Sparkling wines are one of the great joys in life. Easy to pair with all sorts of food, perfect for any occasion (and I recommend enjoying the bubbles even when there is no “special” reason), they come in white, rosé, and red, can be sweet to bone dry, with all sorts of flavours like citrus, red cherries, or yummy pastry.
Did you know that there are different ways to make sparkling wine? And that different regions have different laws governing the naming of those wines?
Let’s start with the most well-known sparkling wine out there: Champagne. This is a region in France and the sparkling wines produced must follow stringent legal guidelines in order to bear that title. Only wines made following these rules and produced in Champagne, France may be called Champagne (although many consumers call all sparkling wine, regardless of origin or method, Champagne; and to see why some California wines have the word Champagne on the label, read here).
Champagne is made in the Méthode Champenoise (Traditional Method) style – that is, a second fermentation takes place in the bottle. It is also primarily made from three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Often, Champagne will be a blend of these three, but a Blancs de Blancs will be made only with white grapes (Chardonnay), and a Blancs de Noir is a white Champagne made only from black grapes (Pinot Noir/Meunier).
Here are the basic steps in the Traditional Method:
- Grapes are pressed and the juice is fermented (red wines will be fermented on the skins as that’s where the colour comes from, white wines will not) to create the still, base wine.
- This base wine is put into bottles and a mixture of yeast and sugar (liqueur de tirage) is added before the bottle is closed with a crown cap (a beer bottle top).
- A second fermentation takes place in the bottle and once fermentation is complete, the dead yeast cells (lees) are left in the bottle for a minimum of 12 months (a legal requirement for Champagne) to add complexity and notes of toast, pastry, and brioche to the wine. Many wines are left on the lees for much longer.
- After aging, the bottles are gently moved to an upside down position to coax the yeast cells into the neck of the bottle (this process is called riddling and can be done by hand or by machine) where it is then frozen and the pressure of the CO2 forces this yeast plug out of the bottle when the crown cap is removed (disgorgement).
- More wine is added to top up the bottle, and this is where any sugar is added based on the wine’s intended sweetness level (dosage). The cork and wire cage are then added for safety, as there’s 4x more pressure in a bottle of sparkling wine than in a car tyre.
Sparkling wines made in other regions and countries often label their wines as Méthode Traditionalle, Traditional Method, or use a more specific word to indicate it’s been made in the same style as Champagne:
Crémant is the term used for sparkling wines made in France but outside of the Champagne region (primarily the Loire, utilizing Chenin Blanc grapes) which are made using the traditional method.
Cava is the Spanish term for traditional-method sparkling wines, made with local grape varieties.
Franciacorta is made in the Lombardy region of Italy using the traditional style and primarily Chardonnay grapes.
Méthode Cap Classique is the term used in South Africa for wines made using the traditional method.
The Transfer Method is a variation on the Traditional Method. While the second ferment happens in the bottle, instead of the labour intensive process of riddling and disgorgement, all the fermented wine is dumped into a pressurized tank where the yeast cells are filtered out. The wine is then dosaged and put into the final bottle. This method is often seen in Australia and New Zealand. (Sparkling red wines are a particular specialty of Australia, and can be dry or sweet, fruity and light to complex and aged.)
The third way to make sparkling wines is The Tank Method. The still, base wine is put into a pressurized tank instead of individual bottles. Sugar and yeast are added and the tank is sealed, undergoing the second fermentation where the CO2 dissolves back into the wine. Once the second ferment is finished, the wine is filtered and bottled under pressure. This method is ideal for making light and fruity styles as it doesn’t have that prolonged exposure to the dead yeast cells.
Examples of Tank Method sparkling wines:
Prosecco is made in north-east Italy using the Glera grape. Generally dry or off-dry rather than sweet, with delicate stone fruit flavours. A fully sparkling Prosecco is Spumante, whereas a lightly sparkling/fizzy Prosecco is called Frizzante.
Sekt is the general German word for sparkling wine, and while there are some higher quality, bottle-fermented wines out there, Sekt is primarily Tank Method produced and can be made from cheap base wines sourced throughout the EU. Deutscher Sekt can only be made from German base wines.
Is It Dry or Sweet?
Regardless of method, here are the basic terms of note to understand whether the sparkling wine you’re getting will be dry, sweet, or somewhere in the middle. (You can also go here for actual residual sugar numbers)
Brut Nature/Zero – no sugar added
Extra Brut – wicked dry
Brut – dry
Extra Dry – actually has more sugar and therefore slightly more sweetness than a Brut…
Sec – off-dry
Demi-Sec – Sweet
Doux – wicked sweet
And there you have it – the basic rundown of different sparkling wines, the methods used to achieve them, and the associated names for the regions! I raise a glass to you!