Sparkling Wine – a quick primer before New Years Eve

It’s that time of the year again when the bubbles start coming out.  Sparkling wine makes for the perfect celebratory beverage.  It tickles the palate and goes great with food.  Really, what’s not to love?

We wanted to give everyone a quick primer on sparkling wine, so you know what went into that bottle you pop on New Years Eve.

Remember, first, that all sparkling wine is not ‘Champagne’. 

Grant enjoying his bubbly in a cave.

Grant enjoying his bubbly in a cave.

Méthod Champenoise: The French Tradition

Champagne is a special type of sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region in northern France, about 100 miles northeast of Paris.  All wines labeled Champagne must be made in the Méthode Champenoise, known elsewhere in the world as the Traditional Method.

There are three main grapes used in traditional Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. If your bottle says Blanc de Noir the wine is made exclusively with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Blanc de Blanc: All Chardonnay. Most Champagnes are a blend of 2 or all three of the wines, and this blend is known as the Cuvee.

Once the Cuvee has been selected, sugar and yeast, known as the tirage, are added to the wine and the mixture is bottled in thick walled glass and sealed tight.  Bottles are placed in a cool cellar or cave to ferment slowly. Since the bottle is sealed, no gas can escape, therefore carbonating the liquid and producing the trademark sparkle we all love so much.

As the fermentation proceeds over the next months, yeast cells start to die and fall out of solution. The dead yeast cells are called lees and the aging process is known as sur lie, French for ‘on the lees.’ As the yeast cells break down, the wine takes on its robust complexity. The wine will continue to age in the cellar for months or even several years developing a yeasty, toasty characteristic. Usually, the length of the sur lie aging process corresponds with the price tag on the wines.  After all, it’s expensive for a Champagne house to leave their product ageing in a cave for years!

A vineyard marker for Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin in Champagne.

A vineyard marker for Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin in Champagne.

After the wine has aged, the dead yeast cells are removed in a process known as riddling. The bottle is place upside down at a 75 degree angle and slowly turned everyday by the riddler (not to be confused with The Riddler). This causes the yeast cells to slowly creep down into the neck of the bottle so they can be removed.

Once the yeast is collected in the neck, it’s time for disgorging. The neck of the bottle is frozen causing the yeast cells to solidify into a plug. The cap is then removed and the pressure of the trapped gas in the bottle pushes the plug out. The bottle is then topped up with the final mixture of sugar and wine known as the dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage dictates the final sweetness of the sparkling wine.

We’ll cover more about the sweetness of sparkling wine in the second blog installment on sparkling wines, including how to pair different sweetness levels with different foods and occasions.

Once the dosage is added, the bottle is then corked and wired shut to trap the pressure that builds from the gas.  Now the wine is ready to be shipped out, to be purchased and then consumed at your next celebration.

As you can see, the traditional method is timely and extremely labor intensive but produces the finest sparklers in the world, including Champagne, Franciacorta from Italy, many top Spanish Cavas, and top sparklers from the USA such as Iron Horse and Schramsberg.

Might not be the one you’re looking for if you plan on adding orange juice to the mix…

But if you’re looking for a dose of mimosa or bellini, scientists have developed shortcuts to speed up the process of creating the bubbly.

The Charmat Method:

The Charmat Method speeds up the process of making bubbly.  This is the preferred method for making Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti, the light effervescent sparklers of Northern Italy, as well as less expensive sparkling wines globally.  

With Charmat, the still wine cuvee is pumped into a pressurized tank where the yeast and sugar are added. Secondary fermentation takes place in tank until the wine is sparkling. The sediment is then filtered out and the wine goes straight into bottle.  Although these shortcuts seem to dispel much of the character of traditional champagne, Charmat can produce high quality sparkling wines in a more fruit forward, lighter style.  And of course, since there is no sur lie aging, these wines are typically much easier on the wallet.

We’ll post a video on Facebook tomorrow showing how to safely and properly open a bottle of Champagne. And later this week, Nick will post a few suggested sparkling wine pairings for all of that extra bubbly you have after NYE.  Stay tuned!

Happy New Year,

Grant & Nick