One Thousand and one Bubbles... or rather what makes a great sparkling wine?
By Diego Meraviglia Vice President & Director Of Education
Gold-Pin Sommelier WSA/NASA/AIS, Certified Specialist of Wine SWE, Master Taster AIS/NASA, Certified Sommelier CMS
Sparkling wines have, since their introduction in the 1600’s, consistently been a substantial presence in the wine market and have stood the test of time as the emblem of joviality, celebration, and pleasure. They are the absolute most drank and appreciated wines throughout the world. Every country that produces wine has its own sparkling, though only very few people are familiar with its origin, history, and more importantly could comfortably navigate through all “types” of sparkling wines one can find on the market, distinguish which are differences between them, and how the shape, the texture, and the consistency of the bubbles affect taste, ageing potential, and versatility.
What’s the origin of the bubbles in wine?
The ancient Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago had already noticed the presence of bubbles in wine, but this awkward phenomenon, at best considered a fault, neither was intentional nor understood. It is not until the clock is fast-forwarded to France in the 1500’s that the process of yeast fermentation was fully comprehended, purposely controlled and mastered, and the art of producing sparkling wines began and was perfected.
In 1668 a monk known as Dom Perignon, who lived in the region of Champagne, France, was credited for having studied and refined the method to produce sparkling wine that is nowadays known as the “Classical Method” or “Champenoise Method”. Only about two centuries later, after this first historical and innovative way of producing bubbly wines in a controlled and specific fashion, alternate methodologies—which impart different qualities in the finished wines—arose. Indeed, in 1895 and subsequently in 1907, 2 enologists (wine scientists) Martinotti and Charmat, invented a more modern, industrial method to produce bubbles, which generated famous and commercially significant products like Prosecco, Moscato D’Asti, Lambrusco and many more.
So what are the methods for producing sparkling wines and which are the different characteristics or styles that these wines display?
Today, there are fundamentally 3 methods of producing bubbly wines and they are ranked in order of the final “quality” achieved and thus the “price” range. Different production costs and hence final shelf price, but also and more importantly different kind of bubbles which bring of different complexity, aging capability and overall quality as we move down according to this list.
1. Champenoise Method (AKA Classical Method / Traditional Method)
2. Charmat Method (AKA Tank Method or Martinotti Method)
3. Artificial Gasification
The Classical / Traditional (Champenoise) method is recognized to be the one that produces the most quality oriented, higher priced, more complex and elegant sparkling wines. It was perfected and delineated by the winemakers of the region of Champagne, France; which produces this specific wine. ONLY sparkling wines made in Champagne, France, can be labeled “champagne”, though their worldwide recognition, commercial power, and historical wide distribution, has steered most consumers to extend this denomination to any bubbly wine. I must say that this appellation should be rightfully only applied to those wines in that their characteristics are distinctively different from other wines and the brand name is protected by the EU legislation. Nonetheless there are a series of famous and well respected bubblies produced according to this standardized method and various countries, mainly France, Italy, and Spain as well as the U.S. produce their own champagne-like wines.
What is the Champenoise process and why is considered the best?
YEAST is the driving force behind fermentation, it all lies in the interaction and the controlled fermentation of natural yeasts on the base wines. The “classical method”, consists in creating a regular ‘base wine’, a normal still white wine from various grape varietals, depending on the region, which can vary from the more commonly used Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to the more obscure local varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel Lo in Spain for example. Both red grapes and white grapes are indeed utilized in the production of the base wine but by eliminating the skin of the berries soon after crushing the grapes, we obtain a clear colored must, hence producing a white wine from red grapes. This technique is quite common and the finished base wines, after this first fermentation, are then blended in tanks with other wines of different vintages or varieties to create a final blend that maintains and expresses the producer’s peculiar style and profile. At this point, the wines undergo what the French call the “pris de mousse”, or the “gathering of foam”. This process is not only completely natural since yeasts spontaneously produce carbon dioxide when they ferment sugars, but quite straight forward and simple to comprehend. Most of us are familiar with yeast’s leavening that is the process that takes place in bread-making, the magical process that allows a dense mass of dough to become a well-risen loaf of bread. Yeast works by consuming sugar and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts exactly as in wine making! The blended wine is then transferred from the blending tanks and placed into the very bottles the wine will be sold in, and a mixture of yeast & sugar is added to each bottle before sealing it with a crown cap (beer cap). The bio-chemistry of the alcoholic fermentation is simple...yeast consumes simple sugars, such as glucose, fructose, maltose, or sucrose, and converts them into ethyl alcohol + carbon dioxide (and here are your bubbles...). By allowing this 2nd fermentation to take place inside a sealed container—the bottles themselves in this case— we are effectively capturing that gaseous CO2 and imprisoning its bubbles inside the wine. With nowhere to evaporate, the wine slowly and surely becomes...bubbly. The speed of this process depends on the ambient temperature. The longer it takes, the smaller and more refined the bubbles will be, producing a wine of creamier texture and more balanced, elegant mouthfeel. As in bread that fermentation helps not only to strengthen and develop gluten in dough—and here alcohol in wine— but it also contributes to incredible flavors. Of course when all the sugar is gone the yeast dies, not having any substratum for its metabolism. Originally, centuries ago, the wines were sold and consumed with the dead yeasts still inside the bottle. These residues though were quite unpleasant both to the eye and to the comfort of many stomachs. In the 1800’s a revered woman in the Champagne world, the well-known Madame Clicquot, came up with a system called “remuage” or “removal” that allowed to remove both the unpleasant flavor and the awkward appearance of the leftover yeast. This is the final signature on the method that was since called - “Classical / Champenoise”. The original and quite artisanal “remuage” Clicquot consisted in drilling holes in a kitchen table, in which they placed the Champagne bottles upside down so that all the yeasts precipitated into the neck of the bottle, right underneath the cap. Reproductions of this “table” were then perfected to stand upright devices, creating the historical “pupitres” depicted below which are still used by many high end artisanal wineries nowadays. In the 90’s many wineries replaced this system with a modern gyro- palettes, a more mechanical and industrial apparatus which produces exactly the same effect.
Once the dead yeasts were all in the neck of the bottle, a specialized worker would manually hold the bottle upside down, open the cap, and timely turn the bottle upright. The pressure inside the bottle from the carbon dioxide (4 times that of a car tire) would expel all the precipitated yeasts as well as some of the wine. Today, the method has been perfected to be more time efficient and precise in order to prevent losing too much wine. Specially manufactured machines dip the bottle necks into a solution of liquid nitrogen: by freezing the neck and all the wine contained in it an icicle of the dead precipitated yeasts is formed. The cap is then opened, the frozen icicle is shot out by the pressure and the sparkling wine that remains in the bottle is clear of any yeast sediment and perfectly limpid.
How the bottles are then topped up / refilled and the lost wine replaced?
During this process called “degorgement” or “disgorgement” in English some of the wine is lost indeed. At this point each bottle is individually topped up with a secret and proprietary mixture of wine, natural aromas (some use brandy, some Sherry, some nothing at all) and sugar. This last step called “dosage or liqueur d’expédition” adds back a degree of sugar, post fermentation, to balance the flavors and it governs HOW MUCH sugar is left in the final wine therefore its “sweetness level”. We are all familiar with the denominations “brut”, “extra brut”, or “extra dry” that appear on the labels of sparkling wines. From the driest to sweetest this is the wine’s final sugar content:
Ø Pas Dosage/Brut Nature Max 3 Gr./L
Ø Extra Brut Max 6 Gr./L
Ø Brut Max 12 Gr./L
Ø Extra Dry 12-17 Gr./L
Ø Dry Or Sec 17-32 Gr./L Demi-Sec 32-50 Gr./L Doux/Sweet/Dolce 50+ Gr./L
The wine is then corked with the typical sparkling wine mushroom cork and cage, laid down to rest, age, mature, and then it’s sold onto the market. Each winery and each label has its own period of maturation. The key element to the ‘Classical method’ is that the wine is directly produced inside the very bottle we open: both the limited space for fermentation and the high ratio yeast/wine play an enormous role in providing the wine with not only structure and complexity (smaller, longer lasting bubbles), but also aging potential. The typically recognizable “brioche / bread crust” aroma present in different proportion in all bubbly wines, for instance, it’s the most notable and sought after result of the classical method and unmistakably creates the most quality oriented and also the most costly sparkling wine.
The 3 most famous, sought after, and revered sparkling wines made with this method around the world beside the obvious French CHAMPAGNE are the Italian FRANCIACORTA and the Spanish CAVA. All these wines follow the strict traditional rules and processes of the ‘Classical / Champenoise method’. Only the grape varietals and the environment (the terroir: the peculiar combination of microclimate and geological distinctiveness of the area) in which they are grown will differ and provide them with their distinctive particularity. Warmer climates are associated with sparkling wines that are fruiter, cooler climates will produce sparkling wines that are higher in acidity and more citrus oriented in their flavors. Grapes grown in regions with high mineral soils will impart heightened “rocky” and mineral notes, chalky soils, typical of regions of Champagne and Franciacorta, will express into a deeper color, a richer alcoholic content, a lower, crispier acidity, more nuanced and intense note on the nose, and longer longevity.
Which are the differences with the other methods?
Centuries later, wine technicians and scientists studied and developed a more price-conscious method for the production of bubbly wines in order to contain costs and allowing higher volumes, shorter time, and less labor involved. This method is the 2nd most important method in sparkling wine production and was named CHARMAT, after the French enologist who perfected it. Some people simply refer to it as the “Tank Method”, as opposed to the previously described “Champenoise / Classical” method where the process takes place in the bottle. The exact same concepts and theories of the more traditional ‘Classical method’ are here applied to a larger more industrial scale. The key-difference, is that the ‘pris de mousse’ (gathering of foam - the transformation from a regular still wine to a sparkling bubbly wine) is carried out in large stainless steel tanks that are then sealed and closed to allow the second fermentation to happen. Same concept, different result.
Which are the differences on the final products characteristics aside the lower price and higher potential volume of production?
Once again the answer lies in the ratio and contact time wine/yeast. In large industrial steel tanks, of course, the ratio yeast/wine is far less than in a bottle. This means that the shorter process and the diluted concentration will NOT impart as much as bread crust, yeasty and brioche flavors to the wine and will indeed produce bubbly wines that are lighter bodied, simpler in texture, which present more fruit forward and freshness to the palate, and yet less complexity, less aging potential (bigger bubbles) and less depth. Still, this wines are quite pleasant, enjoyable, and light simple bubbled...just like the world’s most exported, sold and perfected sparkler made with this method...the Italian Prosecco.
Finally, the last method available today for the production of sparkling wines is the one that all industry professionals, wine lovers, wine experts and connoisseurs frown upon: Artificial Gasification. This is the most industrial method of all and unquestionably lacks all the characteristics that make the Classical method- wines so peculiar and satisfying and the Charmat / Tank method- wines so enjoyable. Regular, finished wines are literally mechanically injected/pumped with Carbon Dioxide, which, of course makes them bubbly. The complete lack of yeasts and second fermentation is the reason why these wines are at the lower end of the spectrum. Utterly simple, cheap tasting, and with no character, they are the so called “sodas-wines”, undeniably produced with exactly the same methodology of soft drinks. Fortunately they are quite rare and easily identifiable by the massive sized bubbles and the cheap price tag.
With wine, like in all fine products of life, low price comes at a high cost. In this case, the cost comes in the form of sacrificing complexity, structure, body, and aging potential of the wine. So next time you indulge in a glass of what Dom Perignon described as the “drinking stars”, remember what differences the various methods carry with them in terms of character, value, and taste and bear in mind that making sparkling wine has always been an art...a perfected art created by the symbiotic relationship and efforts of mother nature and mankind.
What is Franciacorta?
Our case study takes us now to Italy, where we find one of the most respected and revered sparkling wines of the world. Often compared and strictly related to France’s historical Champagne, Franciacorta, can frankly claim Italy’s highest level of wine classification and regulation, it was awarded with the DOCG (Denomination of Controlled & Guaranteed Origin) and follows very rigorous production steps, quality standards, and strict organoleptic profile requirements. This classification, given only to the 74 most representative and historically significant wines of Italy, is handed down by the Italian government as a specific and enforced production charter. Franciacorta exploded onto the market in the 1960’s and is produced exactly in the same way Champagne is, with the same grape varieties, namely Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a touch of Pinot Bianco. The secret to Franciacorta excellence as the Italian Champagne, rests in the peculiarity of the soil where the vineyards lay. A complex and fabulous composite soil of mixed rocks and minerals created by the advancing glaciers during the last ice age of the Earth. Down from the Alps that are right above this area, a massive conglomeration of debris, rocks and chunks of mountains were bulldozed down into the hills of this district, located in the upper half of the Italian region of Lombardia, produced in the province of Brescia the second large city after Milan, its capital. This strip of land, mostly hilly, located between Lake Iseo and the morenic amphitheater offers a particular microclimate that imparts the wines with their characteristic aromas. The wines showcase a fabulous mineral complexity and thanks to the extended average maturation time that all Franciacorta wines undergo to, a splendid yeasty complexity and smoothness. They are the epitome of elegance and balance. Beautifully crafted and spectacularly food friendly. From the ‘Satèn’ style, produced only with Chardonnay grapes and with a creamier, soft character than the regular label made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a classical “Champagne style” and finishing with the Rosé version that becomes distinctively versatile in food pairings, more structured and full bodied. All in all, Franciacorta encompasses and highlights the best bubbles that Italy has to offer, in stark contrast with the more light bodied, easy drinking and price friendly Prosecco made with the “Charmat/Tank” method that despite all its approachability, will never achieve the levels of complexity, structure, elegance and depth, nor will it ever reward cellaring, as much as Italy’s first and foremost “classical method” bubbly.