As we ready our Champagne flutes to toast the new year, we thought today would be the perfect occasion to provide a quick overview of sparkling wine.
How it’s Made
There are several techniques for making sparkling wine, depending on the region and the overall quality attempting to be achieved. The traditional method starts with bottling a dry, still, high acid and low alcohol wine. From there, a second fermentation occurs in the bottle itself, with the addition of yeast and sugar. As fermentation occurs, the yeast cells die, releasing the compounds that provide the toasty and nutty flavors sparkling wine fans love. Along with alcohol, fermentation also produces CO2, which dissolves into the wine (the longer the dead yeast cells age with the wine, the smaller the bubbles). The sediment and dead yeast cells are eventually taken out, leaving a clear finished product. A bit of wine and sometimes sugar is also added at the very end to make up for the lost volume and to balance the flavor.
Larger commercial operations often use a bit of a shortcut, doing the second fermentation in a large pressurized tank instead of in the bottles themselves. And for the really cheap stuff, still wine is simply carbonated like soda.
What Grapes are Used
In the Champagne region of France, the primary grape varieties used are Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Meunier (red), and Chardonnay (white). Outside of the Champagne region, many other varieties are used, such as Glera for Prosecco (Italy), and Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel·lo for Cava (Spain).
Sparkling wines are often made from a blend of grapes, which is called the cuvée in France. If the bottle has a vintage on it, this means that the vast majority of the grape juice is from the same year, whereas a non-vintage bottle contains wine from multiple years’ harvests. Commercial champagnes are often non-vintage as blending allows for a consistent flavor that consumers can recognize from year to year. Vintage Champagnes are produced from exceptional harvest years and are required to age for a minimum of three years, while non-vintage Champagne is required to age for 15 months.
If the sparkling wine is made exclusively from white grapes, the label will likely say “blanc de blancs.” Likewise, “blanc de noirs” means that it was made from exclusively red grapes. Sparkling rosés are made from a combination of red and white grapes, with the red skins imparting a bit of color.
The level of sweetness in a bottle of sparkling wine is somewhat counterintuitive. While the names vary slightly depending on the country it comes from, here are the names you’re likely to encounter ranging from the least sweet to sweetest: Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, and Demi Sec. For reference, a gin and tonic has about seven times amount of sugar as a Brut sparkling wine (Brut is the most common type of champagne). Unlike still wines, the sweetness in sparkling wines is derived from a bit of added wine and sugar at the end of the process to counter the otherwise highly acidic liquid.
Regardless of what you’re drinking to ring in the new year, cheers! I think we can all agree that the end of 2020 calls for a bit of celebration.