Getting to Know Sparkling Wine: From Champagne to Cava
No other sound signals the start of a good time quite like the soft pop of a sparkling wine cork. From Champagne to Cava, sparkling wines are unique in their ability to kick off a party by simply being there, kind of like the wine world’s equivalent of Andrew W.K.
While sparkling wine is undeniably celebratory, it’s also versatile. Nobody likes to be pigeon-holed, even Andrew W.K., and we’re whole-hearted proponents of liberating sparkling wine from the shackles of special-occasiondom and returning it to its rightful place as a worthy partner for anniversary dinners and taco Tuesdays, alike.
If you’re just getting to know the big, glittering world of sparkling wine, here’s what you need to know to pop bottles with the best of them.
HOW IS SPARKLING WINE MADE?
Sparkling wines are made all over the world, from France and Italy to new-world regions like Australia, South Africa, and California. They can be produced from virtually any grape, come in every color, and range from sticky sweet Moscato d’Asti to bone-dry Champagne. If you like wine, there’s a sparkling wine for you.
Sparkling wines begin life like any other wine: in the vineyard. Grapes are picked at optimum ripeness, pressed, and vinified in the ordinary fashion, producing a still wine that can be blended with other wines to produce the winemaker’s desired cuvee.
At this point, sparkling wine production diverges from still wine production. Instead of going into a cask to mature or being bottled for release, the wine enters a secondary process with one goal: get those wonderful little bubbles into the bottle.
There are several ways to accomplish this goal, but most fine sparkling wines are made using one of three methods: the traditional method, the tank method, and the ancestral method.
THE TRADITIONAL METHOD
The traditional method is the most labor-intensive, expensive, and prestigious of sparkling wine production methods. It’s used to make Champagne in France, Cava in Spain, Franciacorta in Italy, and many other high-end sparkling wines in the old and new worlds.
It involves a number of steps. First, winemakers bottle their still wine with a dollop of yeast and sugar to kick-start a secondary fermentation. As the yeast eats the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide, but because the bottle is capped, there’s no place for that gas to go except into solution, creating carbonation.
Eventually, the yeast undergo a process called autolysis (literally self-digestion), die, and fall to the bottom of the bottle, creating a layer of dead yeast cells called lees. The longer the wine ages in the bottle on the lees, the more it develops creamy, bready, or cheesy flavors. These are often called “autolytic” flavors, named after the process of autolysis.
Those flavors are very desirable, but the sludgy dead yeast cells are not. After a period of time—from months to years, depending on the style—the winemakers need to get the yeast cells out of the bottle. To do this, they turn the bottles upside down, allowing the yeast cells to congregate in the neck of the bottle. This process, called riddling, can take several weeks, and is often helped along by periodically turning the bottles.
Now, it’s time for disgorgement. The necks of the bottles are frozen, then the cap is removed, and the frozen yeast plug shoots out of the pressurized bottle. The winemakers then top up the bottle with a mixture of wine and sugar (or, in the case of no-dosage wines, just wine), then cork the bottle for the final time.
THE TANK METHOD
The tank method follows many of the same basic principles of the traditional method, but instead of conducting the secondary fermentation inside the bottle, it takes place in a large tank held under pressure. Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered, dosed with that same mixture of wine and sugar to balance the flavor profile, and bottled.
Reduced time resting on the lees means these wines often have fruitier characteristics than their traditional method brethren, although they can still display some creamy autolytic qualities.
The tank method is quite a bit less labor-intensive than the traditional method, making it a more economical choice and enabling the production of lower-cost (although not necessarily lower quality) sparkling wines. Prosecco and Lambrusco are commonly made with the tank method, but it’s also used in Germany and the New World.
Thought to be the oldest way of making sparkling wine, the ancestral method is what’s responsible for getting the fizz into your favorite bottle of pet-nat. It’s used in several French regions, namely the Loire, as well as by a newer generation of winemakers around the world who value its pared-down approach.
Like the traditional method, secondary fermentation happens inside the bottle, but unlike the traditional method, there’s no added yeast or sugar to kick-start the process. Instead, the wines are bottled when there’s just enough natural sugar and active yeast left from the primary fermentation to fuel that secondary fermentation inside the sealed bottle.
Once that’s complete, and once the wine ages sufficiently on the lees, the bottles are riddled and disgorged, but they’re not topped up with any additional sugar, making it a particularly pure expression of the base wine.
HOW TO TASTE SPARKLING WINE
While tall flutes and wide coupes are fun and dramatic, we actually prefer tasting sparkling wine out of a regular old wine glass. The wider bowl doesn’t do quite as good a job of preserving the bubbles that a flute does, but it makes up for it by allowing you to smell the wine more clearly.
Pour your sparkling wine gently, then give it a smell. Feel free to swirl if you like. What kinds of fruit aromas do you notice? Do you smell any notes of cream, bread, or pastry, all telltale signs of long lees aging? How about herbs, minerals, or flowers? Now, it’s time to taste. Think about the texture of the wine as well as its flavor. Are the bubbles small, medium, or large? Is it gently sparkling, or aggressively fizzy? What’s the finish like—long, short, sweet, or dry?
And if that seems like too many questions, forget them all, because here’s the most important one: Do you like it? Finding a wine that makes you excited to reach for your glass, after all, is the ultimate goal.