’s extracurricular activities are akin to winning the jackpot. These glorious moments in my life clearly warrant a celebratory sparkler and I’m not alone in my penchant for petillánt.  According to recent data, the Americas are the fastest growing segment of the global sparkling wine market. Yet another reason to celebrate! 

 

So, fellow fizz fans, as our membership increases, let’s spend a moment learning about the different style categories of sparkling wines.  Because truly, not all bubbly is made--or tastes--the same.

 

Traditional Method

 

All sparkling wines are effervescent due to the absorption of carbon dioxide into the wine itself during fermentation. However, sparkling wines made in the Traditional Method are the most famous, highly-regarded, and labor intensive.  This process involves creating a base wine, adding a specific amount of sugar and yeast, and initiating a second fermentation in the sealed bottle. Wines made in this fashion generally have more finesse, structure, and complexity than sparkling wines made in other methods. In addition, all traditional method sparklers require some aging of the wine on dead yeast cells called “lees,” which will impart aromas and flavors reminiscent of freshly baked bread.

 

Also known as the Classic Method, this process is used in the Champagne region of France, where it’s referred to as the “Méthode Champenoise.”  Most champagnes are blends of varietals--Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier--as well as vintages.  Champagne is located at the Northern-most limit of vine growing where climate is marginal at best, so winemakers must blend vintages to allow for consistency in quality and taste. 

 

Try the 100% Chardonnay Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” Blanc de Blancs Brut for a balanced example of the mineral, acidity, and bready characteristics for which champagne is known.  Next, sample a Crémant--the name given to all other sparkling wines from France made in the Traditional Method.  Domaine Langlois Cremant Brut (Loire Valley), made from a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, displays freshness and character consistent with its varietal blend and method of production. Both wines are available from local online retailer, Palmetto Wine Sellers (www.palmettowinesellers.com). 

 

Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy, and Cap Classique from South Africa are other examples of traditional method sparkling wines from around the world.  Cava is mainly made from indigenous varieties of grapes, while Franciacorta and Cap Classique tend to rely on more traditional, champagne varietals.

 

Tank Method

 

The key difference between Tank Method and the Traditional Method is that the second fermentation in the former takes place in a pressurized tank rather than a bottle.  It is a much shorter, less expensive, and more suitable option for aromatic grape varieties with which yeast characteristics derived from Traditional Method lees aging would be incompatible.  Also known as the Charmat Method, it is the most popular production method worldwide and results in wines that showcase youthful, floral, and fruity aromas.  The ubiquitous Prosecco, hailing from the Veneto region of Italy and made from the Glera grape, is the most common example.  Lambrusco, made from red grapes by the same name and from Italy’s Emiglia Romana region, is another, if more limited example of this process.     

 

Ancestral Method

 

Considered the earliest form of sparkling winemaking, this technique uses icy temperatures to pause the fermentation for a period of months, then reinitiates fermentation after the wines are bottled.  Carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle and no extra sugar is added. Sample Broc Cellars’ Sparkling Chenin Blanc for a wonderful example of this ancient wine production style, also called petillánt naturel.  Available locally at Morganelli’s, this California wine is refreshing, floral, and mineral.

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