It’s the most wonderful time of year, when Girls on Grapes devotes a magical month to the most festive, joyful wines in the world – bubbly! Get ready to pop some corks, ladies, because we’re gonna be drinking some sparkling wine. But don’t let the timing fool you into thinking that bubbles are only appropriate for holidays and celebrations – sparkling wine is the perfect beverage anytime, anyplace. (And we mean anytime – don’t underestimate the breakfast pairing abilities of Champagne!) We at the Bin have dedicated our lives to fighting that unfortunate misconception, and promoting the versatility of these astounding wines. Our manifesto is, simply put, that the world needs to drink more bubbly!
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – (almost) all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. People have a tendency to refer to any type of sparkling wine as Champagne, but true Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of north-eastern France. There are plenty of delicious bubbles produced in the U.S., Spain, Italy, and beyond – some of which are even made in the same method and with the same grapes as Champagne – but these fall under the umbrella term of ‘sparkling wine,’ or their own more specific appellation designates (such as Cava or Prosecco).
Whether true Champagne or not, sparkling wines can range from very sweet to bone-dry or slightly fizzy to nearly-foamy, and can be made anywhere in the world with any grapes and a variety of production methods. The actual bubbles in the wine are carbon dioxide, which is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. While held under pressure in the bottle, the gas is trapped in the wine and released when the cork is removed, leading to those pleasant little bubbles tickling your palate. There is not just one shape or size of bubbles in sparkling wine; they can be fine and subtle or coarse and aggressive, persistent or quick to flatten. The texture and flavor profile of the wine can also vary wildly. For example, Champagne tends to have a very classic brioche-y quality, while Prosecco is generally lighter and more floral – but even within these categories, the wines can show a remarkable amount of variability depending on specific terroir influences and the winemaker’s style.
How They’re Made?
All sparkling wines start out as a still wine (the ‘base’ wine) and then undergo one of several methods to trap the carbon dioxide in the wine. The different methods all vary in cost and complication, as well as overall quality of the final wine.
Méthode Champenoise / Traditional Method: The most highly regarded method by which to produce sparkling wine. As its name indicated, this is how Champagne is produced, as well as all Spanish Cava and Italian Franciacorta. Even if not required by an appellation, many winemakers around the world choose to use this meticulous and labor-intensive technique in order to produce a higher quality of sparkling wine.
The Traditional Method, as with all sparkling wine production methods, starts with a base of already-fermented still wine. Then, a concoction of sugar and yeast cells called the liqueur de tirage is added to that wine while in bottle. This initiates a second fermentation producing carbon dioxide, which is kept dissolved under pressure in the bottle.
Just one problem – what about all those nasty, chunky yeast cells (called lees) left floating around in the bottle? Well, first, the winemakers usually let them sit around in the bottle for a while – this is what it means when a wine has ‘spent time on its lees.’ Non-vintage Champagne must sit on its lees for a minimum of 15 months; vintage Champagne for at least three years. But when that’s over…it’s time for the Riddling process! This is an extremely laborious task, traditionally taking 3-6 weeks when done by hand (though today machines called gyropalates are often utilized). The bottles are gradually shaken and slowly tilted upside down in order to gently nudge these yeast cells down into the neck of the bottles.
Then, in the Disgorgement stage, the necks of these bottles are frozen, and the bottles are unstopped. The pressure of the wine pushes out the frozen ‘plug’ of sediment in the neck, basically filtering the lees out of the wine. Next, the wine is topped up with a mixture of unfermented grape juice and reserve wine, called the dosage. The sugar contained in this mixture is what determines the final sweetness level of the wine. And now, finally, we have a final méthode champenoise wine – all corked up and ready for you to enjoy!
Charmat Method / Tank Method: Like the Traditional Method, the Charmat Method begins with a fermented base wine that then undergoes a secondary fermentation – but this time, that second fermentation happens in a tank, rather than in individual bottles. The liqueur de tirage is added to this tank with a large quantity of the base wine; the tank is sealed, and after the second fermentation has completed, the lees are filtered out and the wine is bottled under pressure. While the Charmat method is often considered inferior to the méthode champenoise, it is arguably better for aromatic varieties such as Glera (the grape used for Prosecco) or Moscato, as it better retains the grapes’ natural freshness. The Charmat Method is the most popular technique for producing sparkling wine worldwide, as it is much less labor-intensive, less expensive, and more efficient than the Traditional Method. Prosecco is always produced in this way, as well as most Asti wines and German Sekt.
Méthode ancestrale / Ancestral Method: As the name suggests, this is the oldest technique for producing sparkling wine. In this case, the base wine does not complete its initial fermentation, so it is bottled with its own natural residual sugar to incite the secondary fermentation (a separate liqueur de tirage is not added). And that’s it – no riddling, no disgorgement. These wines tend to be slightly sweet, and are most often seen in the French regions of Gaillac and Bugey-Cerdon.
Transfer Method: In a way, this technique uses the best aspects of both the Traditional Method and the Charmat Method. The secondary fermentation occurs in bottle, but after it has spent the desired amount of time on the lees, it is transferred into a large tank with all the other wines. The dosage is then added, and the wine is re-bottled. This allows the wine to attain a level of complexity from the méthode champenoise, but with less bottle variation in the final product.
Soda Method: Perhaps not the classiest bubbles, but definitely the cheapest! Wines made in this way have been simply injected with carbon dioxide in order to make them bubbly. They are sometimes referred to as ‘aerated sparkling wines,’ and you’ll find that the actual bubbles are noticeably larger and coarser in comparison to the more delicate bubbles of Champagne or Prosecco.
How Sweet is my Bubbly?
Most sparkling wines will be labelled appropriately to indicate the sugar levels in the final wine. Once we get into the technicalities, however, you’ll find that there is a fair amount of wiggle room. The ‘Brut’ category, for instance, can legally contain 0-12 grams/litre of sugar – that’s a pretty wide range! So while most people expect brut sparkling wines to be dry, there are some that will show more noticeable sugar than others. Additionally, there is a loophole that states that “the sugar content may not differ by more than 3 grams per litre from what appears on the product label,” meaning that a wine with 15 g/l of sugar can also be labelled as brut, since there’s 3 g/l of wiggle room! But at the very least, these descriptions should give you at least some idea of what to expect…
Classification Sugar Content (grams/litre)
Brut Nature: 0-3
Extra Brut: 0-6
Extra Dry/Extra Sec: 12-17
Where it’s Made?
France: Sparkling wines are produced throughout France, from Crémant d’Alsace in the northeast to Clairette de Die from the southern Rhône Valley. In between, you’ll find a plethora of other crémants from the Burgundy, Jura, and especially the Loire Valley, made from a variety of grapes including Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and, of course, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
And that brings us to Champagne. Irrefutably the finest sparkling wines in the world come from this small region filled with chalky soils, the northernmost winegrowing area in France (and one of the northernmost in the world). The three main grapes grown in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
There are a number of grand and premier crus in Champagne as well, indicating particularly excellent terroirs throughout the region. Unlike in Burgundy, where a specific vineyard is designated a cru, Champagne crus are whole villages – and, interestingly, the name of the cru isn’t always noted on the label. Single-vineyard Champagnes are rare, and bottles labelled with the name of the vineyard are even rarer.
Most Champagnes are classified as ‘non-vintage,’ meaning that the grapes used in the wine are from multiple harvests. Blending in this way helps the winemaker achieve a consistent ‘house style’ from year to year, without the vintage variation most non-sparkling wines see. In the best years, however, many producers bottle ‘vintage Champagne’ from a single harvest. Vintage Champagnes will show more unique characteristics that reflect the year. Most Champagne houses also produce a top-of-the-line offering referred to as a ‘Prestige Cuvée,’ which are usually vintage Champagnes produced from the very best grapes and often with longer ageing periods. The most famous of these are Möet & Chandon’s “Dom Perignon” and Louis Roederer’s “Cristal.”
Italy: Italy also produces a wide range of sparkling wines, from slightly frizzante Moscato d’Asti to the rich, Champagne-styled Franciacortas of Lombardy. Or if you’re looking for something a little out of the sparkling wine norm, keep your eyes peeled for a bottle of Lambrusco – a unique, sometimes slightly-sweet, yet somewhat earthy, sparkling red from Emilia Romagna that will knock your socks off next to a charcuterie plate. But, of course, there’s another type of Italian bubbly you’re guaranteed to find on virtually every restaurant list or wine store shelf…Prosecco!
Prosecco has quickly become one of the world’s most popular sparkling wines: it is easy to make, and usually inexpensive to buy. Produced in the Veneto and Friuli regions with the Glera grape, Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, which helps retain Glera’s soft, floral, fruity aromatics. Beyond the basic Prosecco DOC, there are two Prosecco Superiore DOCGs which indicate higher quality: Asolo Prosecco Superiore, made in the Colli Asolani area of central Veneto, and Prosecco Congeliano Valdobbiadene Superiore, produced from Glera grown on steeper hillside vineyards.
Spain: When it comes to Spanish sparkling wine, Cava is king. Unlike Champagne or Prosecco, Cava is not regulated by where it is made. 95% is produced in the Penedès region of Catalunya, but examples can also be found from Castilla y León, La Rioja, Navarra, and more. It matters more how the wine is made than where it’s from – all Cava must be produced in the méthode champenoise, and generally with the three indigenous white varietals Xarel-lo, Macabeu, and Paralleda. Rosé Cava is also produced by adding a red grape to the mix, most commonly Garnacha or Monastrell. Even though Cava is made in the same way as Champagne, Spain has industrialized the process much more so that they are able to mechanically riddle and disgorge large quantities of wine without the time and labor investment most traditional Champagne houses expend.
California: Cali bubbly is often made to stylistically emulate Champagne, using the same grapes and methods. A number of producers are actually owned and operated by major Champagne houses, such as Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer), Domaine Chandon (Möet & Chandon), and Domaine Carneros (Tattinger). California doesn’t have any specific sparkling wine appellations, though, so bubbles can be made anywhere in the state from any grapes, using any technique.
Everywhere Else: And we mean ‘everywhere else.’ Bubbly wine can be made anywhere grapes are grown – Champagne, Prosecco, and Cava are just the beginning! Keep an eye out for sparkling Riesling from Germany, red sparkling Shiraz from Australia, or bubbly pink Malbec from Argentina, just to name a few. But really, there are no limits when it comes to sparkling wine – all you need are some grapes and a love for bubbles!
As we said before, bubbly is the perfect wine for any time, any place. While most people think of sparkling wine as something to toast with before dinner, it is in fact one of the most food-versatile types of wine there is – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option to carry you through multiple courses. Pair with briny, minerally oysters for a classic and elegant treat, or drink with a cream-based soup to cut through the richness. But you certainly don’t have to have especially classy food to match with some classy bubbles – one of our favorite pairings is Champagne and fried food! But seriously…sparkling wine goes with just about anything, from rich German food to delicate seafood dishes. So pep up your dinner table at your next gathering with a bottle of bubbly!