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So many ways to Sparkle...

Sparkling wine is certainly in vogue now, and it's a wonderful time to be an aficionado of the category. There are a handful of ways to make a still wine bubble, but with thousands of producers across the world, there is no shortage of opportunities for exploration. The category of sparkling wine as we know it now is a fairly recent phenomenon in terms of wine history. While wine has been made for millennia, it has really only been in the past 200 years that the sparkling wine industry took off. Dom Pierre Pérignon's tenure at the Abbey of Hautvillers (1668-1715) in Champagne was more dedicated to stopping bubbles from forming than encouraging them. However, once champagne took off, there was no stopping other countries from trying to gain from the popularity of Champagne's sparkling wines. Modern technology has given us easier methods of creating that sparkle in still wines, but the traditional or champagne method is favored by most quality conscious producers. N.B.--méthode traditionelle is what you will see on the label's of French crémant (sparkling wines coming from other regions than Champagne). Méthode champenoise is not even legally allowed for these wines since they are not produced in the Champagne region. In Italy's Franciacorta region you would see metodo classico or metodo tradizionale, and in Cava production you would see método tradicional.


Sparkling Wine 101


Before I get to far ahead of myself, let's take a step back to look at the basics of sparkling wine. First and foremost, it is a wine. Wine is created when yeast, natural or commercial, consume the sugars present in the grape juice, converting them into alcohol and releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Normally, this CO2 is allowed to escape the fermentation vessel. If you want to create a sparkling wine though, you have to trap the CO2. The earliest form of sparkling wine was created using the méthode ancestrale (ancient method) whereby the wine would be placed into a bottle and sealed before the completion of fermentation. Fermentation would continue in the bottle, but whatever CO2 was released by the remaining fermentation would be trapped. This process creates a lightly sparkling wine with sediment, as there is no disgorging (dégorgement) of the bottle before being released to market. In recent years, this style has seen a revival, particularly among fans of natural wines that undergo minimum handling, including little to no sulfur dioxide additions, fining, or filtering of wine before bottling. Known as pét nat (pétillant naturel) by the cool kids, these are normally fresh and food friendly wines that can be made from grapes both considered classic and from more obscure varieties. A good indication that the bottle is a pét nat is a crown cap enclosure (like on a bottle of beer) rather than a cork with a wire cage.

If the winemaker wanted a slightly fizzy wine that was all good, but this wasn't always the case. Before the advent of temperature controlled cellars, fermentation could start, come to halt with cold weather, and then kick back up again in the spring. This was a particular problem in cold regions, such as Champagne. Wines would be laid in cellars in bottles, and the cellar master could come to check on the wines one fine spring day to find an expensive mess, as many of the bottles had burst due to pressure from trapped CO2. Now you see why Dom Pérignon was trying to stop secondary fermentation in bottle. Thicker, better made bottles was the answer to the problem. A problem that of course later turned out to be a multi-billion dollar industry. While Dom Pérignon was not trying to create sparkling wine (he did not in fact "taste the stars"), the people after him who would codify the traditional method of Champagne production used many of his techniques. He was a very active hand in the vineyard in addition to the cellar. Some of his contributions include cutting yields by severe pruning, using white juice from black grape varieties, and blending several different vineyard plots together to create a better wine.


Making Champagne


The Champagne method is a very expensive, time-consuming, and laborious process. Grapes are picked, then quickly pressed and brought to the winery to minimize oxidation of the juice. Numerous base wines from different regions, plots, and grape varietals are created that will eventually become part of the final blended wine. Once the primary fermentation of the base wines is completed, rigorous tasting and selection of the final wines for the blend is conducted. Once the blend is created, it is then bottled with the addition of yeast and sugar in order to kick-start secondary fermentation. At this point, the bottles are laid in the cellar and undergo their secondary fermentation. This time the gas cannot escape and is therefore trapped in the bottle. Nonvintage champagne must rest sur lie (with it's dead yeast cells or on the lees) for a minimum of 15 months and vintage champagne a minimum of 3 years, yet in practice most houses age their wines much longer than what is required. This aging sur lie is what gives champagne its characteristic notes of toast, brioche, and dough.

While the sediment created by the process of secondary fermentation is completely harmless and tasteless, clarity of the wine was preferred by champagne's earliest connoisseurs, mostly nobility. So a process what created to remove sediment from the bottle. Traditionally, this was all done by hand. The bottles would be placed in pupitres, or wooden racks, horizontally. Then comes the remuage or riddling. The bottles would be shaken and given a slight turn over the course of several weeks, gently coaxing the sediment to the neck of the bottle. Only in the 1970s was the gyropalette invented in Spain's main Cava region, Catalunya. This machine does in a few days what would have taken the remueurs weeks to do. Some houses, such as Pol Roger, continue to riddle by hand, particularly for their best wines, but these are generally few and far between. Although a somewhat touchy subject, blind tasting evidence has not shown a significant quality difference between champagnes riddled by hand and those riddled by gyropalette.

There is still the question of removing the sediment from the bottle once it is lodged in the bottleneck. This is the process known as dégorgement or disgorging. The bottleneck is placed into a solution to freeze the sediment, and when the crown cap is removed it will fly out of the bottle under pressure. Traditionally also done by hand, but now a mechanized process. You had to be very skilled and fast to do so by hand, otherwise more than sediment would be lost from the bottle. If you've ever incorrectly opened a bottle of champagne you'll have a vivid picture in mind. Still, some precious liquid is bound to be lost, so a little extra wine with some added sugar is used to top off the bottles before sealing it with cork. The amount of sugar given as grams/liter is known as the dosage. The particular dosage determines whether the champagne will be brut, sec, demi-sec, and so on, although the brut category is by far the most popular with a dosage between 6-12g/l. With rising temperatures, the categories of extra brut and brut nature/brut sauvage are becoming more popular. Extra brut has less than 6g/l, while brut nature contains no dosage at all, but may still have a slight amount of residual sugar, no more than 3g/l. Even after disgorging, the bottles are then laid back into the cellars to rest for a bit before being released to market.


Cava


Cava production is Spain is concentrated in the region around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, near Barcelona, although Spanish law does permit Cava production outside of this region. Cava is made by the traditional method, but using the traditional Spanish grape varietals Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-Lo. The climate in north-eastern Spain is much warmer than in Champagne, so Cava tends to be a vintage wine, with riper fruit flavors. Although Cava is aged on the lees, it is not typically as long as in champagne production, so yeast and bready aromas and flavors are not always present or as pronounced. Chardonnay can be a part of the blend as well, along with some red varietals, although the traditional Spanish grapes are most popular. The two largest cava producers are Cordoníu and Freixenet, although there are many great smaller producers of Cava such as Raventos i Blanc, who has actually eschewed the Cava DO in favor of labelling his wines with the newly created DO Conca del Riu Anoia. He is not the only one to have done so, as many artisanal producers of Cava believe the Cava label has become synonymous with cheap and trivial wine in the minds of consumers. Regardless of your stance on the matter, the Cava region offers a great alternative to champagne for consumers looking to save some money. In the hands of the best producers, you can nab a bottle of quality cava for a fraction of the cost of a bottle of champagne.


Prosecco and Other Methods of Production


While Italy does produce traditional method sparklers in regions such as Franciacorta and Trentodoc that offer great value for their quality, it is of course most widely known for prosecco. Prosecco, unless it comes from the heartland of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, is almost always an extra dry wine with residual sugar between 12-17g/l. It is made from the prosecco grape, which was renamed glera in 2009, although some international varieties are permitted. Prosecco production is insane-- 300 million bottles in 2013 rose to 627.5 million last year. In comparison; Comité Champagne, the governing body for the region, capped production for 2021 at 230 million bottles. The largest producers by far are LaMarca and Ruffino. If you haven't had a bottle of LaMarca prosecco in the past two years, I'm not sure where you have been hiding--it's more ubiquitous than the mosquitos in my backyard during summer. While there are certainly top-notch quality bottles of prosecco in the world, the large majority of prosecco is good, but never great. How could it be at that production level? But when it's cocktail time, or you just don't have the attention span or the proper company to focus on the intricacies of a remarkable champagne, there is no better option than prosecco. LaMarca and Ruffino are both good go-to options, although I do slightly prefer Ruffino, as it seems a little less sweet to me. If you're looking for something a bit more serious, try Adami.

Other than the absurd quantity of prosecco in the world, it's production method also differs from champagne. It is much less time-consuming and labor intensive, translating into much lower costs to the consumer. It is made by the tank method (or charmat method), where secondary fermentation takes place in large stainless steel tanks. Once complete, the wine is filtered and bottled under pressure. Because of this process, there is no extended contact with the dead yeast cells, preserving the very bright, aromatic, and fruity qualities of the glera grape. Many cheaper sparkling wines made in the US use this method as well--think Cooks and André. Sekt in Germany is also made using the tank method. A slight variation on the tank method is used to make Moscato d'Asti. The must is chilled in stainless steel tanks until ready to use. When ready, the tanks are heated and sugar and yeast are added. Fermentation starts but then is stopped prematurely to retain a greater amount of residual sugar. The result is a sweet, low-alcohol wine, with much lower pressure than prosecco, cava, or champagne.

There are a couple of other methods used to make a wine sparkling, which are variations on the traditional method, but I won't go into those here. The cheapest method of all is to literally inject CO2 into the wine, although I cannot recommend you buy these wines. You'd be better off using your soda stream...which I also don't recommend. Traditional method sparkling wine, from Champagne or otherwise, along with wines using the tank method are enough to start your foray into bubbles. If you're feeling adventurous, pét nats are the way to go, although you could also try Australia's specialty--sparkling shiraz. Tasmania's cool climate has also recently been discovered as a great opportunity to make sparkling wine.


Recommendations


Whether you start with the traditional or the innovative, it's a great time to drink sparkling wine. And don't just save it for special occasions. Monday or Tuesday night works just as well. Bubbly tends to be very versatile with food, and with so many styles available, there is always a great sparkling wine to go with what's for dinner. Here are just a few recommendations to get you started:


Pol Roger Brut Réserve $56--With a nice balance between fruity, floral, and yeasty aromas this is a go-to champagne. Great as an apéritif or with a simple roast chicken.


Adami Adriano Bosco di Gica DOCG Valdobbiadene Superiore $18-This prosecco from the region's heartland has typical flavors of green apple and lemon, but Adami leaves the wine in tank on its lees for three months, giving the slightest impression of sourdough bread. At 10g/l, this is a brut. It also goes well as an aperitivo (as the Italians call it), or think Italian pasta and seafood dishes like shrimp scampi with spaghetti or linguine alle vongole (linguine with clams).


Chandon Brut Rosé California $20-While Chandon's regular Brut is just good in my opinion, their rosé is very good. It has more intensity and complexity of flavors. Strawberry, watermelon, peach, and raspberry are balanced by notes of toast and biscuit. Salmon or prosciutto di Parma would be good companions to this wine.


Carboniste 2020 Albariño Extra Brut $30-Carboniste is doing some pretty cool stuff with sparkling wine. Not technically a pét nat, but they do seal this wine with a crown cap. Looking to highlight California's unique terroirs rather than simply imitate Champagne, they've chosen to create a sparkling albariño, and the result is delicious. Crisp, yet fruity, with notes of peach, melon, and wet stone. I'll be enjoying it with a simple shrimp cocktail, although if you're feeling adventurous, try it with octopus, which is depicted on the label.

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