Not all Sparkling Wines are Created Equal…
That we know!
We also know that champagne is on the expensive side of sparkling wine, but if we like champagne, wouldn't it be good to know what sparkling wine to select, if we want our sparkling wine to have some of the champagne characteristics, or a similar profile, but with a fraction of its price?
Sparkling wine is a complex subject that takes more than a few pages to fully comprehend, but in this article we will briefly discuss a small group of sparkling wines and touch on their differences and specific profiles. However, I am a strong believer that one should drink what one’s heart desires and not get side-swiped by prestige, price, others’ personal preferences, or marketing trends.
Let's not Confuse Sparkling Wines and Call them all Champagne!
Champagne is a wine region, located in the northeastern part of France about 100 miles from Paris. Champagne’s major concentration of vineyards are within its five sub-regions, but the most three famous, which are close to the major production centers of Reims and Epernay are: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.
Historically, the first sparkling wine was produced in Champagne with a unique wine-making method known as “Method Champenoise'' and so Champagne pioneered the sparkling wine production that has been modeled after in many parts of the world, which led to the name change from “Methode Champenoise” to “Methode Traditionelle” which translates to “ Traditional Method”. Years later, new sparkling wine methods were developed around the world and contributed in their unique ways to a diverse collection of styles, profiles, characteristics, and price tags.
Champagne is synonymous with the finest and most prestigious sparkling wines, as there is much more to champagne than being the first region to produce sparkling wine.
Champagne is legally protected under a treaty that goes back to 1891 and the name was exclusively reserved for wines grown, harvested and produced in Champagne. With this prestigious recognition, further restrictions on quality were applied to impact yield, minimum alcohol content, press yield and aging. Moreover, there are only three grape varieties permitted in Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. Champagne produces less than 12% of total world production of sparkling wine.
How is Sparkling Wine Produced?
Although they all have bubbles, sparkling wines are made in a wide variety of styles, which can be white, red, or rose’, dry, off-dry, medium sweet, or sweet.
There are four different methods to produce sparkling wine, beside the ‘Traditional Method” which originated in Champagne; Transfer, Tank, Asti, and Carbonation methods; Here is a glimpse on each of them:
1- Traditional Method
Grapes must be hand- harvested in whole clusters, followed by a gentle pressing. Primary fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats and oak barrels to create still, dry base wine. Then the wine is blended from different vineyard sites, vintages, or reserve wines to achieve a certain style. The second fermentation happens in the bottle, when the alcohol level is increased by 1.2-1.3% due to the addition of “Liqueur de Tirage” (a mixture of yeast, sugar, clarifying agent and nutrients), then the wine is aged on its dead yeast, known as “Lees'', which contribute to the complexity, texture and aromas of the wine. The length of time aging on lees depends on the style of wine being produced. However, cellar aging is crucial to the slow evolution of the aromas specific to respective terroirs. Once the wine is matured the bottles are turned very carefully driving the lees into the bottle neck through a process called “ Riddling” or “ Remuage”, which used to be performed in traditional wooden frames drilled with tapering, angled holes, where each bottle is individually turned until dead yeast is ready to be expelled through a process called “ disgorgement”. Then the wine is topped up with “Liqueur d’Expedition” (a mixture of wine and sugar) to adjust sweetness level, this final process, before bottle aging is called “Dosage”.
Bottle aging varies from one region to another due to the minimum aging requirements; in Champagne, non-vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of 15 months, including at least 12 months on their lees. Vintage wines must be matured for a minimum of 36 months. As for Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne and Crémant de Loire the wine must age for a minimum of 9 months on their lees. Cava in Spain also follows the 9 months minimum aging requirement.
Sparkling wines made in the Traditional method are among the best in the world. There are many regions other than Champagne that produce sparkling wine in the Traditional method, but not necessarily follow the same regulations. Moreover, other regions produce sparkling wines from various grape varieties grown in their respective regions, which contribute in many ways to the profile and characteristics of the wine.
Regions that produce sparkling wine in the Traditional method, beside Champagne in France include: Crémant d’ Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant du Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Savoie. Cava in Spain, where the majority of Cava comes from the Catalan vineyards but other notable areas include Navarra, Rioja and Valencia. In South Africa it is called “Cap Classique”. Franciacorta and Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico in Lombardy, Italy are among some of the very respected regions for sparkling wine made in the “Traditional Method”, others in Alta Langa in Piemonte and Trento in Trentino. Many producers in the United States produce sparkling wine in the Traditional method, specifically in Napa Valley, California and Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Traditional Riddling table - Maison Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin
An old gyropalette at Maison Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin - (automated rotating cage for the riddling of Champagnes)
2- Transfer Method
Transfer method carries similar practices to the Traditional method until the second fermentation is completed in the bottle, then wine is emptied into pressurized tanks, filtered to remove dead yeast sediment, topped up with “ liqueur d’expedition” and re-bottled in new bottles. Many wine regions in Australia and New Zealand reproduce sparkling wine using the Transfer method.
3- Tank Method
Known also as Charmat method, carries second fermentation in sealed tanks, where dry, base wine is placed in the tank together with sugar, yeast nutrients, and a clarifying agent, then wine is filtered and bottled under pressure. Typically this method is suitable to produce fresh and fruity sparkling wines, which are not meant to age and lack the complexity and flavors that are generated from the process of lees aging.
Wines made by the Tank/Charmat method include Prosecco and Asolo Prosecco in Veneto and some Sekt in Germany.
4- Asti Method
Only one fermentation is required, it takes place in enclosed tanks, then is interrupted at 7-7.5%abv so that a certain level of sweetness is preserved. Wine then is filtered and bottled. This method is suitable to create a sweet wine with less fizz, with a fresh fruit and floral profile, has low alcohol and is meant to be consumed as young as possible. It is not suitable for aging. Asti Method is typical to a specific region and bears the name of Asti in Piemonte.
5- Carbonation Method
There are many regions around the world that produce inexpensive sparkling wines by following the Carbonation Method, which is a simple process of injecting CO2 into the wine, then bottling it under pressure.
Is Your Sparkling Wine Brut, Sec or Dry?
It is very important to understand the level of sweetness, or sugar content indicated on the label, as “Dry” or “Extra Dry” may not mean what you think. There is a specific wording to indicate the level of sweetness in sparkling wine that Champagne has set as a standard, which has been adapted throughout the sparkling wine regions around the world, specifically in Europe. Below is a chart that explains level of sweetness from bone dry to sweet:
Brut Nature: (no added sugar) and less than 3 grams of Residual Sugar
Extra Brut: between 0 and 6 grams of RS per liter
Brut: less than 12 grams RS (0-12)
Extra dry/extra sec: between 12 and 17 grams RS
Dry/sec/trocken: between 17 and 32 grams RS
Demi-sec/halbtrocken: between 32 and 50 grams RS
Doux/mild: more than 50 grams RS