Most of us have tasted sparkling wine, whether you are celebrating a special occasion or ringing in the New Year. Sparkling wine is that catch-all term and category that includes a lot of different styles and production methods - but there is one thing in common, BUBBLES The big names in this category are Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco, but what’s the difference. If you are interested in learning a bit more about that toast worthy drink, read on.
Let’s start off pretty basic - what is sparkling wine and how do the bubbles form? Sparkling wine is a carbonated wine that can be made from any white or red grape. White sparkling wines are most common, but sparkling rosés are also made and, on the rare occasion red sparkling wines can also be found. If you can find one, give it a go - super interesting. Sparkling wines can be dry or sweet and everything in between. Flavor profiles will kind of be all over the place due to the grape(s) being used, the climate they were grown in (just like with all wine), and the method the winemaker chooses.
On that note, there are four major sparkling wine methods, so let’s hit on those briefly too. Also, if you haven’t popped a bottle of bubbly yet, go ahead and get that going. Right now I am drinking Virginia Fizz, which we sell at Williams Gap, which we will discuss a bit more in the next section.
This method is considered the premier method of making sparkling wine. Champagne (France) and Cava (Spain) are made in this style, and if you see the term traditional method on a label or tech sheet, that means the wine is also made in this style, just usually elsewhere in the world outside of Champagne, France. If you and I have chatted about the Virginia Fizz sold at Williams Gap, we surely have talked about this process already. You start with grapes that you have picked a bit early to retain acid and maintain the recommended alcohol level. You press the grapes, add yeast and the yeast starts easting the sugar and spitting out alcohol. From there, you move the fermented still wine to a bottle and begin the secondary fermentation that will happen inside the bottle. Again, we will add yeast, but we will add a bit of sugar this time for the yeast to eat and then we will top the bottle with a crown cap (beer cap). During this time, that yeast will start feeding on the added sugar and spitting out alcohol again. Another byproduct of fermentation is CO2 - hence the bubbles. The wine will spend 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. Riddling put simply is turning the bottle so the yeast/lees are agitated. The purpose of disgorgement is to expel the deposit that collects in the neck of the bottle as a result of this riddling process, as the bottles are stored at an angle with the cap facing down. This can be completed in one of two ways: mechanical disgorgement (à la glace) or disgorgement by hand (à la volée). Then you add a bit more wine to the mix, cork it and age it a bit more. This is how the Virginia Fizz is made, as well as our sparkling wine that will be released in the next two years.
Using this method is a much faster and much cheaper way to make sparkling wine. On the bottle, you may see these words or Tank Method. A popular sparkling you may have had utilizing this method is Prosecco (Italy). When making a charmat method sparkling wine, like Prosecco the still wine is transferred from its first fermentation vat to a large sealed pressurized tank where it undergoes a secondary fermentation that creates CO2. The wine is then bottled and shipped off to sell on the market. This method produces lighter bodied and more fruit-driven sparkling wines because the wine doesn't spend time on the lees and is released immediately after bottling. The bubbles are a bit more fleeting too - they don’t persist in the glass as the traditional method sparkling wines do.
Now that you understand the traditional method and tank method - you will understand this method a bit more. The transfer method uses aspects of both the traditional and tank methods. 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 and timely steps of riddling and disgorgement while maintaining the character of the lees aging. So you get the best of both worlds here - the notes of brioche and nuts along with a soft and creamy mouthfeel as well as time/cost effective production. However, the wine is less expressive than the traditional method. Oftentimes you will see this method used in non-standard bottle sizes like splits or jeroboams for example.
This method of sparkling wine production uses almost freezing temperatures (and filtration) to pause the fermentation mid-way for a period of months and then wines are bottled and the fermentation finishes. During this reawakening, CO2 is trapped in the bottle. When the desired level of CO2 is reached, wines are chilled again, riddled and disgorged just like the traditional method, but nothing is added after the disgorgement. This technique is referred to as the Ancestral Method because it’s assumed that this is one of the earliest forms of sparkling winemaking. It is quite hip and you will notice a lot of Virginia winemakers producing wine in this style and labeling it as Pétillant Naturel (Pet-nat).
This is where it gets a bit strange - the Russian Continuous Method. This process gets its name from a continual addition of yeast into pressurized tanks which makes it possible to increase the total pressure to 5 atmospheres (or as much as most Champagne). Wines are then moved into another tank with yeast enrichments, a lot of times wood shavings, which the dead yeast bits attach to and float around in the wine. This gives the wines an autolytic character similar to Champagne or traditional method sparkling wines. Then the wine is moved into the last set of pressurized tanks where the yeasts and enrichments are settled out, leaving the wine clear. This process only takes about a month. You will see this method used in large companies in Germany, Portugal and Russia.
The last of the methods, Carbonation. It is also the least expensive of all of the methods we discussed today. Instead of the wine going through a secondary fermentation to gain its fizz/bubbles, CO2 is injected into the wine, which is then bottled under pressure. The producers I have seen using this method are usually large producers making $5 - $10 bottles. The one that comes to mind is New Age from Argentina - quite sweet and only a bit sparkling.
Big takeaway for all of you reading - while Champagne, Prosecco and Cava are all sparkling wines, not all sparkling wines are Champagne, Prosecco and Cava.
Thank you for reading and cheers to 2022!
Tasting Room Manager