Your Guide to Becoming an Expert on Sparkling Wine

From Prosecco and Cava to vintage Champagne, learn to understand the differences among sparkling wines, how they're made, and how to choose the right one.
Schramsberg Winery / Photo by Far Enough, flickr

Sparkling wine, fizz, bubbly: call it what you will, but its effervescence spells joy and celebration. These tiny bubbles make all the difference, but how do they get there? How different sparkling wines are made can help you choose the right wine for the right occasion.

First things first: bubbles form when carbon dioxide gas dissolved in wine is released. Most sparkling wine bottles are thus under pressure, which explains the traditional spago (thread) closure for slightly sparkling Prosecco, and the wire muselet for fully sparkling wine. Both keep the cork in place.

Pressure is also why sparkling wine bottles are heavier and thicker than traditional wine bottles and have a deep punt in their bottom. Fully sparkling wine has up to six atmospheres of pressure, so bottles need to be structurally sound and sturdy. As the bottle is opened, that pressure releases and the wine begins to sparkle.

So how does carbon dioxide get into wine? Broadly speaking, there are three ways. The first way is to add it, like in soda. The second method is to trap carbon dioxide from the wine’s initial fermentation. The final way is to put finished wine, known as base wine, through a second fermentation and trap the resulting carbon dioxide. This can happen either in a tank or bottle, and it’s the way most sparkling wine is made. But let’s discuss the first two methods.

Each bubble (there are approximately one million bubbles in each glass of a traditional-method sparkler) acts like a magnifying glass for flavor.

Adding carbon dioxide creates the least persistent effervescence, as the wines are just slightly fizzy. A special closure is not necessary.

It’s also possible to make a fizzy wine by trapping carbon dioxide from the first alcoholic fermentation. Usually, such carbon dioxide is allowed to escape, but a pressurized tank traps the gas at a desired point to create a fizzy wine.

Depending on when this process is halted, there can be residual sweetness in the wine. It’s then filtered to prevent further ferment and bottled under pressure, which preserves natural sweetness and fruity flavor. The resulting fizz is lively and frothy. This is how Asti Spumante is made.

Trapping carbon dioxide inside a bottle is known as méthode ancestrale, where a wine with residual sweetness is bottled and continues to ferment until all sugar is consumed. Trendy pétillants naturels, or pét nats, are made in this manner.

Riddling racks at Raventós i Blanc / Photo via Facebook
Riddling racks at Raventós i Blanc / Photo via Facebook

But now on to getting bubbles into wine via second fermentation. There’s a huge distinction between secondary fermentation in tank, known as Charmat method, and secondary fermentation in bottle, known as traditional method, méthode traditionnelle or metodo classico. Both create sparkling wine, but they produce different character and virtues. Both of these methods start out with still, dry base wine, to which an exact amount of both sugar and yeast is added which will induce the second fermentation.

At its worst, the Charmat method merely jazzes up mediocre base wine by adding sparkle and a heavy dollop of sweetness that sits on the wine like too much makeup.

For the Charmat method, a base wine that’s augmented with sugar and yeast is put into a pressurized tank where the second fermentation takes place. The carbon dioxide is trapped, and the dead yeast cells sink to the bottom. While these dead yeast cells (known as lees) add a degree of flavor, there’s little interaction between lees and wine. The resulting bubbles are bigger and frothier, and the flavors are far less complex. After a few months on lees, the wine is filtered and bottled under pressure.

This method is easier, cheaper and faster than the traditional method. The base wine’s primary varietal flavors remain and are accentuated by the lively, frothy foam. This is how most Prosecco is made, where the floral, fruity notes of the Glera grape take center stage. Stefano Ferrante, chief winemaker at Prosecco Zonin1821 says, “This way, we can obtain freshness and aroma without the excessive structure and secondary aromas given by yeast contact.”

At its best, the Charmat method makes fresh, lively wines that express varietal character and fruitiness with their sparkle. At its worst, it merely jazzes up mediocre base wine by adding sparkle and a heavy dollop of sweetness that sits on the wine like too much makeup.

Sparkling Wine Facts

• In 2016, the region of Champagne shipped more than 306 million bottles worldwide, 21.8 million of those to the U.S. It ‘s estimated there were 1.47 billion bottles of Champagne in current stock, aging and maturing during 2016.
• The annual production of Cava is estimated at around 265 million gallons, or 1.3 billion bottles, while Prosecco totals 450 million bottles. By comparison, New Zealand produced a mere 283.4 million bottles of wine total, sparkling and still.
• It’s the Germans who drink most sparkling wine. Their consumption of nearly one gallon per person is the highest in the world.

For the traditional method, a base wine with added sugar and yeast is bottled and sealed, usually with a crown (bottle) cap. Fermentation then takes place inside the bottle, and the resulting carbon dioxide is dissolved in the wine.

Here, the dead yeast cells of the second fermentation add flavor and texture to the now sparkling wine as they disintegrate, a process known as autolysis. The longer the wine stays on the lees, the bubbles will be finer, the foam (or mousse) will be creamier and the flavors will be more intense. These flavors and aromas are often likened to bread, brioche, biscuit or oatmeal.

When the wines are ready to be shipped, sometimes after years of lees aging, the bottle is gradually turned and tilted to move the yeast sediment into the neck of the bottle. This is known as riddling.

Disgorging a bottle at Larmandier-Bernier.

A post shared by Jameson Fink (@jamesonfink) on

Once all the sediment is in the neck of the bottle, it’s frozen and opened to eject the frozen sediment under pressure. The bottle is then topped up, resealed immediately with a cork and secured with a wire muselet, a process called disgorgement. Champagne, Crémant, Cava and the world’s finest sparkling wines are made this way. It’s the most sophisticated and labor-intensive way to create fizz.

At the topping-up stage of disgorgement some sugar dissolved in still wine can be added to balance the naturally high acidity of most of these wines. This is known as dosage. Dosage levels like brut, extra dry or demi-sec are strictly governed and are always stated on the bottle.

Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are grapes particularly suited to this treatment, but world-class sparkling wine is not restricted to them. An ideal base wine is high in acidity, low in alcohol and exquisitely pure. Each bubble (there are approximately one million bubbles in each glass of a traditional-method sparkler) acts like a magnifying glass for flavor. Traditional-method sparklers are amongst the world’s most complex and compelling wines, and their prices are justified, given their years of aging. Both time and autolysis create unique secondary and tertiary flavors.

Champagne Tops
Sparkling wine caps for cages to secure the cork / Photo by Carsten ten Brink via flickr

How to Choose Sparkling Wine

If you like fruity varietal flavors enlivened by vigorous fizz, well-made wines from the Charmat method will provide lots of pleasure. They make ideal apéritifs, are great for mixing and provide uncomplicated, affordable refreshment. Italy has a wealth of indigenous grapes that are made into delicious sparkling wines by this method.

If you like more complex flavors, try a traditional-method sparkling wine that spent one to two years on its lees. Some primary fruit notes will still shine, backed by subtle autolytic notes. These wines are classic apéritifs and also pair with light and subtle cooking.

With a higher dosage, demi-sec sparkling wines make stunning matches for medium-sweet desserts.

Which is the Best Glass for Sparkling Wine?

If you like bright freshness, try Champagne, Trentodoc or a sparkler from coastal California. If you like softer acidity, try Franciacorta. World-class fizz is also made in South Africa, England, Tasmania and Patagonia.

If you like very complex wines, try any vintage-dated, traditional-method sparkling wine. Their rich, multidimensional flavors make great food matches, even with meat dishes. Professionals serve them in sparkling wine tulips or Burgundy-style glasses to showcase the full spectrum of their layered aromas.

The Right Temperature for Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine should always be well chilled. Bottles not cold enough will just foam upon opening, a waste of wine. Ideal serving temperatures are between 40–45°F. For more complex vintage wines, 47–50°F is best.

How to Open a Bottle of Sparkling Wine

Remove the foil, place hand firmly on the top of the cork, pull down the threads or unscrew the wire muselet, do not remove the muselet. Then, hold the bottle in one hand, while keeping your other hand firmly on the cork. Turn the bottle carefully with one hand as you hold on to the cork to ease it out slowly and gently.

Champagne Cork Art
Sparkling wine cage and cap art / Photo and art by Meg Lauber via flickr

Sparkling Wine Glossary

Assemblage

The blend of grape varieties in the base wine.

Blanc de Blancs

Sparkling wine made from white wine grape varieties only.

Blanc de Noirs

Sparkling wine made from red grape varieties (with clear juice).

Levels of Dosage

Brut Nature/Brut Zéro: No addition of dosage, but can contain up to 3g/l of natural residual sugar. Some bottle also say also called Non-Dosé or Pas Dosé or zero dosage
Extra Brut: 0-6g/l
Brut: 0-15g/l
Extra-Sec/Extra-Dry: 12-20g/l sugar
Dry/Sec: 17-35g/l sugar
Demi-Sec: 33-50g/l sugar
Doux: Above 50g/l sugar

Dosage

The addition of sugar at disgorgement that balances a sparkling wine or creates a certain style. Some sparkling wines have a dosage in the form of sweet wine or even brandy in place of sugar. Classic sparklers like Champagne have very high acidity, so a small amount of dosage doesn’t act as a sweetener, but a flavor enhancer.

Espumoso

Spanish term for sparkling wine.

Frizzante

Italian term for semi-sparkling wine, from 1 to 2.5 bar pressure.

Mousse

French term for the foam of a sparkling wine.

NV or MV

Nonvintage or multivintage; a sparkling wine that contains base wines from more than one year.

Reserve Wine

Base wines kept, sometimes for years, to add character and richness to a blend before second fermentation.

Sekt

German term for sparkling wine, used in Germany and Austria. It covers everything from fizzy plonk to world-class wine.

Spumante

Italian term for fully sparkling wine, with a minimum 3 bar pressure.

Vintage

Sparkling wine made from base wine/s from one vintage only. The vintage must be stated.

Published on June 19, 2017
Topics: Wine Basics
About the Author
Anne Krebiehl MW
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Austria, Alsace and England

German-born but London-based, Anne Krebiehl MW is a freelance wine writer contributing to international wine publications. She also lectures, consults and translates and has helped to make wine in New Zealand, Germany and Italy. She adores acidity in wine and is thus perfectly suited to her Austria/Alsace/England beat. Her particular weaknesses are Pinot Noir, Riesling and traditional-method sparkling wines.

Email: akrebiehl@wineenthusiast.net.




SUBSCRIBE TO
NEWSLETTERS
The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories
Please enter a valid email address
privacy policy