World of Magic Bubbles

In the article about Champagne I talk in detail about the history of the foremother of all sparkling wines, about Champagne’s styles and technology.

However, the world of magic bubbles doesn’t restrict to Champagne; it is wide, deep, diverse, and very interesting.

Let’s talk about technology first.

Traditional Method that is described in detail in the previous article, of course, is not the only way to make sparkling wine. Actually, there are plenty of ways to make bubbly wine, but despite the traditional method, there are three more that are mainly used.

Transfer Method
This is a version of the traditional method. The only difference is in the simplified way of removing sediment from the bottle. Until the end of the second fermentation and maturation, the process is the same as the traditional method. As soon as the wine is ready, it is cooled, quickly transferred into the tank by pumps, filtered to remove sediments, and then bottled. The rest is also the same as in the traditional method. Australian winemakers love this method. It is also often used for bottles of non-traditional sizes (very big or very small).

Most often used non-standard size of the bottles:
Picolo/Split – 187.5 ml (1/4 of standard)
Demi/Tenth – 375 ml (1/2 of standard)
Magnum – 1.5 l
Jeroboam – 3 and 5 l

Champagne makes even bigger bottles, up to 30 litres, but they are very rare.

Charmat or Tank Method

In this case, the second fermentation proceeds not in the bottles, but in the steel tank. Fermentation takes 4-5 days, and after this, the wine is cooled, filtered and bottled. There is no maturation on the lees at all. The result is an inexpensive, light (by taste), simple sparkling wine. This method is very popular in Italy, Germany and USA. In Champagne the Charmat method is illegal.

The last method of making a wine sparkling is a saturation of still wine by compressed CO2. Good sparkling wine cannot be made with this method. It produces a cheap and simple sparkling wine, with bubbles, like soda.

Now let’s talk about sparkling wine that cannot be called champagne.

Most wine-making countries produce sparkling wines. In North America, you can find sparkling wines from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Australia and USA.

Let’s start with France.

It produces not only Champagne but a lot of other good sparkling wines.

First of all, the Champagne region itself produces not only Champagne but also Cremant. In principle, it is the same wine as its method of production is the same as Champagne, but the pressure in the bottle is only 3-4 atm, whereas the Champagne bottle has a pressure of 5-6 atm. The wine is softer and gentler. The taste is more flowery and fruity. They don’t keep it on lees too long, and they sell it young. The combination of words Cremant and Champagne on the label would indicate this specific wine.

Life is not always simple, so Cremant is the also name of the wines that are made by the exact Methode Champenoise (with high pressure in the bottle), but in the other regions in France. Actually, they started to use this name after Champagne winemakers reserved the word “champagne” for their products exclusively. At present time, eight regions are allowed to call their sparkling wine Cremant.

Crémant d’Alsace
Crémant de Bordeaux
Crémant de Bourgogne
Crémant de Die
Crémant du Jura
Crémant de Limoux
Crémant de Loire
Crémant de Savoie

Opposite to “Champagne”, the term “Cremant” doesn’t reserve to France, so Cremant can be produced by other European countries with corresponded technology.
Nowadays, Crémant de Luxembourg and Crémant de Wallonie (Belgium) are produced.

The technological requirements to Cremant production are just slightly softer than to champagne production – grape harvest by hand only, the traditional method only, at least 9 months on less, and so on.
For their wines, Cremant АОСs can use any grape varieties, except for very aromatic ones, like Muscat of Gewürztraminer.
Each region uses its own grape varieties making the world of Cremant quite diversified.

To make life even more confused, there is a small village Cremant in the Champagne region that produces good still chardonnay (Mumm Cremant).

Other French sparkling wines could be called Mousseux (it literally means sparkling, with bubbles). Champagne and Cremant can be produced only by Methode Champenoise. Mousseux can be made by any method, so their quality varies.

Among Mousseux two worth special attention – Saumur mousseux and Vouvray mousseux,. They are produced by Methode Champenoise, and comparable by quality with Cremant.

Among national sparkling wines (that use local grape varieties and/or specific technology), Spanish Cava should be placed in the second position after Champagne. And the last decades the quality and spectrum of wine variants grows impetuously. Only Methode Champenoise, no exception, it is the law. Maturation on lees is at least 9 months for regular wine. Cava can be found almost in any wine-consuming country. Almost the same volume of production as Champagne has. At the same time, the price is significantly more affordable.

The first sparkling wine in Spain was produced in 1851, however, the birthday of Cava (even at that time this name didn’t exist yet), sparkling wine, produced by the traditional method from specific grape variety, is 1872. In the 1860s Catalonian winemaker, Josep Raventos promoted the wine of Codornui winery on the European market. Among other places, he visited Champagne and it turned his thoughts to the potential of Spanish sparkling wine. In 1872 his new company produced the first bottles of sparkling wine. At the same time, Spanish sparkling viticulture surprisingly got help from the global wine enemy – phylloxera. Plenty of Catalonian vineyards, that traditionally grow red varieties, were destroyed by the phylloxera pandemic, and later replaced with white grape varieties for sparkling wine. In 1911 Spain produced more sparkling wine than imported. In 1959 the wine got in the modern name – Cava. Before this, it was called after Champagne – champan, champana or xampany. But Champagne got official protection for this name, and the Spanish gave their wine another name. Cava means cave and also a wine cellar. In 1972 Cava got DO, and the name become official.

Josep Raventos came up trumps – now Cava is famous and popular around the world, and Codornui – one of the bigger cava producers together with Freixenet.

Although Cava is produced around all of Spain, mostly (about 95%) it is made in Catalonia, in the Penedes region. Sant Sadurni d’Anoia in Penedes is Cava motherland and the home of its main producers.

Mostly Spanish grape varieties are used for cava production.

Main varieties are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Paradell.
By the way, Macabeo is the main variety for white Rioja, which can be used as a reference for still Macabeo.

Garnacha and Monastrell are used for rose. In contrast to champagne rose that is made as a blend of white and red wines, cava rose is made according to standard technology for still rose – by short must infusion. Usually, a mix of red and white grape varieties is used for cava rose.

Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and some rare Spanish varieties are also used in a small amount.

By maturation on lees, and, accordingly, by style, cava can be divided on following categories:

Cava – at least 9 moths on lees. It is identical French Cremant.
Reserva Cava – at least 15 moths on lees. The same requirements as for non-vintage champagne.
Grand Reserva – at least 30 months on lees. Vintage. Similar requirements as for vintage champagne. Only Brut Nature, Extra Brut, and Brut.
Cava Paraje Calificado – at least 36 months on lees (as vintage champagne). Винтаж. Must be made from the grape for a single qualified vineyard and bottled on the winery. Vines should be at least ten years old. This category appeared in 2015 only. It is granted to individual wineries that produced exceptional wines. As Grand Reserva, it is made only as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, and Brut.

The aromas of quince, yellow apple, lime, and Mayer lemons dominate in young cava. With ageing nut, bread, and smoke aromas become stronger.

The whole sweet scale is produced, but Brut dominate.

The cave scale by sweetness (similar, but not identical with champagne):
Brut nature — up to 3 g/l (up to 0.5%) of sugar
Extra Brut – – up to 6 g/l (up to 0.6%)
Brut – up to 12 g/l (up to 1.2%)
Extra seco — 12-17 g/l (1.2 – 1.7%)
Seco — 17-32 g/l (1.7 – 3.2%)
Semi-Sec — 32-50 g/l (3.2 – 5.0%)
Doux — more 50 g/l (more 5%)

Among numerous Italian Spumante (means “sparkling wine” in Italian) Prosecco, Asti, and Lambrusco should be discussed in the first row as most popular and wide-known.

Most of these wines are made by tank method, so the quality is lower than Champagne’s or Cava’s.

Prosecco is produced in two north-east Italian regions – Prosecco and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco. Wines of higher class come from second one. Mainly tank method is used. All Prosseco is made from the Glera grape. It gives Prosecco a specific taste of green apples and melon.

Another interesting Spumante, Lambrusco, is made from the grape with the same name. It is a dry, deep coloured, red sparkling wine. Earlier it was made by the traditional method, but after the 1970s producers mainly switched to the tank method. With little exception, all Lambrusco now is made by the tank method.

Piedmont Asti differs from other sparkling wines by its unique method of production. It can be described as a version of the tank method. For all sparkling wines (except Asti) the first step is still wine production. For the second stage, CO2 is introduced into the wine one way or another. Asti is made in one step. Fresh-made must (fresh-pressed grape juice with east) is cooled down up to the temperature that is close to the freezing point, and stored until necessary. When the time comes, the must is warmed, and fermentation begins. Fermentation is done in tanks that can be germetized. Initially, the tanks are open, and the CO2 is allowed to leak. Once the alcohol concentration reaches 6%, the tank is sealed. Fermentation continues until the alcohol content reaches 7-7.5%, and the pressure is about 5 atm. Then, the wine is cooled down, filtered, bottled and immediately sold. Asti is always a young, low-alcohol wine with residual sugar. Light and sweet, it is made from the Muscat grape, so it has the typical Muscat taste.
In the English tradition, such a type of wine is perfect for Christmas breakfast.

Although mainly Prosecco, Asti, and Lambrusco represent Italy on the world sparkling market, it would not be honest to hide that Italy also produces high-quality sparkling wines made by traditional method. The amount of such wines is small, and the chance to meet them is low, but if such a chance appeared, it is worth knowing the subject.

Two Italian regions were named as the best traditional sparkling wine producers.

First, Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardi. They started produce sparkling wine only in 1950s with the aim to recover the good name of Italy in the sparkling wine world. In 1967 wine already got DO status, and in 1995 the DOCG, highest status in Italian wine classification. Wine is produced by traditional method from Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and some Pinot blanc. Maturation on lees for non-vintage wine is 18 months, for rose and satèn – 24 months, for vintage millesimato – 36 months, and for riserva – 60 months.

Franciacorta satèn is an analogue of Cremant Champagne – the same technology as for standard Franciacorta, but the pressure is 4.5 atm vs standard 6 atm, which gives to wine a creamy gentle taste.

Second, Trento DOC. Traditional method. Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier, and Pinot blanc. At least 15 months on the lees for non-vintage wines, 24 for vintage and 36 for riserva.

In Germany, sparkling wine came from France, moreover directly from Veuve Clicquot wineries, although it didn’t help Germany to become new Champagne if we talk about quality. The founder of German sparkling viniculture, Georg Christian von Kessler, born in South Germany, came to Champagne House under the rule of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin in the difficult for the House years. The widow only took up the reins after her husband death, and at the same time, Napoleon wars came, which resulted in the trade blockade of France, war indemnity, and other unpleasant things that are not good for business. Kessler spent in the House more than ten years. The House recovered and flourished, Kessler progressed up to business partner and started to work on the foundation of Veuve Clicquot domains in Germany. But something happened, their ways fell apart, and Kessler founded the first German sparkling wine house «GC Kessler & Co» in 1826. Of course, he was not alone. Many German winemakers worked with Champagne Houses; some of them remained in Champagne forever, others came back to Germany and founded their own production.

However, two World Wars that happened after the production of the first bottle of sparkling wine on the German land didn’t help the German economy in total, and viniculture in particular. German winemakers decided that quantity give them more profit than quality, and switched from the traditional method to the tank one that allowed them to decrease price and increase volume. Now Germany is the biggest producer of bubbles, but they didn’t bring glory to the country. In 2017 Germans drank 400 million bottles of sparkling wine (including import), and produced 269 million most of them left in Germany, because most German bubbles don’t worth even good word, never mine imports.

The problem is that behind name Sekt there is no wine law. So, Sekt can be made without any limitation (of course, in the frame of common wine law) and still called Sekt. Yet, they at least don’t make Sekt by saturation with CO2. A wine that is made this way is called Schaumwein, and I don’t recommend even looking at its direction. Most amounts (95%) of Sekt is made by tank method, and grape for its production can be brought from anywhere including Italy and France, so it even cannot be caller really German wine.

However, last decades whole viniculture world has actively worked on its improvement and Sekt producers are no exception. Some types of Sekt that appeared recently are worth trying.

The base of Sekt pyramid quality is Deutscher Sekt (you can find these words on the back label). This wine is made by the tank method from the only German grape. So, it is definitely German wine made from classic German grape varieties.

Next level – Sekt b.A. Grape for this wine should come from PDO regions. Riesling, Silvaner, and Pinot noir are usually used. Despite the tank method, traditional is sometimes used, so look at the label.

And the top of the pyramid – Winzersekt – only traditional method, a grape from qualified wineries, and other good rules. Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, and Pinot noir are used, but the main variety, of course, Riesling. Wine from Riesling even has special name – Rieslingsekt. This is the exact wine that definitely worth trying.

Austria also makes Sekt. It has a similar level of quality (names are different), but the total level of Austrian Sekt is high than the German one. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to find outside Austria.

Let’s skip Hungarian, Romanian, Portugal, and other Old World sparkling wines for now – the chance to meet them is too low.

However, I want to say several words about English sparkling wine. England as a wine-producing country is sound unexpected, but still. Englishmen always have loved champagne; England has been one of the biggest consumers, and its impact on champagne development is significant. In the second part of the 20th century, the climate of the south of England became warmer and more appropriate for viniculture. Actually, it is similar to Champagne climate, so they grow now Champagne varieties, use the traditional method, and have a very good result. It is difficult to find English sparkling wine outside Europe, but during the visit to the UK, it is worth trying it.

Let’s switch from Old World to New one, and to its sparkling wines.

Although most wine-producing countries make sparkling wine, the amount of regions that have a good climate for this is quite limited. The problem (for viniculture) is in the hotter climate of the New World compare to the Old one. The wine taste, as I constantly repeat, depends on the climate, and wine tasters often mention the new world- or old world wine styles referring to warm or cool climate. Because sparkling wine is a cool climate wine (the reason I discussed it in detail in the Champagne article), the good sparkling wine of New World can be found in his coolest regions.

More easily you can found sparkling wine from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and, of course, USA.

New Zealand with its cool climate, observance of the French wine traditions, and connection with Champagne Houses is considered as the best follower of Champagne in the New World. Winemakers of New Zealand use classic Champagne grape varieties and traditional technology. Most wines spend on lees at least 18 months. Especially pay attention to wines from Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Gisborn.

Australia makes everything one can imagine in the sparkling world. White, rose, red. Dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweet. Light-bodied and full-bodied. Simple, inexpensive wines are made by the tank method, and higher class wines are made by the transfer method. Using the traditional method is very seldom. High-class wines are mainly made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and, for the rest, any sort of grape can be used.

Sparkling wine needs a cool climate, so pay attention to the wines from Tasmania, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills.

Red sparkling wines are the Australian feature. The best of them are usually made from Shiraz, and sometimes, from Cabernet sauvignon or Merlot. They usually have some sugar (off-dry to semi-sweet) to balance the tannins and high alcohol content.

Don’t chill red bubbles in the same way as white or rose. Cold hides the taste of red wine. 11-12C is enough.
Red sparkling is good as an appetizer, and also it is a good accompaniment for steak (beef or tuna).

Every year the chance to find Argentinian sparkling wine outside the country of origin becomes higher and higher, and it is good because this wine is worth it. Sparkling vinification in Argentina was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by two Germans, Carlos Kalless and Hans von Toll, who independently settled their wineries in Mendoza. The second step was made at the end of the 1950s when Moet et Chandon (huge Champagne House) founded its domain in Argentina. Actually, Argentina was the first place in Champagne Houses’ expansion. It was followed by the appearance of other Houses domains and independent producers. The next huge improvement happened in 2005 when winemakers pushed the government to allow them to reinvest their incomes. After several years of quantity growth, Argentinian winemakers started to think about quality improvement. Many of them switched from the cheap tank method to the traditional one. Pay special attention to such names as Chandon Argentina, Bodega Cruzat, Casa Bianchi and Alma 4. They do not only produce quality sparkling wine but are also big enough to be present on the international market. They also experiment with new interesting approaches. For example, Chandon Argentina studied the influence of elevation.

USA produces a lot of sparkling wines, from high-quality ones made by traditional methods to cheap, soda-like ones.

The largest USA producer is California. Actually, the production of American sparkling wine started in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, where brothers Korbel emigrated from Bohemia and founded wine production by the traditional method in 1892. Originally, they used Riesling and some other German varieties but later switched to traditional Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot meunier. Till now, Korbel is the biggest American producer of sparkling wine by traditional method.

The price of American sparkling wines is much more affordable than Champagne. Despite other things, Americans have lower requirements for production which makes it cheaper. Yes, they use the traditional method, but Cuvee is formed with a maximum of 20 wines (in Champagne at least 30, in reality, up to 70), age of base wine – 1-2 years (in Champagne from 6 different years). There are no requirements for the maturation on lees, and 6 months are quite a popular time vs minimal 15 months of non-vintage Champagne. All of these significantly decreases the price of production, but the wine as result has a simpler taste.

American wine law doesn’t regulate the amount of sugar, but producers usually prefer to follow the European sweetness scale from Brut (up to 1.5% of sugar) to Doux (more 5%).

About Californian domains of Champagne Houses, I mention in the Champagne article.

Washington, Oregon, and New York (Long Island and Finger Lakes) makes good sparkling wines by traditional method from classical and non-classical (Riesling, for example) grape varieties.

By the way, many old American producers, including Korbel, for a long time ignored the international wine laws and put on the label the word ‘Champagne’. They only sometimes added some definition, ‘Californian’, for example, to clarify their meaning. Only in 2006 did American wine law prohibit this.

For those, who read the whole text to the end, the explanation of the first photo.

Sabrage is technique to open sparkling wine bottle by sword. Just for fun on special occasions. It came in practice from the officers of Napoleon army, who were too lazy to make it by normal way.
A champagne sword (sabre à champagne) is smaller than an army sabre, but a sommelier should know how to decapitate a bottle.

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