Champagne, prosecco, and cava are staples for any celebratory gathering, but do you know what you're drinking?
The holidays are here and that means delicious food and drinks at home. When it comes to the food, you're in charge of the taste but with wine, it can be harder to feel confident. Picking a bottle is a big unknown. Check out a guide from our friends at Winc on how sparkling wine is made so you can enjoy your bubbles and tell your guests exactly what they're drinking.
What is sparkling wine?
Sparkling wine is made when a secondary fermentation is introduced when wine is in the bottle, resulting in carbon dioxide that’s sealed under cork – until you pop it open!
That’s the TL:DR version of sparkling wine. What actually goes into getting that wine into a bottle is a labor of love that will likely make you understand the high prices that Champagne fetches (and appreciate an affordable bottle of bubbles).
How Sparkling Wine Is Made
Primary fermentation is the first step. As with all wines, grapes are crushed to make a sweet juice. Then yeast ferments the sugars in the juice into alcohol. For sparkling wine, grapes are picked when they are less ripe, so as to encourage high acidity in the base wine – this is important because more sugar will be added later in the production to start the secondary fermentation.
At this point, sparkling winemaking diverges into one of two main paths: the traditional (or Champagne) method, and the Charmat (or tank) method. We will also talk about Pétillant Naturel, an ancient style of winemaking that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity.
The traditional method is the one that producers have used to make Champagne for generations – and is increasingly practiced in other regions, including to make Cava, Franciacorta, and much of the finest sparkling wine from the New World. After primary fermentation, sugar and yeast are added to the base wine and this cuvee is bottled under a crown cap. While still in the bottle, the added yeast and sugar kick off a secondary fermentation that results in carbon dioxide being created in the bottle, aka, bubbles.
Since this secondary fermentation results in lees (the spent yeast cells from fermentation) still being in the bottle, the sediment has to be dealt with somehow. Via a process called riddling, the bottle is slowly moved (generally over a period of years) so that its cap is facing downward and all the lees settle in the neck of the bottle. The next step is disgorgement, in which the necks of the bottles are plunged into a freezing solution, and when the crown cap is opened, the lees deposit flies out of the bottle. The wine is then topped up as needed (this is when sweetness level is determined – a standard brut-level sparkler will have 0-12 grams per liter of residual sugar) and sealed under a Champagne cork and wire cage, ready to be sold.
Tank method is a little more straightforward and doesn’t involve the same long lees aging. The secondary fermentation takes place in a large sealed tank and the wine is quickly moved off its lees and bottled, resulting in a wine with a fruit-forward taste that is meant to be drunk young – think Prosecco or sekt. Wines made with this method are also ideal candidates for mixology as the more subtle aromatics and textures of sparklers made using the traditional method can be lost when you’re adding mixers. These are the bottles you want to pick up to make your mimosa, spritz, or French 75.
A third fermentation method is becoming popular among the natural wine set known as Pétillant Naturel, or Pet’Nat. These wines can’t have sugar or yeast added during production, setting them apart from Traditional and Charmat method bubblies. Instead of completing the primary fermentation to dryness, it is halted when there is still an appreciable amount of residual sugar left in the wine. The crown cap is then added to the wine and the secondary fermentation happens in the same bottle with no yeast or sugar added. The wine is not disgorged or placed under Champagne cork.
Since the lees remain in the bottle, Pet’Nat generally has a slightly cloudy appearance. This is not a flaw in the wine and doesn’t affect its taste. – there just might be a bit of sediment in the bottom of your glass! Pet’Nat is as unique at the winemaker who creates it. It can be fully dry or slightly sweet, made from any grape that is indigenous to its region, including red grapes, and is meant to truly be a reflection of its terroir. It’s a bit less fizzy than Champagne and tends to be lower in alcohol, making Pet’Nat a perfect companion to a picnic or brunch.