Sparkling wines have become synonymous with good times and celebrations. Their popularity and image (and sometimes their expense) gives the impression that anything ordinary can be elevated to extraordinary with the addition of a little bubbly. The festive bubbles that we all know and love are the result of significant levels of carbon dioxide, produced either through natural fermentation or by injecting carbon dioxide into the wine. While Champagne is probably the most recognized, only grapes grown and produced in the Champagne region of France can legally be called Champagne. However, other sparklers produced both inside and outside of France are equally celebration-worthy, and just as delicious.
Celebrating Like the French – Champagne and Crémant
Champagne is generally considered the crème de la crème of sparkling wines. Located about 80 miles northeast of Paris, the Champagne region is permitted to use four different grapes for their bubbly: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris. Among these, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are most often used. The region is also renowned for pioneering the traditional method, or “méthode traditionelle,” of sparkling wine production. While this method yields top quality results, it is also time consuming and labor intensive, which figures into the higher end cost of your celebratory bottle.
The grapes for Champagne are only picked by hand, quickly pressed, and then allowed to ferment. Producers will then blend Champagnes produced in previous years to create a signature style. This is unique to the Champagne region – most producers will make wine from grapes picked during a single harvest. In Champagne, wine produced in previous years is saved to contribute to blends of future vintages. This ensures consistency in both quality and volume, even during years when grape yields are low. The signature blend of the producer is then bottled, capped, and allowed to go through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the carbon dioxide that results in the bubbles that we know and love.
When the second fermentation is complete, the yeast cells die and form a sediment in the bottle called “lees.” The wine is allowed to age for a period of time with the lees in the bottle, which adds savory characteristics of baked bread, toast, and sometimes toasted nuts to the wine. This process is known as “autolysis,” which is also used for some other wines, such as Muscadet. This is often indicated by the note “sur lie” on the label, meaning the wine has been fermented “on lees.”
Once aging is complete, the sediment is removed through the process of “riddling,” slowly tilting the bottle a little bit every day until the bottle is upside down. If done by hand, riddling can take two months; if done by machine, it can be done as quickly as one week. The neck of the bottle, where all the dead yeast and sediment has now relocated, is quickly frozen. When the cap is removed, the pressure of the carbon dioxide that has built up in the bottle during fermentation will force out the unwanted material, also called “disgorgement.”
Before the final bottling, an amount of sugar (called “dosage”) can be added to the wine to achieve the desired level of sweetness for the style being produced. Then the wine is bottled, corked, and shaken to help integrate the wine with the added sugar. The wine may then rest for several weeks or months before being brought to market. Champagnes are suitable for ageing but can be consumed young. They are also surprisingly versatile with a wide variety of foods, from snacks like popcorn to sushi and seafood.
Sparkling wines produced in France using the traditional method, but outside of the Champagne region, are called Crémant or sometimes mousseux. Crémants can be made with the same grapes as Champagne or from non-traditional varieties, such as Pinot Blanc, Riesling, or Pinot Gris grapes. Other regions of France producing sparkling wines include Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Jura, Limoux, and the Loire Valley.
Celebrating Like the Spanish – Cava
Spain produces a sparkling wine called Cava using the same traditional method used for Champagne, including a requirement for the wine to spend nine months on lees. These sparklers are more moderately priced and balanced and fruity than Champagne, but with less of the bready, toasty notes. Most Cava is produced in the Penedès region of Catalonia, although vineyards in Navarra, Rioja, and Valencia are also permitted to produce Cava. Traditional grape varieties used in Cava are the Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello grapes, all native to Spain (although Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are now also permitted).
Celebrating Like the Italians – Prosecco, Lambrusco, and Asti
The most well regarded of Italy’s sparkling wines is Prosecco, made from Glera grapes native to the Veneto and Friuli regions in Northeastern Italy. Prosecco is produced using the “Charmat” or tank method of production; the second fermentation takes place in a steel tank versus a bottle, which greatly reduces costs. Prosecco tends to be bottled with a slightly higher level of residual sugar, exhibiting fresh fruit characteristics that can range from green apple and melon to stone fruit.
Lambrusco is the name of both a sparkling wine and a grape from the Emilia-Romana region of Italy that is produced using the tank method. The frothy, very sweet versions produced during the 1970s and 1980s saddled Lambrusco with a poor image before more rigorous production methods were introduced. Today, both production methods and quality have increased, resulting in dry, deeply colored, fruity, and earthy sparklers.
Asti (also known as Asti Spumante) is a sparkling wine from the Piedmont region in Northwestern Italy. Made from the aromatic Muscat grape, Asti tends to be very sweet and low in alcohol, which highlights the grapes fruity, floral characteristics. Asti’s method of production differs from Champagne and Prosecco, in that the wine is fermented directly from the “must” – the freshly pressed juice that contains the skins, stems, and seeds of the grapes – and only one fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks.
What about the New World? Australia, South Africa, and the U.S.
Producing top quality sparkling wines can be challenging in the warmer climates of the new world. For best results, the grapes must have high acidity but have lost their unripe, herbaceous flavors at harvest. This combination is more easily achieved in the cooler climate of northern France, where the grapes have a longer ripening period. In regions with more intense warmth and sunlight, grapes unfortunately tend to reach the desired levels of sugar and acid far faster than they lose their herbaceous characteristics.
In Australia, cooler regions such as Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, and the Adelaide Hills tend to produce the best sparkling wines, primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. In South Africa, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are usually sourced from the cooler Western Cape region. In the U.S., traditional methods of sparkling wine production tend to be concentrated in California, Oregon, and Washington. Several California producers, as well as some subsidiaries of French Champagne houses, are making top quality sparklers rivaling even the best that Champagne itself can produce.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, I’m confident you will find a glass of bubbly suitable for any occasion, no matter what it’s (allowed to be) called. Cheers!
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Remember that you must be at least 21 years old to drink in the USA and to always drink responsibly. This information is intended for informational purposes only, and not to promote the consumption of alcohol.