parallax

Guide to Sparkling Wine

HomeBlog › Guide to Sparkling Wine

  • Today I'm going to talk about the first of our Nine Wine Styles, sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is a wine with significant levels of carbon dioxide in it, which makes it fizzy! While we often refer to sparkling wine as champagne, legally that term should only be used for wine produced in the Champagne region of France (East of Paris).

Andi Healey

Web Manager

Sparkling wine is usually either white or rosé, but there are some red sparkling wines, such as the Italian Brachetto, Bonarda and Lambrusco and the Australian sparkling Shiraz. The sweetness of sparkling wine can range from very dry "brut" styles to sweeter "doux" varieties (French for 'hard' and 'soft', respectively).

The sparkling quality of these wines may be the result of natural fermentation, either in a bottle, as with the traditional method, in a large stainless steel tank designed to withstand the pressures involved (as in the production of Prosecco), or as a result of simple carbon dioxide injection, in some cheaper varieties.

History
Effervescence has been observed in wine throughout history and was noted by Ancient Greek and Roman writers, but the cause of this mysterious appearance of bubbles was not understood. Over time it has been attributed to phases of the moon as well as both good and evil spirits.

The tendency of still wine from the Champagne region to lightly sparkle was noted in the Middle Ages, but this was considered a fault and was disdained in early Champagne winemaking. Dom Pérignon was originally charged by his superiors at the Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles, since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. Later, when deliberate sparkling wine production increased, in the early 18th century, cellar workers would still have to wear a heavy iron mask, that resembled a baseball catcher's mask, to prevent injury from spontaneously bursting bottles. The disturbance caused by one bottle's explosion could cause a chain reaction, with it being routine for cellars to lose up to 90% of their bottles to instability. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the, then unknown, process of fermentation and carbonic gas caused some critics to call the sparkling creations "The Devil's Wine". (I'm sure it's been called that on many a "morning after" in my house!)

Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Champagne Glasses (Pair) -  (4744975319177)
Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Champagne Glasses (Pair) -  (4744975319177)

Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Champagne Glasses (Pair)

£49.00
£38.95
View Details
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Set of 8) - Stemware (4744828813449)
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Set of 8) - Stemware (4744828813449)
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Set of 8) - Stemware (4744828813449)
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Set of 8) - Stemware (4744828813449)

Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Set of 8)

£165.00
£149.00
View Details

The British were the first to see the tendency of wines from Champagne to sparkle as a desirable trait and tried to understand why it produced bubbles. Wine was often transported to England in wooden wine barrels, where merchant houses would then bottle the wine for sale. During the 17th century, English glass production used coal-fueled ovens and produced stronger, more durable glass bottles than the wood-fired French glass. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers, once used by the Romans but forgotten for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. During the cold winters of the Champagne region, temperatures would drop so low that the fermentation process was prematurely halted, leaving behind some residual sugar and dormant yeast. When the wine was shipped to, and bottled in England, the fermentation process would restart as the weather warmed and the cork-stoppered wine would begin to build pressure from carbon dioxide. Thus, when the wine was opened, it would be bubbly.

In 1662, the English scientist Christopher Merret presented a paper detailing how the presence of sugar in wine led to it eventually sparkling and, that by adding sugar to a wine before bottling it, nearly any wine could be made to sparkle. This is one of the first known accounts of understanding the process of sparkling wine and even suggests that British merchants were producing "sparkling Champagne" almost 30 years before Dom Pérignon and the French Champenois were deliberately making it.

Christopher Merret, a Champagne cellar worker, complete with mask and Dom Pérignon "inventing" Champagne.

Semi-sparkling wine

Fully sparkling wines, such as Champagne, are generally sold with 5 to 6 atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. This is nearly twice the pressure found in an car tire. European Union regulations define a sparkling wine as any wine with an excess of 3 atmospheres of pressure. These include German Sekt, Spanish Espumoso and Cava, Italian Prosecco and Spumante as well as French Crémant or Mousseux wines. Semi-sparkling wines are defined as those with between 1 and 2.5 atmospheres of pressures and include German spritzig, Italian frizzante and French pétillant wines. The amount of pressure in the wine is determined by the amount of sugar added at the beginning of the secondary fermentation stage, with more sugar producing an increased amount of carbon dioxide gas and thus more bubbles.

Red sparkling wine

While the majority of sparkling wines are white or rosé, Australia, Italy and Moldova each have a sizable production of red sparkling wines. Of these, Italy has the longest tradition, particularly along the Apennine side of the Po Valley. Notable wines including Brachetto and Lambrusco, also very well known and with rich tradition are Gutturnio, Bonarda and sparkling Barbera. In Australia, red sparkling wines are often made from the Shiraz grape.

Riedel Sommeliers Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (4745072148617)
Riedel Sommeliers Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (4745072148617)
Riedel Sommeliers Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware

Riedel Sommeliers Champagne Wine Glass (Single)

£95.00
View Details
Riedel Sommeliers Vintage Champagne Glasses (Pair) -  (4744822718601)
Riedel Sommeliers Vintage Champagne Glasses (Pair) -  (4744822718601)

Riedel Sommeliers Vintage Champagne Glasses (Pair)

£125.00
View Details

Bubbles (a nerd's guide)

An initial burst of effervescence occurs when the sparkling wine contacts a dry glass on pouring. These bubbles form on imperfections in the glass that facilitate nucleation (this is why all Riedel Champagne glasses have a small, etched dot, at the bottom of the bowl. A "deliberate imperfection"). Nucleations are needed to stimulate the formation of bubbles, because carbon dioxide has to first diffuse from the wine solution before it can rise out of the glass and into the air. A poured glass of sparkling wine will lose its bubbliness and carbon dioxide gas much more quickly than an open bottle alone would. The frothiness or "mousse" of the wine, along with the average size and consistency of the bubbles, can vary depending on the quality of the wine and the type (and cleanliness) of glass used.

The average bottle of Champagne contains enough carbon dioxide to, potentially, produce 49 million bubbles. The bubbles initially form at 20 micrometers in diameter and expand as they gain buoyancy and rise to the surface. When they reach the surface they are approximately 1 millimeter in size. It is speculated that the bubbles in sparkling wine may speed up alcohol intoxication by helping the alcohol to reach the bloodstream faster. A study conducted at the University of Surrey gave subjects equal amounts of flat and sparkling Champagne which contained the same levels of alcohol. After 5 minutes following consumption, the group that had the sparkling wine had 54 milligrams of alcohol in their blood while the group that had the same sparkling wine, only flat, had 39 milligrams.

Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)
Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)
Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)
Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)
Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)
Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair) - Stemware (4744818131081)

Riedel Performance Champagne Glass (Pair)

£45.00
View Details
Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (5269717713058)
Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (5269717713058)
Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (5269717713058)
Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (5269717713058)
Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single) - Stemware (5269717713058)

Riedel Winewings Champagne Wine Glass (Single)

£29.00
£22.95
View Details

Champagne

Champagne is produced at the far extreme of viticultural possibilities, where the grape struggles to ripen in a long drawn out growing season. A cool climate limits the varieties of grape, and the types of wine that can be made, but it is in this region that sparkling wine has found its pinnacle. The limestone–chalk soil produces grapes that have a certain balance of acidity and richness that is difficult to replicate in other parts of the world. The Champenois vigorously defend use of the term "Champagne" to relate the specific wine produced in their region. This includes objection to the term "Champagne style" to refer to sparkling wines produced elsewhere. Since 1985, use of the term "methode champenoise" has been banned in all wines produced or sold in the European Union.

Blending is the hallmark of Champagne wine, with most Champagnes being the assembled product of several vineyards and vintages. In Champagne there are over 19,000 vineyards, only 5,000 of which are owned by Champagne producers. The rest sell their grapes to the various Champagne houses, negociants and co-operatives. The grapes, most commonly Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier (one white and two red grapes) are used to make several base wines that are assembled together to make Champagne. Each grape adds its own unique contribution to the result. Chardonnay is prized for its finesse and aging ability. Pinot noir adds body and fruit while Pinot meunier contributes substantially to the aroma, adding fruit and floral notes.

The majority of Champagnes produced are non-vintage (or rather, multi-vintage) blends. Vintage Champagne, often a house's most prestigious and expensive wine, is, obviously, produced, but only in years when the producers feel that the grapes have the complexity and richness to warrant it.

Riedel Vinum Chardonnay / Viognier Glasses (Set of 6) -  (4744834187401)
Riedel Vinum Chardonnay / Viognier Glasses (Set of 6) -  (4744834187401)
Riedel Vinum Chardonnay / Viognier Glasses (Set of 6) -  (4744834187401)
Riedel Vinum Chardonnay / Viognier Glasses (Set of 6) -  (4744834187401)

Riedel Vinum Chardonnay / Viognier Glasses (Set of 6)

£135.00
£89.00
View Details
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744828354697)
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744828354697)

Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair)

£55.00
£43.95
View Details

Cava

Cava is the name of a type of Spanish (mostly in Catalonia but also in other regions such as Valencia, La Rioja, Aragon, Extremadura) white or pink sparkling wine produced mainly in the Penedès region in Catalonia, 40 km to the south west of Barcelona, with the méthode champenoise, but with different grape varieties.

Cava is a Greek term that was used to refer to a "high end" table wine or wine cellar, and comes from the Latin word for cave . Caves were used in the early days of Cava production for the preservation or aging of wine. Today Cavas have become integrated with Catalan and also Spanish family traditions and it is often consumed at any kind of celebrations (baptism, marriages, banquets, dinners and parties, any excuse really!). The sparkling wine of Cava was created in 1872 by Josep Raventós. The vineyards of Penedès were devastated by the phylloxera plague, and the predominantly red vines were being replaced by large numbers of vines producing white grapes. After seeing the success of the Champagne region, Raventós decided to create the dry sparkling wine that has become the reason for the region's continued success. In the past the wine was referred to as Spanish Champagne (no longer permitted under EU law), or colloquially as champaña in Spanish, or xampany in Catalan.

Despite being a traditional Champagne grape, Chardonnay was not used in the production of Cava until the 1980s.

Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6) - Stemware (5350806323362)
Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6) - Stemware (5350806323362)
Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6) - Stemware (5350806323362)
Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6) - Stemware (5350806323362)
Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6) - Stemware (5350806323362)

Riedel Vinum Champagne Wine Glass Set (Set of 6)

£135.00
£89.00
View Details
Riedel Vinum Prosecco Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744837103753)
Riedel Vinum Prosecco Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744837103753)
Riedel Vinum Prosecco Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744837103753)

Riedel Vinum Prosecco Glasses (Pair)

£45.00
£38.95
View Details

English sparkling wine

Commercial production of bottle fermented sparkling wines from grapes grown in England started in the 1960's, although there has been a longer history of sparkling wines made in the UK from imported grapes. In the 1980's, some English winemakers started to grow the grape varieties as used in Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier – and in the ensuing decades the availability of English sparkling wines made from these varieties increased. Today, there are over 100 vineyards in England producing sparkling wines with Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Chapel Down being some of the largest.

In 2010, Chardonnay and Pinot noir were the two most commonly planted grape varieties in English vineyards. Along with Pinot Meunier, the three varieties combined accounted for around 40% of vines planted, which appears to reflect a significant growth in interest in English sparkling wines. Other varietals used are Auxerrois, Seyval blanc, Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, and Bacchus.

Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744828354697)
Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair) - Stemware (4744828354697)

Riedel Veritas Champagne Glasses (Pair)

£55.00
£43.95
View Details
Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Prosecco Glasses (Set of 8) -  (4744975581321)
Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Prosecco Glasses (Set of 8) -  (4744975581321)

Riedel Vinum Cuvée Prestige Prosecco Glasses (Set of 8)

£196.00
£135.00
View Details

Prosecco

Prosecco's price and the fact that it is so easy to sip have seen it soar in popularity in recent years, eclipsing the sales of all other sparkling wines here in the UK. For many people it’s the first sparkling wine they ever try and it’s a great introduction to bubbles.

The Prosecco region is in the north east corner of Italy, approximately 30 miles from Venice and is made up of nine provinces which lie in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. This region is very picturesque with rolling hills covered in vines, sometimes with little churches sitting at the top. The best grape growing area lies between two towns Valdobbiadene and Conegliano.

Prosecco is made from the Glera grape. It’s a white grape that originated in Slovenia, and is a rather neutral grape variety, which means the flavours it produces are quite light. Grapes are harvested in September and the juice is made into a still wine by adding yeast and sugar. The still wine is then put into large stainless steel tanks and more sugar and yeast is added.

The wine ferments again, bubbles are produced as a reaction and there’s nowhere for them to escape to so they dissolves into the wine. The prosecco is then bottled and is sold to drink straightaway. Similar to Champagne, in order for a bottle of sparkling wine to say ‘prosecco’ on the label it must be made in a specific area; one of the nine provinces Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia.

What is the best prosecco?

Prosecco comes in two main quality levels DOC and DOCG, which is a higher level and a bit more expensive. DOCG proseccos have grapes which come from a smaller growing area in the Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. If you want to try really specialised prosecco look for "Rive" on the label.

The whole phrase will be "prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore Rive DOCG". These come from very specific areas or vineyards near Conegliano and Valdobbiadene and only 43 communes can put this on the label. For the ultimate prosecco, in terms of quality and rarity, look out for Superiore di Cartizze. This is a tiny area of 265 acres just outside Valdobbiadene considered to be one of the best areas for prosecco in the world.

So, there you have it. From Ancient Greece to Yates' Wine Lodge (do they still exist?) sparkling wine in all it's glory. As with all wines, don't be afraid to experiment, try things you've never tried before (German Sekt and Slovenian Teran are both worth a go) and if you're not sure, have a chat with the guys in your local wine merchants, they may come up with some hidden gems that I haven't even mentioned.

Read more from our blog

Fascinating Facts About Wine

Read more

Website Performance Upgrade

Read more

Guide to Picking the Perfect Outdoor Wine

Read more

Leave a comment