Now that Christmas has passed, it’s time to focus on your New Year’s Eve celebration! And that means espumosos! For this post, we’d like to dive into what makes sparkling wine fizzy, the different types, and what to serve with it, so you can pick the best one(s) for your needs. After you give this blog a read through, stop on into the store on Saturday, 12/30, and try a bunch of different sparkling wines. #DailyCata starts at 3pm and goes until 6pm, all bubbles tasted will be 10% OFF!
What makes sparkling wine fizzy?
The short answer: carbon dioxide. Dissolved carbon dioxide in the wine slowly releases once you open it. The size, feel and amount of bubbles, however, depends on how the carbon dioxide gets in there in the first place. To understand that, we’ll discuss the different methods used, and their history.
We carry wines that get their bubbles in two ways: either in the bottle via a second fermentation, or in a large tank, again via a second fermentation. Let’s start by having a look at the method developed in Champagne, also known as traditional method:
Methode Champenoise - Second Fermentation in the Bottle
“Sparkling wine” and “Champagne” are often colloquially (but not legally, from a labeling and marketing perspective) interchangeable terms. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is that Champagne has been the gold standard for sparkling wine production for centuries. While some of the world’s best wine, period, comes from Champagne, sparkling wine can in fact come from anywhere.
From a flavor and stylistic standpoint, methode champenoise - sometimes called “traditional method” - is the most well regarded approach due to its complexity and intensity of flavor, as well as the softness and lushness of its bubbles. It also requires more labor, time and resources, so it tends to cost more, especially when actually made in Champagne.
Now, for a little history...around the middle of the 17th century, winemakers in the Champagne region of France were already using the “ancestral method” to harness the naturally occuring second fermentation, which started up spontaneously in the bottle once spring weather brought up temperatures. Doing so lead to a stunning wine full of soft bubbles. But the process had many flaws. For one, each bottle was essentially a bomb with the timer set to “random.” For another, quality varied significantly, since they didn’t really have a grasp on what was going on, just that they liked the final result (when the bottle didn’t blow up on them).
Enter Dom Pérignon, a benedictine monk who made it his passion to refine, understand and improve the process. He advocated for practices such as removing rotten grapes, blending batches together before bottling, and using stronger bottles and better corks. To this day, the improvements he made represent some of the biggest leaps forward for the methode champenoise. Minus a few innovations to improve productivity, the process he developed remains mostly unchanged.
Charmat - Second Fermentation in a Tank
While the traditional method may have more notoriety, sparklers made using the Charmat method can be gorgeous as well. As a rule, they tend to be cleaner, more fruit-forward, and have slightly coarser bubbles. They also treat your wallet better, so you can use them to make refreshing cocktails without feeling guilty.
In 1895, an Italian named Federico Marinotti patented the process. In Italy, the process still bears his name, as they refer to it there as the “metodo Marinotti.” Eugène Charmat, a Frenchmen, then perfected the method and patented his version in 1907. Though the method has adherents all over the world, most of the wine made using this method come from Italy, particularly the Asti province, and in Prosecco production in the region of Veneto.
Unlike the traditional method (champenoise), charmat takes place in a sealed, temperature controlled, stainless steel tank. This has many advantages, ranging from cost saving to greater consistency to brighter fruit flavors and aromas in the final wine.
Pairing Sparkling Wine
Traditionally, and across cultures, sparkling wine has been a beverage enjoyed before and after meals. However, it can also work wonderfully with main courses as well. In fact, especially with methode champenoise wines, the number of pairing options that do work far outsizes the number that do not.
For before the meal, serve fresh, creamy cheeses, such as goat or brie, with young wines. For nutty, aged cheeses such as havarti or intense and earthy cheeses, like blue, go for a more complex, aged wine. Another classic, caviar, fresh oysters and sparkling wine, works so well, the sensation feels almost shocking. Or, you can go with a simple classic from Spain, pan con tomate. Just take a hearty piece of bread, grill it or toast it, then rub fresh garlic and ripe tomato into it and finish with a touch of sea salt. Pair with a Cava.
During the meal, if you’ve chosen a Champagne-style sparkler, then try to build the meal around the nutty, bready and minerally notes of the wine. More flavorful seafood does the trick here. Lobster and champagne (you could even go surf n’ turf, the wine will hold up) represents one of life’s cheat-codes for deliciousness.
And after the meal, you can return to cheese if you’d like, or light fruit without added sugar. If you want to serve it with a dessert, reach for an “Asti,” or similarly sweet sparkling wine.
Types and Regions
Now that you’ve learned about how sparkling wine gets made and how to pair it, let’s run down a few of the place that make it the best:
Champagne - Still the best. The terroir, limestone soils, micro-climates and traditions of the region continue to result in the world’s most striking sparkling wines. The combination of history, name-recognition and quality mean that you will need to shell out at least $40+ dollars for a nice one. And the price of truly transcendent Champagne really has no ceiling.
Cava - Luckily, we have the gift of Cava. Cava is a purposeful reaction to Champagne. Lead by José Reventós, a winemaker who in the 1860s had traveled to Champagne while hocking his own still reds and whites, the Catalan region of Penedés converted their production to sparkling wine in the 1870s. Since then, by constantly innovating and adopting technological advancements to improve productivity, quality and consistency, the region has grown to become the second best source for traditional method sparkling wine, and perhaps the best, if value is your main consideration. Cava of exceptional quality rarely exceeds $30 a bottle. In fact, a $23 bottle of Cava made it into our top 5 wines of the year at Grand Cata!
Prosecco - Generally made with a grape call Glera, Prosecco hails from Italy. Since it is almost always made using the Charmat method, these wines rarely cost more than $25 a bottle. Many people prefer Prosecco to other styles of sparkling wine because it is not quite as dry, has more focused and pronounced fruit notes, and gives off bubbles with a bit more grip.
Franciacorta - Another direct response to Champagne, Franciacorta is a subregion within Brescia, Italy. It’s also the youngest region on this list. Italians wanted their own version of Champagne, so when they realized that this region had similar terroir to Champagne, they planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and began producing excellent methode champenoise wines.
Lambrusco - Perhaps the most diverse style of sparkling wine, and the least understood here in the US, Lambrusco wines range from lightly sparkling and sweet to bone dry and full of bubbles. From Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, producers use a variety of native grapes, both red and white. So, if you’re intrigued to know what a dry, sparkling red wine tastes like, check out a Lambrusco made with red grapes. Lambrusco producers can use any method they’d like to get bubbles in their wine.
Asti - Formerly known as Asti Spumante, this semi-sweet, very refreshing, aromatic and flavorful sparkler made from moscato grapes finishes a meal perfectly. It’s also a great choice for anyone that’s not interested in an overly dry sparkler.
Latin America - Since the methode champenoise and charmat do not rely on any specific qualities about a place, exceptional examples of sparkling wine come from nearly everywhere in the world where wine grapes grow. Some to look out for include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile.
Thank you all so much for making 2017 an amazing year for all of us at Grand Cata! Happy New Years, have fun and safe evening, and pick the right sparkling wine for your celebrations, now that you know the different styles. Cheers!