Sparkling Wine

There are many misconceptions in the world of wine, while some are more understandable then others, there is one that just drives me crazy… Referring to all sparkling wine as Champagne.  This misconception is undoubtedly one of the most common and the easiest to dispel.  Champagne is a region in France that produces a certain style of wine using a certain method, known in Champagne as the, “Methode Champanoise,” or in the rest of the World as, “Methode Traditionelle.”  Any sparkling wine made outside of the region of Champagne, may not bear the name Champagne.  Even in other regions of France, a sparkling wine made outside of the boundaries of Champagne are not aloud to use the regions name.  A wine made in the exact same style, using the same grape varieties, and the same aging process as Champagne, if outside the region of Champagne, must have a different designation.  In essence, its all about the region, so simply put, Champagne comes from Champagne.  This does not make it the only sparkling wine worth exploring, it just means that there are many other regions around the world producing excellent examples and to lump them all together under one name is a disservice to those regions and to that of Champagne.

So, what are these other regions, how are they similar?  How are they different?  Simply put, the major similarity and difference between regions is style of production.  Many regions use the, “Methode Tradionelle,” a production method where as the wine performs a second fermentation in the bottle in which it will be sold, creating the bubbles.  To understand this, is to understand what fermentation is, the conversion of sugar to alcohol.  In order to achieve this conversion, yeast is required to eat the sugar, thus creating alcohol and most importantly in regard to sparkling wine, carbon dioxide (the bubbles).  A sparkling wine made in this fashion is first fermented like any other dry, still wine, it is then bottled and given more sugar and yeast, after which it is capped and allowed to begin the fermentation process once more, hence the common reference to, “second fermentation in the bottle.”  No matter where the wines made in this fashion are from or the grape varieties that are used, one common similarity across the broad spectrum of flavor is a bready or yeasty quality.  This richness comes from the aging process of the wine after the second fermentation is complete.  After the yeast converts sugar to alcohol it dies and its spent cells are left to sit in the wine, a process referred to as, “autolysis.”  It is during this process that the wine develops its own distinct character.

While the method above is considered by many experts to be the gold standard of sparkling wine production, there is one other method that is gaining ground.  This method is referred to as, “Charmat,” or “Cuvee Close.”  In this process the second fermentation takes place in a large tank and the wine is then bottled under pressure.  One of the major differences here is the lack of contact with the dead yeast cells.  Because of this lack of contact, wines made in this fashion tend to show more expressions of fresh, crisp fruit.  The wine that most famously comes to mind using this method is, Prosecco, made in the northern Italian region of the Veneto.

While we are only scraping the surface of the sparkling wine world, it is important to know that many of the wines are made in the same fashion, what set them apart is the grapes, where the grapes are grown, and how the wine is aged.  Even then we are simplifying the process… but without getting to deep and complex, lets just start with, Champagne comes from Champagne, France.  

Do you want to learn more about sparkling wines?  Come to our Sparkle & Shine class Tuesday, March 27th!  Click here to register.  

Christopher Peterman

Founder/Director, American Sommelier Maine