Sparkling Wine 101
Sparkling wine starts out as a white, or pink, still wine. The winemaker then adds yeast and sugar for a second fermentation that adds 1% by volume more alcohol and a lot of carbon dioxide. In traditional method (method champanoise) the secondary fermentation occurs in a capped bottle, the resulting carbon dioxide is absorbed into the wine creating the bubbles. In the charmat method, the secondary fermentation takes place in a specially designed pressure tank where the wine is fined and filtered under pressure which allows the wine to be bottled and sent to market in as little as three months after harvest.
The traditional method is labor intensive but creates a sparkling wine with very fine, smooth bubbles. Needless to say, sparkling wine made in the traditional method is considered the best and is the most expensive.
To be a true Champagne, the grapes and wine must be produced in the Champagne region of France. There are several cheap sparkling wines produced in the U.S., Canada, and Australia that, much to the disappointment of the French, are legally allowed to name their wine champagne (note the lower case “c”). In the U.S., only those wineries calling their wine champagne prior to 2006 are still allowed to do so.
Serve sparkling wine well chilled, the carbonation will last longer and the feel will be smoother. Unless, of course, you are drinking a fine Champagne then serve the wine slightly less than room temperature. This will enhance the nose and highlight the flavors.
Sparklers are appropriate with light seafood, but are rarely incorrect with any dish. They also work well on their own, Marylyn Monroe’s agent stated, “She drank and breathed the stuff as if it were oxygen.”
Sparkling wine is labeled by the amount of residual sugar in the final product. The residual sugar is often manipulated after the dead yeast from the secondary fermentation is removed when a combination of wine and cane sugar is added. For a dry wine the combination is mostly wine, while a sweeter wine has more cane sugar in the mix.
Sparkling wines are made around the world. Below are just a few of the sparkling wine regions.
California produces sparkling wine that is often fruitier and less dry than the French versions, hence the “Extra Dry” addition to the European sweetness standards. American sparkling wines are made in both traditional and charmat methods. The first American sparklers were made from Riesling, Muscatel, Traminer, and Chasselas grapes. French Champagne house investments in California wineries brought the traditional Champagne grapes; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier into popularity.
The Finger Lakes in New York State produce 100% Riesling along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sparklers in methode champanoise.
Virginia produces sparklers using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Viognier.
Portugal – Espumante produced in the northern wet region of Vinho Verde.
South Africa – methode cap classique uses Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc made in the traditional Champagne method.
Soviet Union – Sovetskoye Shampahskoye or Soviet Champagne.
Hungary – Pezsgo made in the charmat and transvasee methods.
Italy – Asti made with Moscato grapes, and Proseco.
Spain – Cava made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or several other grapes.
France – Champagne and Cremant.
England – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier used at over 100 vineyards.
Romania – most sparkling wines are made in Panciu.
Germany and Austria – Sekt made from Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. Austria uses Welschriesling and Gruner Vetliner grapes.
Australia – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grown in Tasmania and Victoria. Also make lightly sparkling red wines from Shiraz.