What Makes a Good Sparkling Wine?

Is Champagne worth the price? How do other Sparkling wines compare? Read on to learn how sparkling wines are made and how the alternatives compare.

Let’s learn more about Champagne and compare some of the best alternatives – Cava from Spain, Crémant from France and Prosecco from Italy.

Special note:  Canada’s Niagara region shares a similar climate and limestone soil to France’s Champagne region allowing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the 2 mains grape varieties, to  thrive.  Check out some recommendations for quality Ontario sparkling wines here.

What are the prized characteristics of a quality sparkling wine?

  • Let’s start with the bubbles since they are the defining characteristic of a sparkling wine. Bubbles – does size matter? The size of the bubbles is determined by the amount of CO2 gas in the wine. Tradition suggest the finer the bubbles (or mousse) the better the Champagne.  This may be because an older Champagne where some of the gas has dissolved will have finer bubbles. However,  research from Professor Gérard Liger-Belair at the University of Reims suggests that when it comes to bubbles it’s a case of “the bigger the better”. In their findings that were published in The European Physical Journal Special Topics  they determined that larger bubbles increase the amount of gas released above the glass, thereby releasing more aromatics that contribute to the distinctive smell and flavour.   So score a point for Cava and Prosecco for larger bubble size!
  • Aging– the sought after aromas of yeast, biscuits, nuttiness come from the time spent aging on the lees (dead yeast cells). This autolysis, as it is known, also lends the creaminess to the mouthfeel, increases body, reduces the astringency by binding with the tannins and improves aging capabilities.  Science suggests it takes 18 month for the benefits of autolysis to become apparent and may continue for up to 5 years.  Regulations in Champagne stipulate a minimum of 15 months on the lees in the bottle for Non-Vintage Champagnes, 3 years for Vintage and some houses extend it to 7 years.   Compare that to Cava regulations for a minimum of 9 months on the lees and Prosecco that typically only spends 10 days in a tank as its second fermentation.  This is not a statement on quality since the results in all instances are pleasurable but it does start to explain differences in price and traits.
  • Flavour profiles– since different grape varieties or blends go into Champagne, Cava or Prosecco you will naturally experience different tastes. (See below for the grapes by type of sparkling).

 

  • Sweetness for Champagne and Cava can range from
    • 0-3 grams sugar/liter for Brut Nature
    • up to 6 grams/l for Brut
    • 12-17 grams/liter for Extra Dry/Extra Seco
    • 17-32 grams/liter for Dry/Seco
    • 32-50 grams/liter for Demi-Sec/Semi-Seco
    • 50+ for Doux/Dulce.
  • Prosecco sweetness scale
    • Brut up to 12 grams/liter
    • Extra Dry 12-17 grams/liter
    • Dry-17-32 grams/liter

The Methods

There are 2 primary methods of producing sparkling wine widely in use today.

Traditional Method (Methode Traditionelle)

  • also known as Méthode Champenoise, méthode traditionnelle, Methode Cap Classique, Metodo Classico, klassische flaschengärung
  • used in Cava, Champagne, Crémant, some Sekt, Italian Metodo Classico wines  (including Franciacorta and Trento)

Tank Method

  • also known as Charmat Method, Metodo Italiano, Cuvée Close, autoclave
  • used in Prosecco Lambrusco

What is the difference between  Traditional Method and  Tank Method?

  • Base wine production- all sparkling wines start with a still wine and this still  wine is usually blended with other base wines to arrive at ‘the final blend’
  • Yeast and sugar are added to start the second fermentation.  This is where the process diverges.
    • Traditional method -the wines are bottled at this stage and the 2nd fermentation takes place entirely in the bottle.  The process creates CO2 which is trapped inside the bottle carbonating the wine. The yeast dies and remains in the bottle (autolysis). Aging in the bottle is a minimum of 9 months for Cava and 15 months for Champagne.
    • Tank Method – the  yeast and sugar are added to the wine and it is transferred to a pressure resistant tank (autoclave). The second fermentation takes about 10 days only.
  • Clarification
    • in the Traditional Method, after the aging process  the bottles are placed in a downward position and turned by hand (Riddling) or by machine (gyropalettes) to nudge the yeast deposit to the neck of the bottle. The plug of yeast in the neck of the bottle is then frozen and the force in the bottle forces the plug out when the bottle is opened.
    • in the Tank Method the wine is pumped through a pressure-resistant tank to remove the yeast/sediment.
  • Dosage – after the clarification the wine is topped up with an amount of wine and sugar (Dosage).  This will determine the final sweetness of the wine. The bottles in the Traditional Method are corked, wired and labelled. Traditional Method bottles are under 5-7 atmospheres or 77-99 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. In the Tank Method the wines are bottled for the first time after the dosage has been added to the tank. Tank Method bottles are under 2-4 atmospheres or 30-60 psi.
    • Note some sparkling wines are made with no dosage. They will be called ‘Zero Dosage’, or ‘Brut 100% (or ‘Brut Intégral’ or ‘Brut Sauvage’) etc.

Champagne

‘Champagne’ has become synonymous with luxury, quality, celebrations  and is the epitome of sparkling wines.  The regulations for the AOC of Champagne mean that only wines from the Champagne region can be called Champagne and be marked with ‘methode champenoise’.  Regions outside of Champagne use the term methode traditionelle to signify they use the same methods as Champagne region.

Champagne grapes will typically be Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.  Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane grapes are allowed but rarely used.

In 1990 Champagne producers lobbied to restrict the use of the term  Champagne and methode champenoise to wines produced in the region of Champagne.

Historically bubbles in wine were seen to be a fault.  Dom Perignon, who is actually credited for the methode champenoise, was actually tasked with find a way to eliminate the bubbles in the wines of Champagne.

Wealthy and Royal Brits  are noted for first developing the preference for the bubbles in Champagne wines.  Eventually the trend caught on in the French court after the death of Louis XIV  in 1715.  Philippe II, Duke of Orléans became the Regent of France. The Duke of Orléans enjoyed the sparkling version of Champagne and featured it at his nightly petits soupers at the Palais-Royal. This sparked a craze in Paris as restaurants and fashionable society sought to emulate the Duke’s tastes for the bubbling wine.

The early production of sparkling Champagne wines was fraught with risk since the bottles were prone to exploding.  It was not unheard of for one bottle to explode setting of chain reaction that could see a  large percentage of the production lost.

Some of the oldest Champagne houses such as the houses of Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck and Taittinger were established in the 18th century and eventually improvements in bottle strength, corks and method led to a more reliable production process.

The price of Champagne  is driven by the meticulous process, prestige, high demand and limited supply.

Crémant

3 bottles of Cremant

The term ‘Crémant’ is used  to designate sparkling wines, made using  the methode traditionelle, from regions outside of Champagne.

There are currently eight Appellation d’Origine Controllé (AOC) in France that include Crémant in their designation and one in Luxemburg (Crémant de Luxembourg).

All  designations must manually harvest the grapes, perform whole grape pressings with limitations on harvest volumes, and spend a minimum of 9 months aging on the lees.

After that the AOC regulations vary by region and include regulation on types and percentages of grapes.

Crémant de Bourgogne is actually a great value sparkling.  It is just south of the Champagne region and uses the same method and grapes.  Aging requirements are not as long as in Champagne region so wines may be  less complex but nevertheless high quality sparkling.

France

  • Crémant d’Alsace
    • Whites:  Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
    •  Rosé: 100% Pinot Noir required for rosé
  • Crémant de Bourgogne
    • White: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with occasional use of Gamay, Pinot Blanc, Sacy, Pinot Gris, Aligoté, and/or Melon de Bourgogne
    • Rosé: Pinot Noir and sometimes Gamay
  • Crémant de Limoux
    • White and Rosé: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Mauzac (locally called Blanquette), Pinot Noir
    • Interesting to note: The earliest record of sparkling wines from France are references to Blanquette de Limoux  in 1531 in the notes of the Benedictine monks at an abbey in Saint-Hilaire in Languedoc region.  Blanquette de Limoux is must be 90 % Mauzac grape. Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay typically would make up the remaining 10%.
  • Crémant de Loire (largest producer of sparkling wines outside of Champagne region)
    • Primary Grapes: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir
    • Others: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arbois, Pineau d’Aunis, Grolleau, Grolleau Gris
  • Crémant de Bordeaux
    • Primarily Merlot along with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and/or Muscadelle
  • Crémant de Savoie
    • Jacquère, Altesse, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Aligoté
  • Crémant du Jura
    • Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Poulsard, Savagnin, Pinot Gris, Poulsard, Trousseau
  • Crémant de Die
    • Primarily Clairette, possibly with some Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and/or Aligoté

Cava

3 cavas

Cava is the Spanish sparkling wine made in the methode traditionelle using white grape varieties like Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo .

Cava ages for 9 months (similar to Crémant styles)

Cava Reserva ages for 15 months (same as non-Vintage Champagne).

Cava Gran Reserva ages for 30 months and vintage dated. Only available in Brut Nature,  Extra Brut or Brut. (Same as Vintage Champagne)

The aging on the lees is what gives sparkling wine its complex notes, the yeasty, biscuity notes (known as autolytics).  The longer the aging on lees the more complex the wine will be.

Prosecco

3 bottles of prosecco

Prosecco is one of Italy’s best known sparkling wines.   Prosecco must be a minimum of 85% Glera grapes (formerly known also as Prosecco).  Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir can make up the other 15%.  The name Prosecco is derived from the Italian village of Prosecco near Trieste, where the grape and wine originated.

Prosecco is made using the tank method, which means the second fermentation takes place in a steel tank instead of individual bottles. It is then filtered and the dosage takes place  (adding a mixture of sugar and  must). Then the wine is bottled.

Prosecco is typically a light, fruity sparkling wine with an alcohol level between 9 and 11 percent.  It is bottled with less pressure than Champagne so the bubbles don’t last as long as Champagnes.  Prosecco should be consumed immediately upon release.

  • Prosecco DOC can be Spumante sparkling wine, Frizzante (semi-sparkling) and Tranquillo (still). Spumante is the one most commonly available in North America.
  • Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
  • Superiore di Cartizze  –The hill of Cartizze is a 305 metres (1,001 ft) high vineyard of 107 hectares (260 acres) of vines,  owned by 140 growers.  The Prosecco from its grapes, of which comparatively little is produced, is widely considered to be of the highest quality.

Prosecco Cocktail

 

References

Champagne Official Website

Wine Folly- How Sparkling Wine is Made

Wikipedia- Sparkling Wine

Is Champagne worth the price? How do other Sparkling wines compare? Read on to learn how sparkling wines are made and how the alternatives compare.

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