How Is Sparkling Wine Made?
There are 5 different ways sparkling wine is produced, each affects the style, quality, and price of the resulting wine.
The most famous method is the Traditional Method, also known as "méthode champenoise" or "méthode traditionelle." It involves several time-consuming steps, which adds to the cost of high quality Champagne.
- Fermentation: A still wine is fermented from ripe grapes.
- Blending: Still wines from different years, grapes, and vineyards are blended to achieve the flavor profile a winery or Champagne house desires.
- Second Fermentation: Sugar and yeast is added to the blended still wine to start a second fermentation in a sealed bottle, which traps carbon dioxide to produce bubbles.
- Maturation: The newly bubbly wine is aged for any number of months or years.
- Riddling: The bottles are slowly rotated until they are upside down to collect leftover yeast in the neck of the bottle.
- Disgorgement: The bottle necks are passed through a freezing liquid to freeze the yeast to the seal at the top of the bottle, the yeast is removed with the cap.
- Dosage: Before the wine is corked for sale, a small amount of still wine and sometimes sugar are added to the finished wine to top off the bottle and determine the level of sweetness in the finished wine.
This is a great, easy to understand illustration of the traditional method from Waka Waka Wine Reviews (Click the image to see a larger version):
In addition to the traditional method, there are four more ways to produce a sparkling wine:
- Transfer Method: The transfer method is similar to the traditional method, until the disgorgement step. The wine is disgorged into a tank after the second fermentation, filtered, then rebottled in new bottles.
- Tank Method (Charmat): In the tank method, the second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank rather than in bottles. This is a less expensive method, but also produces less bubbles in the final wine.
- Asti Method: The Asti method is popular in the Asti region of Italy. In it, the first fermentation takes place in a sealed tank, trapping carbon dioxide bubbles, and is stopped early. This results in a lower alcohol wine with less bubbles than the traditional two-fermentation methods.
- Injection: With injection, the cheapest method, bulk wine is simply injected with carbon dioxide, similar to soft drinks. Injection is banned in the European Union.
Champagne is the most famous region in the world for sparkling wine production. The cool climate and chalky soils are ideal for growing the three grapes used in Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. When grown in Champagne, these grapes produce high acid, medium bodied wines perfect for producing sparkling wines using the traditional method. The grapes are hand harvested and carefully pressed for only the best juice.
Most Champagnes are blends of several years of grapes to create consistency within a Champagne house's offerings. These wines can be white or rose and anywhere from very dry to very sweet.
Rose Champagnes are a blend of red and white still wines, with delicate red fruit flavors. Blanc de Blanc Champagnes are 100% Chardonnay with high acid and green apple notes. Blanc de Noirs are made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with red fruit flavors but little to no color (the wines are not kept in contact with the red skins). A Prestige Cuvee is the best wine a Champagne house has to offer. For example, Moet & Chandon's Prestigue Cuvee is Dom Perignon.
The sweetness level is determined by the level of sweetness added with the dosage, they are as follows (from driest to sweetest): Brut Nature/Brut Zero/Ultra Brut (no added sugar), Extra Brut (very dry), Brut (very dry-dry), Extra Sec (extra dry), Sec (dry), Demi-Sec (half dry), and Doux (sweet). While these labels are confusing, it is easier to remember that anything labeled with "Brut" will be on the dry side and anything labeled with the variations of "Sec" will be sweeter.
A typical Champagne is high acid, with green apple and citrus notes, red fruit if Rose or Blanc de Noirs, and a distinct bread or toast note from the ageing process and extended contact with yeast.
Other French wine regions produce sparkling wines, too. These are typically labeled Cremant. One of the most popular is from the Loire region and made from Chenin Blanc with great, fresh green fruit and citrus notes.
In California, one can find a wide range of quality levels in sparkling wine. Every different production method is used here, depending on the winery and quality of the wine they wish to produce. While there are many bulk brands that simply inject their wines with carbon dioxide, some extremely high quality sparkling wines can be found in the state, particularly from the Sonoma Valley region.
Many French Champagne and Spanish Cava houses have outposts in this area and produce wines that rival the Old World in quality and complexity. Some great names to look out for include Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Gloria Ferrer (Friexenet), and Domaine Carneros (Tattinger). Another famous California brand is Korbel, established in 1882. It is one of the only US brands allowed to use the "Champagne" title on it's label, though it can only do so on bottles sold in the US.
The best California sparkling wine has firm acid and concentrated, complex flavors, comparable to great vintage Champagne.
The most well known sparkling wines produced in Italy are those from Asti and Prosecco.
Wines labeled "Asti" are made with the Asti method and uses Moscato (Muscat) grapes to produce a sweet, low alcohol sparkling wine. It has a distinct grape flavor, as well as some orange and floral notes. Moscato d'Asti is also produced in Asti from the Moscato grape, but those labeled "Moscato d'Asti" are made in a frizzante, less bubbly, style.
Prosecco is made using the tank method and is becoming increasingly popular globally as an affordable alternative to traditional sparkling wines. The wines have medium acidity and body with refreshing green apple and melon notes. Most have a light sweetness, too.
Spanish sparkling wine, called Cava, is produced using the traditional method, usually with Spanish grapes (Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo, for example). Some producers are beginning to use Champagne grapes to add complexity to their wines, though this practice is controversial.
Cava is a great value when compared to other high quality sparkling wines, you can get a fantastic wine for a modest price. It has medium acidity and less prominent yeast characteristics than Champagne. The subtle fruit flavors, like apple, make for a light, refreshing wine.