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How to buy Sparkling Wines

Sparkling wines are produced in just about every wine-producing region of the world with many winemakers admitting that they are unable to resist the temptation of making this, the most celebratory of drinks. These wines are not just fun to drink, but fun to make too; the almost alchemic process of getting bubbles into wine in the first place an almost irresistible draw for winemakers.

Statistics show that our taste for bubbles in the UK is growing (there is some scientific evidence for this predilection - find out more in Caroline Gilby's article on making sparkling wine); not surprisingly, so too are the sources of sparkling wine expanding, offering the wine lover ever more choice.

This guide sets out to show what the fundamental differences are between the many styles of sparkling wine available, be they the gentle effervescence of Prosecco or the stylish mousse of a classic crémant.

Sarah Knowles
Sparkling Wine Buyer

Sparkling wine being poured

Contents

The Basics

Traditional (Champagne) Method

Transfer Method

Tank Method

Overview of main styles: Prosecco, Cava, Crémant

Sparkling wine & the new world

Sweetness levels and terms

The Basics

Winemaking more influential than grape or even origin

The major game changer that influences the style of a sparkling wine is the way in which it is made bubbly. All sparkling wine starts out life as a still wine; it's the presence of CO2 that makes it bubbly and how this gets into the wine is all important.

While this sounds simple, there are a number of different methods that winemakers can use to create a sparkling wine, and to my mind these methods often have an overarching effect on the style of the wine, trumping even that of grape variety and often place.

Grape picking in Penedès Grape picking in Penedès, Catalonia, the centre of cava production. Though the production method determines style more than variety, it is important to have a base wine with good acidity

Grape neutrality

This is compounded by the fact that for the great majority of sparkling wines, grapes for the base wine are picked very early to retain a high acid level; this is a desired factor in sparkling wine. By picking early, however, the core flavours of the grapes used often haven't fully developed, and the character of the particular microclimate may also be more subdued.

The three main methods

The three main production techniques at the winemaker's disposal are:

All three of these methods create a sparkling wine naturally. There is no simple addition of carbon dioxide (CO2) although this is used for very inexpensive and low-quality sparkling wines.

Retaining CO2, naturally

This means that the process of fermentation has been harnessed to retain some of the naturally produced CO2 (which is a by-product in the conversion of sugar to alcohol - the basic process of fermentation). Whereas in still wine production this CO2 is allowed to blow off naturally, in sparkling wine production the wine is pressurised so that the CO2 cannot escape and is instead forced to stay in the wine, creating bubbles.

Read more on the science behind this process here >

Traditional Method

Champagne bottles in racks Sparkling wine made by the traditional method aged on racks called pupitres. Traditionally, the bottles are turned by hand

Also known as: Champagne method, méthode traditionnelle, método tradicional, méthode classique.

In brief…

This is when the second fermentation occurs in the bottle and the wine sold is sold within this same bottle.

Used in….

Champagne, crémant, cava and many premium new world sparkling wines.

Explained…

First fermentation
1. The grape juice will initially be made like a still white wine in tank.
2. Early in this first fermentation, once some of the sugars have already been turned to alcohol, the winemaker will stop the fermentation - usually by chilling it so that the yeast cells that are the active organisms in the fermentation process die.

Secondary fermentation
3. Now the partially fermented wine is put into thick glass bottles (that can withstand the internal pressure of gas).
4. A solution of active yeast and sugar is now added to each individual bottle. This is known as the liqueur de tirage and its job is to kick start the second fermentation process in the bottle.
5. The bottle is sealed with a crown cap (like the metal cap used on beer bottles) and stored in a cellar to allow the wine to ferment, without the CO2 being able to escape.

Ageing on the lees
6. This second fermentation in bottle means that there is a larger contact ratio of yeast to wine which means that wines made by this method develop more brioche, bread, or beer-like aromas. These flavours can be accentuated if the winemaker choses to age the wine in this bottle on the lees (the remaining dead yeast cells - which looks like a fine yellow paste).

Gyropalette Though the French invented the automated riddling machine, it was the Spanish that first used it for the production of cava in the 1970s. It is now widely used throughout the world.

Riddling
7. Once the winemaker is ready to sell the wine these lees need to be removed. Traditionally this is done by a fairly lengthy process where the bottle is gradually moved into an upside down position. If the bottle is turned too quickly the very small particles in the lees form a light haze in the wine, and don't settle quickly in the neck. Therefore the bottle is gently moved so that the lees slide down en masse into the neck of the bottle. When carried out by hand, this process is known as riddling (or remuage in French). It can now also be done by a machine called a gyropalette.

Disgorging
8. Once the lees are in the neck of the bottle, the bottles are dipped into a solution that freezes the wine and yeast in the neck.
9. The crown cap can now be taken off and the ice plug containing the lees will pop out.

Dosage
10. At this point the winemaker can add a little reserve wine to top up the bottle (a small amount is lost during disgorging). This reserve wine is called the liqueur d'expédition and can be used to sweeten the style produced. This is referred to as dosage.
11. Now the bottle is corked with a mushroom cork and cage and the wine can be sold.

Transfer Method

In Brief…

Wine made via the traditional method but disgorged in tank.

Used in….

Larger-format Champagne production, larger-volume premium sparkling wine production.

Explained…

This production method is the same as the traditional method - with secondary fermentation occurring in bottle up until point 8 above - disgorgement.
1. When the wine is ready for sale - the wine is transferred with the lees from bottle into a pressurised tank.
2. Under pressure, the bubbles remain in the wine, and the wine can be assessed in a larger volume (which can avoid the bottle variation sometimes seen as a problem with the traditional method).
3. Now the expensive and time consuming process of riddling can be avoided and the wine can be filtered to remove the lees.
4. The dosage is added and the wine can be bottled.

Tank Method

Bottling of Prosecco The bottling line at Prosecco producer, Riva dei Frati

Also known as Charmat or cuve close

In brief…

Sparkling wine made in tank, not bottle.

Used in…

Prosecco, Asti, Lambrusco and many lighter style new world sparkling wines.

Explained…

1. The grape juice will initially be made like a still white wine in tank.
2. Part way through this fermentation, the tank is sealed so that the CO2 cannot escape, forcing it to dissolve into the wine.
3. This means that the ratio of wine to lees in a large tank is very low, meaning that wines made in this method take on less flavour from the yeast and remain fruity.
4. The wine is filtered without ageing on the lees.
5. Final dosage is made to adjust sweetness levels.
6. The wine is bottled young and fresh.

A quick guide to major regions/styles of sparkling wine

Prosecco

  • This is a sparkling wine made in Veneto and Friuli, northern Italy.
  • It is made using a grape variety called glera.
  • It is made using the tank method to retain the floral, fruity notes, and reduce the influence the lees would otherwise have.
  • Prosecco can only be white, not rosé.
  • Prosecco can be made at various sweetness levels.

Prosecco has become incredibly popular over the last decade, and has become a members' firm favourite. As Prosecco gains worldwide acclaim there are interesting things happening at the top end of the market to maintain quality: new legislation has recognised particular areas as being of higher class, eg. Valdobbiadene DOCG, and the category is generally growing.

View our Prosecco range >

Cava

  • Is a sparkling wine of recognised premium origin (DO - denominación de origen) made in Spain though unlike other DOs it is not restricted to a particular area.
  • The majority is produced in Penedès in Catalonia but cavas are made in many other recognised regions in Spain - for example Bodegas Muga's Conde de Haro is from Rioja.
  • The most popular and traditional grape varieties are macabeu, parellada, and xarel?lo, although increasingly cavas are being made from the traditional Champagne varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir.
  • Cava is always made using the traditional method.
  • Cava must be aged on the lees after secondary fermentation for a minimum of nine months. For it to be labelled as Reserva it must have 15 months, and Gran Reserva 30 months.
  • Cava can be made in both white and rosé styles.
  • Cava can be made at various sweetness levels.

Cava has an important historical significance within Spanish celebrations and good cava can be excellent quality and can usually offer better value than alternative premium sparkling wines (including Champagne). Sadly over the past 20-30 years cava's reputation has been muddied by inexpensive, high-volume low quality examples being widely available in the UK. Rest assured, The Wine Society only selects the best traditional cavas for members which truly show great quality and character.

View our Cava range >

Crémant

  • This term refers to many sparkling wines made across France and translates as 'creamy', a reference to the texture of the bubbles in these wines.
  • In France there are eight appellations that are designated as crémant regions - Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Jura, Limoux, Loire, Savoir and Rhône (known here as Crémant de Die).
  • Under French appellation law there are many stipulations on the production of crémant including that the harvest must be by hand, it must be made using the traditional method and must be aged for a minimum of a year on the lees
  • Crémants can be made using many different grapes relevant to the region of production.
  • The Loire is the largest crémant producing region in France.

Well-made crémants have always been popular at The Wine Society offering great value, quality and character.

Sparkling wine & the new world

The new world is not bound by the cultural and historical legacies that are often entrenched in sparkling wine production in the old world, so it is less easy to make generalisations.

In Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and the USA winemakers are not so constrained and can choose to use any of the production methods described to make their sparkling wines.

The absence of appellation legislation to restrict the production of sparkling wines to particular areas means that many new-world winemakers are unable to resist the temptation to make sparklers, even if the climate does not lend itself to the production of grapes with the necessary levels of acidity for the job! The demand for sparkling wine in the home market is an added incentive for making this style of wine.

Because a large proportion of new world wine regions are a good deal warmer than the classic regions of production in Europe, the grower will pick the grapes early in order to retain acidity. By doing so there is a risk of loss of flavour and aromatics in the grapes, so it comes as no surprise that the best new world sparklers are being made in cooler climates - Tasmania, New Zealand and parts of South Africa, for example.

To make things easier for consumers, production methods will often be mentioned on the label. In South Africa they have even developed their own term for bottle-fermented sparkling wine - Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) which you may also come across on labels.

The good news for UK wine lovers is that many of the sparkling wines to come out of the new world are no longer Champagne pretenders but have a pedigree and style of their own; it's no surprise that many of the best come from cooler growing regions, such as Tasmania, California's Anderson Valley and the Limarí Valley in Chile.

New World Sparkling Louis Roederer are just one of the many Champagne Houses to establish an overseas sparkling wine venture. They chose to buy vineyards in Anderson Valley 125 miles north of San Francisco, where the grapes would benefit from the cooling effects of the sea fogs.

Sweetness levels and terms

As explained above, the process of making sparkling wine involves the addition of dosage either just after disgorgement or before the wine is bottled. This is the point at which the sweetness levels of the wine, which would have started life as a dry and naturally acidic, can be rounded out and adjusted.

The terms found on labels to tell you how dry or sweet the wine is can vary; the chart below shows a comparison from driest (with the fewest grammes per litre of sugar) to the sweetest:

  Cava Champagne Prosecco
0-3g/l Brut Nature Brut Nature
0-6g/l Extra Brut Extra Brut
0-12g/l Brut Brut Brut
12-17g/l Semi Seco Extra Dry Extra Dry
17-32g/l Dry Dry
32-50g/l Demi Sec
50+g/l Doux

View all sparkling wines >

Read more: Winemaking: a sparkling transformation by Caroline Gilby MW >

Read our Champagne guide >

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