Tiny bubbles in my wine that makes me feel…festive! Maybe it’s the parade of bubbles marching from the bottom of the glass to my nose. Maybe it’s the way bubbles prickle my tongue waking up the palate. Maybe it’s the pop of the cork, or the quick shush if you’re doing it right, that makes me think sparkling wine is just more excited than regular wine, it can’t wait to get out and tell me it’s secrets. And what secrets are there to tell? Sparkling wine, like good ol’ regular wine, comes in many styles and from many places. It can be full or light-bodied, sweet, dry, very carbonated or just barely effervescent. Where it’s from and how it’s made not only determines the style, but also what we call it.
France, Spain, and Italy produce 86% of the worlds sparkling wine, but Champagne is the King and only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France can use this title. It was there the Traditional Method, or Methode Champenoise, for making sparkling wine was fine tuned. It all begins with a blend of wine, Cuvée, that is bottled with a small mixture of yeast and sugar to create a second fermentation inside the bottle. A byproduct of fermentation is CO2 which, when trapped in the bottle, carbonates the wine. The Cuvée is left in the bottle to age from 9 months to 5 years while Riddling takes place. Riddling is the process of slowly rotating the bottles upside down to move the yeast particles to the neck setting them up for Disgorgement when the yeast is removed. Finally, depending on the finished style of the wine, a little bit of sweetened wine, called Dosage, is added to the bottle to top it off. For centuries famous Champagne houses have been so successful in producing deliciously complex sparkling wine that producers around the world copy their methods.
The most famous non-Champagne that uses the Traditional Method is the Spanish sparkler, Cava. Made from indigenous grapes like Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello its name is derived from the Spanish word for cave where the sparkling wine would be laid to age. Often a little lighter than Champagne, Cava follows many of the same rules. Even though the Spanish make Cava the same way the French make Champagne, you can often find quality Cava much cheaper than the equivalent Champagne. Cava just doesn't nave the same cachet and their best producers aren't household names like their counterparts in France.
Prosecco, from neighboring Italy, is the world’s most consumed sparkling wine and introduces the Charmat method. Developed at the turn of the 20th century this method still involves a Cuvée, secondary fermentation, and dosage. But instead of it all happening inside a bottle it happens inside a large stainless-steel tank. The sparkling wine is then filtered and bottled under pressure to retain the carbonation. Since the secondary fermentation happens in a much larger vessel than a bottle, the resulting wine tends to be lighter and not as complex. Cheaper to produce and cheaper on the shelf, Prosecco is a great value any time.
While the vast majority of sparkling wine produced in the world use the two above methods, an ancient method is gaining in popularity, Ancestral Method. Known by many names, my favorite is “Pet-Nat” (short for pétillant-naturel) because I feel cool saying it. This was the original way to make wines sparkle. They undergo only one fermentation which finishes in the bottle. They’re bone dry, lightly sparkling, and entirely unique. They’re hard to find but fun when you do.