The Basics for Understanding Sparkling Wine

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GrapevineLast week we explored sparkling wines as natural food-pairing accompaniments. Having (hopefully) piqued your curiosity, it is now time to explore the numerous facets of sparkling wine in the form of a primer.

1) What makes sparkling wines unique? It is carbon dioxide, created after the initial fermentation process. Once the standard fermentation process of converting the sugars in grapes to alcohol (with yeast as the catalyst), is concluded, the resulting still wine takes a divergent path from traditional aging methods. This base wine is subjected to a secondary fermentation, in which the resulting carbon dioxide is captured in the bottle or vat, rather than dissipated into the air. Voila, the signature bubbles of sparkling wine. Depending on the method used in this secondary fermentation, the crispness, balance, sweetness and the intensity and volume of bubbles will vary.

2) What methods are utilized in secondary fermentation? Amongst the multiple methods in practice today, there are three primary methods employed, depending on the tradition of the wine region, the winemaker’s prerogative or cost considerations.

The most complex and highly regarded is Méthode Champenoise. After the initial fermentation, yeast is added to each bottle of still wine and stored (racked) for several months, which in such tight quarters produces a highly concentrated effervescence. A single bottle may contain up to fifty million bubbles under pressure, creating the frenzy of froth when poured into a glass. Certain producers may blend up to six vintages, from up to sixty batches of wines, in varying proportions for a particular bottling (hence the term “NV,” non-vintage, displayed on many labels). These wines tend to be the most expensive ($30 to $300 per bottle).

The second method is Charmat. Rather than create a secondary fermentation in the bottle, yeast (and perhaps sugar) is added to a large pressurized vat of still wine for the secondary fermentation. The resulting sparkling wine is bottled under pressure. These wines tend to be light, delicate and very affordable ($12 to $20). The Italians use this method for producing their single varietal Prosecco wines. These wines tend to be

The third method is for cost-conscious winemakers. Why wait for secondary fermentation to occur naturally? Just inject carbon dioxide directly into large vats of still wine (think soft drinks production). These wines, with big, fast fading bubbles, are typically much less expensive; several are under $10.

3) What names are assigned to sparkling wines? The specific terms tend to follow geography. Sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France are the only sparklers permitted to bear the designation “Champagne” on labels. Other French sparklers are typically referred to as “Cremant.” The designation used in the United States is “sparkling wine.” In Italy, Prosecco is the most widely produced style. A more concentrated bubbly style is spumante, while a less bubbly style is frizzante. Other Italian bubblies include Franciacorta, Lambrusco, Brachetto and Moscato.

In Spain, Cava (“Cellar”) has become very popular in the last ten years. Made in the Méthode Champenoise, they tend to have the best traits of a sparkler, incorporating balanced effervescence, crispness and seductive flavors. It has become my favorite go-to summer wine, typically priced under $20.

4) Which grapes constitute sparkling wine? Terroir typically influences the grapes grown. The most utilized grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. As blends, these produce a well-balanced, highly structured wine. Although terroir and winemakers’ preferences determine the aroma and flavor profile, many Champagnes exude overtones of vanilla, citrus and a bright, bracing mouth feel. In Italy, Glera, a white grape, is widely grown and produces Prosecco, a lighter style, redolent of flowers, citrus or stone fruits. Spain’s Cava is typically comprised of three indigenous white grapes: Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada, which create a bright, earthy style. Chenin Blanc grapes are typically utilized in the Loire Valley and South Africa.

While I usually conclude with recommendations from valued local wine shops, the plethora of sparkling wines adorning wine shelves today, and their commensurate high quality, make individual recommendations unnecessary. Start experimenting. You won’t be disappointed.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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