By Gary Twining
Enjoying sparkling wines is among the greatest flavor experiences on earth – one that Dom Pierre Pérignon himself famously equated to “tasting stars.”
There are two main production methods to make sparkling wines, and each has its own contributions to a wine’s character and personality.
Champagne Method: Used for true Champagne (which comes only from France’s Champagne region) and many age-worthy, creamy, complex sparklers from around the world. Denoted by Champagne-Method, Classic Method, Traditional Method, Fermented in This Bottle, Méthode Champenoise and Cava.
- Grapes: Only red varietals Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and white varietal Chardonnay, are allowed for Champagne. The grapes are whole-cluster-picked from various regional vineyards. Most producers must rely on growers for fruit supply. Grape quality and price are determined by the vineyard rating.
- Pressing: Grape clusters are separated by varietal and gently pressed to maintain flavor and aroma delicacy and to extract juice with adequate sugar and acidity. Destalked red grapes for Rosé Champagne macerate in vats from 20 to 72 hours prior to pressing.
- Primary Fermentation and Blending: Fermentation (usually in stainless or inert tanks, although some use wood) converts sugar to alcohol. Malolactic conversion is often used to soften acidity and add flavor components. The wines are clarified and sampled for blending, a vital process in such an extremely variable climactic region.
- Priming: Sugar and yeasts are added to the final blended wine, the bottles capped with a polyethylene stopper and metal caps and placed “sur lattes” (on wood strips) in the cellars. A second fermentation starts in each bottle, which gives Champagne’s trademark effervescence.
- Aging: After all the sugar is converted, the yeasts become sediment. After six months, the yeasts break open (autolysis), adding texture, richness and a toasty, biscuity character to the wine. Non-vintage Champagne must age 18 months, with 12 months on the lees (or spent yeast), while vintage Champagnes must age 36 months, although many wines are aged longer.
- Riddling: Bottles are rotated and elevated towards the open end to prepare the spent yeast sediment for removal. Formerly done by hand in racks by highly trained workers, riddling is now performed by a machine that can rotate up to 500 bottles simultaneously, reducing time for the process from six weeks to one.
- Disgorging: A liquid-nitrogen solution freezes the spent yeast sediment in a plug of ice. The bottle is opened and the cap and sediment expelled. The wine’s final sweetness is set with the Dosage, a mix of fine sugar and wine. Each bottle is then corked and labeled, ready for shipment.
Wines made in the Champagne Method in other regions or countries have fewer restrictions on grape varietals and aging time on the lees, which might prompt you to investigate the wines you enjoy.
Charmat Method: Used for inexpensive sparklers and those where fruit, youthfulness and approachability are most important, such as Moscato, Asti, Prosecco and value releases. Denoted on the label by Charmat Method, Bulk Method, Tank Method or Cuve Close.
Processes are similar to the Champagne Method but less stringent. Grapes are selected and pressed, then fermented. The wines are blended, the priming of sugar and yeast is added, and the wine is placed in large tanks to retain the second fermentation’s carbon dioxide. The wines finish fermentation and are filtered under pressure and immediately bottled. The bottles are sealed, labeled and the wines shipped.
While there are other production methods with names such as Transfer, Ancestral and Continuous, Charmat and Champagne Method are by far the most commonly used for modern-day sparkling wines. And the results can be, as Dom Pérignon discovered, heavenly.