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Wine 101: Sparkling Wine

Brad Ballinger

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I'm posting this in advance of holiday bubbly shopping.

There is some debate about the origin of sparkling wine. Much romantic lore attributes the “invention” of sparkling wine to Pierre (Dom) Perignon, a Benedictine monk who was the vineyard manager at the Abbey of Hautville near Reims, France. That Dom Perignon “discovered” sparkling wine (later to be called Champagne) is probably a more accurate statement. His discovery occurred when he opened a bottle that had been “re-bottled.” There was still some unspent yeast and residual sugar in the liquid in that bottle. Since yeast + sugar = alcohol + carbon dioxide, when the bottle was opened, its contents were fizzy, or carbonated. He tasted the sparkling beverage and supposedly remarked, “I’m drinking stars.”

Other sources attribute the origin of sparkling wine to elsewhere in France, most notably Limoux where some feel Blanquette de Limoux (a sparkling wine made from the mauzac grape – also called clairette, also called blanquette) is the oldest existing sparkling wine. Others place the origin in England. And others yet credit Russia. But it is not known, even in those other locations, if the bubbles were intentional or accidental. Regardless of the dubious origin of sparkling wine, Dom Perignon is generally credited with advancing and perfecting its production in Champagne. He developed techniques for improving secondary fermentation in the bottle and improving the bottle strength to withstand the pressure. This latter improvement was a necessity because bottles kept bursting in the cellars of Champagne.

Sparkling wine production took off in the region of Champagne, and the wine took on the name of the growing area. In France, only sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in Champagne and made in the methode champenoise tradition can be legally called Champagne. In fact, the only other country in the world whose wineries use the word “Champagne” on some of their sparkling wine labels (much to the consternation of the Champenoise) is the United States, although the practice is decreasing.

But sparkling wine production is by no means limited to Champagne. Sparkling wine is produced in every country around the world that produces still wines. You will find sparkling wine produced in the United States, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, even Moldova (and likely several other countries I’ve neglected to mention). Even in France, sparkling wine production is not limited to Champagne.

What makes bubbly so, well, bubbly? Recalling that sugar + yeast = alcohol + carbon dioxide, bubbles (or gas) are a natural by-product of fermentation. True Champagne, and wines produced elsewhere using the same method (called methode champenoise), become bubbly from a secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle. After the first fermentation, the wine is bottled. In the bottle, a blend of sugar and still wine (or sometimes brandy) and yeast is added. The bottle is then capped, sealing in the carbon dioxide. During this time, the bottles are gradually turned and gradually angled neck-side-down (called riddling), so all the spent yeast sediment can be collected in the neck. The bottle neck is then chilled so that the sediment is trapped in a small ice cube. The bottle cap is removed, and the ice cube is forced out by the pressure in the bottle (this is called disgorgement). A small amount of the still wine of the same type that originally went into the bottle is added to “top off” the bottle. Usually, a small amount of sugar is added to the still wine. The amount of sugar added at this stage will determine the final sweetness of the wine.

There are three other methods used to make bubbles. Some sparkling wine is made by trapping the gas in the fermenting tank and then bottling the wine. This method is called the charmat process, named after Eugene Charmat who invented the process. Still wine production allows the gas to escape. There is also a process called the “rural method,” during which the fermenting wine is chilled before fermentation is complete (the chilling temporarily halts the fermentation). The chilled wine is then bottled and gradually warmed so the fermentation can resume. The resulting carbon dioxide stays inside the closed bottle. Finally, some sparkling wine gets its bubbles by having the bottled still wine injected with carbon dioxide – much like soda pop gets its carbonation. But the wines that have the ultra-fine bubbles are made in the methode champenoise tradition.

What are the various sweetness levels of sparkling wine? Most sparkling wines, regardless of where they are produced, use the same French terms that are used in Champagne. From driest to sweetest, they are Extra Brut (or Ultra Brut or Brut Zero), Brut, Extra Dry, Demi-Sec, and Doux. Again, the percent of sugar added to the wine used to top off the bottle determines which sweetness label applies. This mixture of sugar and wine is technically called the shipping dosage. When people use the word dosage as it applies to methode champenoise wines, they mean this mixture, even if they don’t add the word shipping. Where things can become confusing, however, is that the yeast, wine, and sugar mixture added to create the secondary fermentation in the bottle is also termed a dosage, a bottling dosage.

What’s the big deal about Champagne versus other wines made the same way elsewhere? The short answer is the climate and the soil (part of what the French call terroir). It doesn’t get very hot in Champagne, and the grapes don’t ripen as much as they do in other growing areas. The base wines, as a result, are incredibly acidic-tasting. The bubbles soften that a bit, and the addition of sugar in the shipping dosage helps to combat the acidity. Also, the soil in Champagne is very chalky, and that imparts certain flavors in the grapes that would not happen in different soil. Both conditions are hard, if not impossible, to replicate elsewhere in the world. Grapes can be planted in cooler climates, and grapes can be harvested in warmer climates before they are fully ripe (which isn’t quite the same), and there may be similar soil elsewhere. But the combination of what is present in Champagne doesn’t exist elsewhere.

So if wines aren’t called Champagne elsewhere, what terms do they use? In France, the words mousseux, cremant, and petillant are used. And I’ve listed them from highest pressure/more bubbles to least pressure/less bubbles. Some French wines will also use the word “sparkling” on the label. In Italy, the terms (from most to least pressure) are spumante and frizzante (commonly used with sparkling wine made from prosecco grapes). But some Italian sparkling wine doesn’t use either of these terms, and may rely on the term “metodo classico.” In Germany, the word “sekt” is on the label for the highest quality sparkling wine. Some German wines of lesser quality will be labeled “schaumwein,” but you’ll rarely see them outside of Germany. Generically, German sparkling wine may carry the term spritzig. In the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, labels may use the word “sparkling,” or you may have to rely on looking for the term methode champenoise or champagne method. And, of course, you can always look for a heavy bottle with the cork being held in place by a wire cage wrapped in foil.

In the second paragraph, I mentioned a wine called Blanquette de Limoux. For lack of a better description, this is a legal term that can only be used for sparkling wine from Limoux made from blanquette grapes. Blanquette has nothing to do with fizz, and the labels usually don’t have a term for the fizz or froth. People just know that the wine is bubbly.

What grapes are used in sparkling wine production? That depends on where the wine is made and the words it is legally allowed to use on the label. Sparkling wine can be made from any grape. You may not want to drink all of them, but there’s nothing about the grape itself that keeps someone from making a sparkling wine. In Champagne, the three main grapes used are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. I use the words “main grapes” because wine in the region has been made with other grapes that have since almost been entirely uprooted. A small producer, L. Aubry, however, makes a wine called Champagne La Nombre d'Or Campanae Veteres that uses some of these ancient varieties. Sparkling wine is also made from riesling, pinot blanc, clairette, pinot gris, prosecco, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, brachetto, moscato, and shiraz, among others.

If pinot noir is used in Champagne, how come the wine isn’t red? Wine gets its color depending on the amount of time the juice is in contact with the grape skins. When the grapes are pressed, the light juice runs free from the skins, and the skins are not added to the fermentation tank.

Then what about sparkling rosé? Sparkling rosé most often gets its color from the addition of still wine made from pinot noir (and/or pinot meunier, also a dark grape) to the white wine. Some sparkling rosé, however, is make from keeping the juice in contact with the skins for a short amount of time. These wines are sometimes labeled “Rosé Naturale.” Sparkling Shiraz is the same color as still shiraz wine.

What follows is a list of terms that primarily apply to Champagne, but some also apply to all sparkling wines.

Assemblage. The blend of grape varieties and vintages of which the bottled wine is a result. Some producers include this information somewhere on the label. Many don’t.

Bead. Refers to the bubbles. Bead can mean an individual bubble or the bubbles in general. “This wine has a very fine bead.”

Cage. The wire contraption that helps keep the cork in the bottle.

Cooperative Manipulant. A term used in Champagne to refer to wines produced by a grower cooperative. The label will contain the letters “CM” followed by a licensed number. Nicolas Feuillatte is an example of a CM Champagne.

Coteaux Champenois. The legal term used for still wines made from grapes grown in Champagne. In vintages where the grapes become ripe enough, some still wines are made.

Crackling. A term not used much anymore to also mean sparkling, but with less pressure and fewer bubbles. One story about Neil Diamond’s “Crackling Rosie” mentions a bottle of crackling rosé as the inspiration. But another story mentions a telephone conversation with a bad connection, and Diamond supposedly said, “You’re crackling, Rosie.” So who knows for sure.

Mousse. Beer has a head. Sparkling wine has a mousse. The mousse refers not only to the froth that results from pouring the wine, but also to the presence of the bubbles or effervescence in the mouth.

Negoiciant Manipulant. A term used in Champagne to refer to wines produced by a negociant who contracts with a large number of growers to obtain their grapes. The label will contain the letters “NM” followed by a licensed number. Production is very large. Most of the Champagne exported is NM Champagne – Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Krug, Mumm, Pol Roger, Pommery, Krug, Piper Heidsieck, Perrier Jouet, Moet Chandon, etc, etc, etc.

Non-Vintage (v. Vintage). If the wine label does not have a year anywhere on it, and neither does the cork, the wine is called a non-vintage wine. Most non-vintage wines are comprised of a blend of wines from multiple vintages. Krug even uses the term “multi-vintage” instead of “non-vintage.” But some wines don’t carry a vintage date on the label even though the wine in the bottle may be made from grapes all harvested in the same year. One reason that producers opt not to put a vintage date on the label is that they feel the style of the producer should take precedence over vintage date when buying the wine. The blending of base wines from different vintages, vineyards, fermentation tanks, etc, is an art in Champagne, and great pains are taken to have a non-vintage bottled wine be consistent from production run to production run. The theory is that it shouldn’t matter how many different times you buy it, Bollinger will be Bollinger will be Bollinger.

Recently Disgorged (RD). Also called Late Disgorged (LD). A term used for older, usually vintage-dated, wines that indicates the sediment has only recently been disgorged from the wine. The wine in the bottle has been in contact with the sediment in the bottle for a longer time, imparting a quality some appreciate. Also, the wine has been in the producer’s climate controlled caves the entire time.

Recoltant Manipulant. A term used in Champagne to refer to wines produced by the grower of the grapes. Also called grower Champagnes or grower-producer Champagnes. The label will contain the letters “RM” followed by a licensed number. Because RM Champagne producers only source their grapes from their own vineyards, and don’t own a lot of acreage, their production runs tend to be smaller, and some of them achieve a cult-like status. They also will face a greater struggle in keeping their non-vintage wines consistent to each other from release to release. Many seek out these wines for their unique character. And many of them are Blanc de Blancs wines because the RM “movement” started in the Cote de Blancs, where a lot of chardonnay is grown, and where arguably Champagne’s greatest vineyard, Le Mesnil, is located.

Split. A 187-ml bottle, meant to be a serving for one. Convenient, yes. But the wine is not fermented in that bottle. It is poured into it from another bottle. Matters to some. May not matter to you.

Tete de Cuvee. Refers to a producers “top wine.” Sometimes also called “prestige cuvee.” Usually, but not always, it’s a vintage-dated wine. Veuve Clicquot has “La Grande Dame.” Pol Roger had “Cuvee Winston Churchill.” Pommery has “Cuvee Louise.” Billecart-Salmon has “Cuvee Elisabeth Salmon.” Perrier-Jouet has “Belle Epoque.” Laurent-Perrier had “Grand Siecle Cuvee Alexandra.” Nicolas Feuillatte has “Palmes d’Or.” Taittinger has “Comtes de Champagne.” Loius Roederer has “Cristal.” And, of course, Moet Chandon has “Dom Perignon.” And there are many, many others.

Tin. The metallic “cap” on top of the cork. I have a friend who likes to collect tins and make refrigerator magnets out of them.

I'm sure there's plenty I've left out, but I wanted to keep this at a "101" level.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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