Most of us have tasted sparkling wine — at the very least around the holidays or when celebrating a special occasion. But the catch-all term encompasses a broad range of wines with distinct differences in production. Besides bubbles, what distinguishes the likes of Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco? And how do they even get their bubbles in the first place?
Sparkling Wine In 60 Seconds:
- Sparkling wine can be produced anywhere in the world but there are certain types, like Champagne, that can only come from a specific region.
- The two most common sparkling winemaking methods are the “traditional” method and “charmat” or “tank” method.
- For the most part, regions that are known for sparkling wine production use grapes that are native to the area.
- Sparkling wine is carbonated via a secondary fermentation, while still wine only goes through one fermentation.
What Is Sparkling Wine?
Sparkling wine is a carbonated wine that can be made from any white or red grape. Though white sparkling wines are most common, sparkling rosé and, to a lesser extent, red wines can also be found. Sparkling wines range from dry to sweet and express a spectrum of flavors that depend on the grape(s) used, the climate they were grown in, and the winemaking method used.
How Sparkling Wine Is Made
Méthode Champenoise is considered the premier method of making sparkling wine. The term is typically used for wines made within the Champagne region, while the term traditional method relates to wines made using the same technique but elsewhere in the world. This process requires the secondary fermentation to happen inside the bottle. The wine then spends time aging on its lees (dead yeast cells), which impacts its aromas, flavors, and texture. This step of the process produces notes of brioche and nuts along with a soft and creamy mouthfeel. The Champagne and traditional methods involve time-consuming riddling (sometimes done by hand) and disgorgement, which translates to higher price-points on store shelves.
A faster and cheaper way to make sparkling wine is the Charmat method, also known as the tank method. Most famous for its association with Prosecco, this process sees the wine transferred from its first fermentation vat to a large sealed pressurized tank where it undergoes carbon-dioxide-creating secondary fermentation. The wine is then bottled and shipped to market. This method produces lighter and more fruit-forward sparkling wines because they don’t spend time on lees and are released immediately after bottling.
Another process, which uses aspects of both the traditional and tank methods, is the transfer method. In this technique, the sparkling wine goes through secondary fermentation within the bottle and is stored on its lees and then it is transferred to a tank where it is filtered. This eliminates the costly steps of riddling and disgorgement while maintaining the character of the lees aging.
One final method — and the least expensive of all— is carbonation. Instead of the wine going through a secondary fermentation to gain its fizz, carbon dioxide (CO2) is injected into the wine, which is then bottled under pressure.
Countries Known for Sparkling Wine
While France and Italy are perhaps the most famous countries for sparkling wine production, high-quality and unique expressions are made all around the world.
Champagne is the most sought-after and prestigious type of sparkling wine, though Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne and Crémant de Loire also hail from France and are made using the same traditional method.
Italy is famous for Prosecco, which is made using the Glera grape in the northeast regions of Veneto and Friuli. Asti is another famous Italian sparkling wine, native to Piedmont in the northwest. Asti is typically lower in alcohol and quite fruity in character. It’s made using a unique technique: Rather than gaining fizz through a secondary fermentation, primary fermentation takes place in a pressurized vat that can be sealed towards the end of fermentation, trapping carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released.. Lambrusco, an Italian sparkling wine made from indigenous red grapes, is made in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna.
Cava is Spain’s most famous sparkling wine and is unique in that it can be made in one of several autonomous regions across the country, though the majority of production takes place in DO Penedès in Catalonia. Cava is made in the traditional method and must age on its lees for nine months before being released to market. White Cava is made with Macabeo (Viura), Xarel-lo, and Parellada, while rosé versions are made with the addition of Garnacha or Monastrell.
Germany, England, the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa also make high-quality, award-winning sparkling wines. Outside of Europe, producers aren’t limited by regional laws; they’re therefore free to use whatever grapes they choose and can age their sparkling wine for any length of time.
Levels of Sweetness in Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine has four main levels of sweetness, which are often printed directly on bottle labels. These levels are:
- Extra-Brut: The driest style of sparkling wine. In these wines, the yeast has consumed absolutely all of the sugar, so there is a complete absence of sweetness in the wine.
- Brut: This is the most popular type of sparkling wine. These wines are dry, but do show a hint of sweetness. Champagne is the most common sparkler to be labeled Brut.
- Extra Dry: This type of sparkling wine is also dry, though sweeter than Brut or Extra-Brut. Prosecco is the most notable example of sparkling wine produced in the Extra Dry style.
- Demi-sec: This is a sweet sparkling wine with noticeable sugar content — perfect for pairing with dessert.