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Sparkling Wine Basics - Champagne, Prosecco and Others

LINK TO YOUTUBE VIDEO 

 

Within the wide world of sparkling wines Champagne clearly steals the show, but Champagne is certainly not the only sparkling wine on the market.

What makes Champagne special is not just the region in which it comes from, but the method in which it is made - The Traditional Method, which involves a secondary fermentation in each individual bottle.

A lot of wine producing regions have some version of Champagne, both within France and outside of it, but sparkling wines extend beyond the Traditional Method, most notably with Prosecco and the Tank Method.

Let's cover the basics.

 

CHAMPAGNE AND THE TRADITIONAL METHOD

Champagne's glory begins with its terroir - the unique qualities of its landscape, soil and climate that make it unique. The soils here are rich in chalk, which contribute to the distinctive mineral qualities found in these wines.

The Traditional Method is a lengthy process highlighted by a secondary fermentation within each individual bottle that creates the bubbles.

First, a base wine is made, typically from some combination of the three grape varieties of the region - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Sometimes the winemaker will choose to make a Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs style, where only the white or red grapes are used.

Next, the wine is bottled and a small mix of sugar, yeast, and wine is added before sealing with a bottle cap. This combination of sugar, yeast and wine, known as the Liqueur de Tirage, is what creates the secondary fermentation - the bubbles.

Then, ageing. The wines, now officially Champagne, are left to rest on their lees - the dead yeast cells. Lees come with their own flavors and help contribute add richness to a wine. The amount of time the wine spends on its lees can have a great effect on the overall richness of the finished product. With Champagne, it's typical to see 36 months spent on the lees, but it's not uncommon, especially with vintage products for 5-10 years or more.

Next - riddling and discorgement. The bad thing about lees is that they need to come out of the bottle. Consumers typically don't like drinking the lees, which accumulate in the bottom of the bottle in a powdery form so the process of riddling must occur. Traditionally, the bottles are placed in riddling racks, which hold the bottles inverted and allow for a slow, manual process of nudging the lees back to the top of the neck by twisting them upside down. Now, it's more common to see winemakers employ the use of a gyropalette, the new age process for mechanically riddling.

When the wines are finished riddling and the lees are ready to be removed, they undergo disgorgement. The necks are frozen in order to trap the lees, the bottles are placed right side up and the bottle caps are removed along with a little ice cube containing all of the lees and a small portion of wine.

Finally, in order to replace the wine lost during disgorgement, the bottles are topped up with a dosage - another small mix of wine, yeast and sugar, and then finally sealed with a cork, cage and foil. 

So... it's a pretty lengthy process.

 

OTHER TRADITIONAL METHOD WINES

Like we said, Champagne isn't the only sparkling wine that uses the traditional method - it's just the most famous version. Many countries and other French regions have their own version of Champagne. Let's take a look:

  • Germany - Sekt (Traditional or Tank method)
  • Italy - Franciacorta
  • Spain - Cava
  • England - they don't have a particular name for it, but there are very good examples from Kent and Sussex, which share similar chalk heavy soils to Champagne.
  • South Africa - Cap Classiques 
  • Burgundy - Crémant de Bourgogne
  • Loire - Crémant de Loire
  • Alsace - Crémant d'Alsace
  • ... the list goes on.

 

PROSECCO AND THE TANK METHOD

Prosecco, made from the Glera grape, is the most notable type of sparkling wine made in the Tank Method, also known as the Charmat Method. The process completes the secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks, rather than each individual bottle. 

After the initial base wine is made, a mixture of yeast and sugar are then added to the wine and sealed in tank to undergo the secondary fermentation. This process adds bubbles to the wine. When the secondary fermentation is complete, the wine is typically chilled to stop fermentation and the wine, now sparkling, may be left to rest on its lees for several months, before it is ready to be filtered and bottled. 

The process is much faster and far less complex than that of the Traditional Method and is intended to create a wine that is soft, easy drinking and more fruit forward than Champagne. 

 

WHAT ABOUT PÉT NAT?

This 'new-age', natural wine lovers favorite sparkling wine is actually the oldest form of sparkling wine around. 

Pét Nat, or Pétillant-Naturale, is made in the Méthode Ancestrale - the original method of producing sparkling wine, which was employed well before the traditional method or tank method were ever discovered.

It's actually a pretty simple idea - as a wine is undergoing its primary fermentation, it is bottled. The CO2 cannot escape as it normally would and forces itself back into the wine, creating bubbles. 

Because of this, Pét Nat is typically more of a fruit forward wine with soft bubbles that tend to die quickly once the bottle is opened. 

There is no liqueure de tirage, no dosage and no disgorgement, meaning that these wines typically come with their lees still in the bottle. The lees are harmless and perfectly ok to drink.