We love burbujas at Grand Cata! In our opinion, sparkling wine is too often reserved only for special occasions. There’s plenty of reasons to imbibe some bubbles all throughout the year!
We’d like to use this piece to take a closer look at the main methods of producing sparkling wines that we work with at the shop.
Pet Nat / Ancestral Method
Until recently, this type of sparkling wine was known to only well traveled wine lovers with a taste for the esoteric. Slowly but surely, however, it has become more common and easier to find.
Pet Nat stands for “pétillant naturel,” French for "natural sparkling." It gets this name because the process happens naturally, with less input or guidance needed by the winemaker. Don’t confuse this with “easy!” Pet Nat’s can have a mind of their own, so while there may be fewer steps to take, messing any up will ruin the wine.
Pet Nats use a method called “méthode ancestrale,” or the ancestral method, the oldest way of getting bubbles into wine. As wine ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If you ferment in a sealed environment, like the bottle itself, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine, giving you bubbles. In the case of the ancestral method, winemakers start the fermentation in a vat (now a days a tank), then wine transfer it to the bottle before the initial fermentation finishes. This means lighter bubbles, and funkier flavors.
Originally, the method was discovered because the temperature in some years would get so cold so quickly after harvest, that fermentation would stall. Winemakers would bottle at this point, only to find that come spring, the warmer temperatures reactivated the fermentation. Bottles weren’t always strong enough to hold the pressure, so many would burst, like mini wine bombs!
Today, the process is much better understood, and less risky. Winemakers will intentionally stall the fermentation at a specified point, transfer the wine to bottles sturdy enough to hold up against the pressure created by trapping the carbon dioxide, and then bring the wine up to the appropriate temperature. The results are less predictable than the other two methods we’ll discuss below. When done right, though, Pet Nats have a width of flavor and character, as well as freshness, that makes them irresistible.
Méthode champenoise, often called the traditional method, is actually the direct evolution of the ancestral method. A monk named Dom Perignon got tired of having to walk around the cellar on eggshells, worried that the bottles around him would explode. He also wanted more consistency of quality in his wines. So, he set about studying and experimenting until he developed what we now call the champagne method, as he did his work in Champagne.
This method brings more flavors to the party, particularly ones associated with sur lees aging and picking specific yeast strands that best suit the winemakers needs. Sur lees means “on the yeast.” After the yeast have exhausted all their fuel (sugar), or the alcohol reaches a level they can no longer survive in, they die and fall to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. When making most styles of wine, the wine would be racked off and the yeast discarded. With the champagne method, however, winemakers deliberately leave the yeast in contact with the wine, sometimes stirring it to impart even more flavors.
What really separates this method from the ancestral one is the introduction of a second fermentation. First, the winemaker fully ferments the wine, then ages it, then transfers it to a bottle designed to hold much greater pressure than the ancestral method. New yeast and either sugar or unfermented grape juice get added as well, and the bottle is sealed with that classic cork and cage.
As with all three of the methods we’re discussing, the bubbles get into the wine because the fermentation happens in a sealed environment. Again, fermentation naturally gives off carbon dioxide. Trapping it forces it to dissolve into the wine.
(Psst! If you’re interested in a deeper dive into these next two styles, jump over to the piece we wrote for New Years 2017.)
By far the youngest method, you’ll see this most often with Prosecco, though winemakers all over the world use it.
From a flavor standpoint, with both of the first two methods we looked at, the flavors, aromas, and textures of the resulting wines have as much to do with the method as the grapes used. With charmat, the grapes shine. This is because less of the wine spends time in direct contact with the yeast, and the fermentation happens at a much larger scale.
Like the champagne method, the wine goes through a second, sealed, fermentation. This time, however, this happens in a large, temperature controlled tank. Once the wine reaches the desired bubbles, bottles get filled from the tank. All of this means greater control, less funky and yeasty notes, and more emphasis on the flavors of the grapes.
Which to Pick?
The short answer is, they’re all great! Reach for a Pet Nat on a hot day with some soft cheese and fleshy fruits. Grab a champagne method sparkler if you want to dazzle your palate, and pair it with a spread of sardines, mustard, green apples, your favorite cheese, and a baguette. For brunch, a picnic, or just while watching Netflix, you can’t beat Prosecco, or another style made using the charmat method. Just remember, there’s no wrong time to drink sparkling wine!