When I was growing up (my children think I never have and they may well be right) my parents entertained a lot and if it was really special I’d see bottles of “champagne” sitting on the kitchen counter the next morning. Most of the time they had American names or occasionally some had Italian sounding names. All I really knew was that I thought the stuff tasted awful (of course it would I tasted the stuff that sat in a glass overnight) and they were supposed to be fizzy (not by the time I got to the glasses while my parent still slept) and to me any wine with a wire wrapped cork was “Champagne”.
Fast forward to College (okay maybe late high school) when I discovered carbonated fermented grape or other fruit beverages which I can’t with a clear conscience (now anyway) call wine. With college also came sophistication as I tried to impress the girls I dated with my vast knowledge of all things alcoholic and my vocabulary expanded. By then there were three (count them three!) kinds of sparkling wines in my vast universe, Wine spritzers (I was a real expert at making them), Asti Spumante (Italian sparkling wine) and Champagne (sparkling wine made anywhere in the world but Italy). If you know anything about sparkling wine or have read this post before you will know how little I actually knew back then (some would argue that I still don’t). Never the less I knew more than the kids I ran with so that made me an expert.
Fast forward again forty more years or so and I’ve actually learned a bit about wine and sparkling wines in particular. I’ve grown to love them for their differences and it’s really a shame as it doesn’t take much of any sparkling wine to give me an awful headache. So sadly I don’t drink Sparkling wine anymore so in writing this post I relied a bit on my personal (historical knowledge, but more on research and the comments of others who really know a lot about the stuff. I hope it answers of few of the most obvious questions.
What makes a sparkling wine fizzy? Simply the presence of a significant level of carbon dioxide which results from natural fermentation either in a bottle, or in large pressurized tank using a Carbon Dioxide Injection process commonly known as Carbonization. In reality many of the production sparkling wines get their fizz just like a can of Soda. Hey if you want a sparkling wine for under $6.00 per bottle what do you expect? The old world processes used by the really good winemakers can’t be rushed by a production process that requires tight and short timeframes to get the stuff to market.
Why are most sparkling wines white or pink? A lot of it has to do with the grapes that a winemakers uses, but in part it has to do with the process whereby the juice gets separated from the skins quickly so as to reduce the amount of color that leaches from the skins. In addition the fast removal of the skins substantially reduces the amount of Phenolic compounds that end up in the fermentation process. While not common you can find Red sparkling wins such as Brachetto (Italy), Shiraz (Australia) and “Pearl of Azerbaijan” made from the Madrasa grape. These wines rely both on juice color and skin leaching to produce their dark red appearance.
Can any sparkling wine be called Champagne? Here in lies probably the greatest misconception about sparkling wines. Only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France are truly Champagne. Wines produced in regions of France, such as Blanquette de Limoux in Southern France can’t even be called Champagne, Most wine producing countries honor the Champagne name and won’t allow wines produced in their country to use the name.
Traditionally how is Sparkling wine made? The harvest — Sparkling wines start out just as most other wines except that the grapes get harvested earlier than most other wines when they have high acid levels usually somewhere between 17 to 20° brix. As mentioned above sparkling winemakers take great care to avoid tannins and other phenolic compounds in their vinification processes. In point of fact many high-end producers still choosing to harvest by hand rather than risk mechanical harvesting which may split the grapes and encourage maceration between the skins and juice. Primary Fermentation — Again this is pretty much like customary vinification with the exception that many sparkling winemakers utilize specially cultivated yeasts to produce unique flavors and effervescence. In addition sparkling winemakers wishing for a sweeter product may well forgo the Malolactic fermentation process in order to reduce the tannins present during and after fermentation. Secondary Fermentation — This set sparkling winemaking apart from the production of most wines. This process creates the “bubbles” That we see and sense when we open a sparkling wine. This is an ordinary part of any fermentation process, but in the primary fermentation the gas harmlessly escapes, while in the secondary fermentation process the winemaker takes great pains to retain the gas and dissolve it into the wine by making sure that this happens in the bottle where it can only escape when the wine gets opened to be consumed. Typically sparkling wine bottles are much thicker and heavier than ordinary wine bottles specially designed to handle the pressure (around 5 atmospheres). There are several methods for secondary fermentation as indicated above, but all involve the introduction of a new yeast source and perhaps additional sugars (depending on sweetness desired) in the bottles (or vats of the nontraditional carbonization process) in order to create the bubbles. (see the comment by Ron Larson — below for a great explanation of the “riddling” process and it’s impact on sweetness of sparkling wines)
What grapes make good sparkling wine? Pretty much any grape will do, but the most common are (1) Pinot Noir (because the juice is initially clear and only colors if left exposed to the grape skins), (2) Shiraz, and (3) Chardonnay (The classic for a blanc de blanc). In recent times we’ve seen the use of some Zinfandel grapes. Personally I was not fond of the White Zinfandel craze and I feel the same about the use of the grape in sparkling wines (usually a rose’).
How was the process invented? While Dom Perignon often gets credited for the invention of Champagne, the existence of effervescence in wine was considered a mistake during his time and it really appears the Dom Perignon spent most of his life trying to figure out how to prevent it so as to avoid exploding bottles in the Cellar that could cause serious injury. Truth be told effervescence in wine has been around throughout history and in early times was attributed to the phases of the moon or the existence of spirits (good and evil) influencing the wine. Some sources even report that cellar masters wore iron masks so as to avoid injury from exploding bottles laid down to rest.
What do the terms used to describe Sparkling Wines really mean? We’ve all seen terms like “Brut”, “Extra Dry” etc. on bottles of sparkling wine. They actually mean something specific as regard the dryness of the wine. As an example in the making of real Champagne “Brut” means that there has been less than 12 grams of sugar added to the process per liter in the secondary fermentation process. The numbers go up or down from there depending on the level of additive sugar to create Extra Dry and Sec designations. As the wines and process very by country, there is not exact parts per liter factor that can be applied to say that any name (e.g. Brut) means the same thing in all countries.
What are some of the other sparkling wines of the world called? Well not being an expert I will only deal with this one in generalities. There are hundreds if not thousands of sparkling wines made in the world but some countries have term for the class of sparkling wine. A few of the most common: Cava – Spain, Espumante – Portugal, Spumante – Italy, Prosecco – Italy, Sekt – Germany and Austria, Persgo – Hungary. The US, Chile, Australia, and South Africa all make sparkling wines of all qualities and utilizing both methods of fermentation, they just don’t have a local name for sparkling wines like many European Countries.
Authors Commentary — Nobody can doubt that sparkling wines are fun, interesting, associated with festive occasions, and have a mystique about them. I have not done that mystique justice by this piece but I hope some, at least, have found it fun to read and perhaps even useful in piquing their curiosity. I have taken the liberty of using many generalities and some with more knowledge than I would find this post and insufficient discussion of sparkling wines. I readily acknowledge this posts insufficiency as an authoritative piece as I only intended it to be a primer on the basics of sparkling wines. I hope it inspires lovers of sparkling wines to do some research on their own to answer the questions this post hasn’t, or to dig deeper into a subject that it just touched.
I have a rule for my posts – keep them under fifteen hundred words (rule broken – 1615 words) so that people will read them and this topic (sparkling wines) requires a whole lot more if we want authoritative material Sometime in the future if I get really bored or can’t think of anything else, I may dig deeper into some of the differences in the fermentation process by country of origin. While the differences may be subtle they are many and rather interesting to those who care about the detail.