It’s the holidays, which means it’s time for sparkling wine. But what is sparkling wine? Throughout history, Webster’s defines sparkling wine as “wine that sparkles.” But is that the full story? I’m doubtful.
Thanks to Wayne’s World, many of us know that “Actually, all Champagne is French.” But why is that? It’s because Champagne is a region in France that is renowned for its sparkling wine and if the wine’s not from that region then you can’t call it that name. And because Rob Lowe’s character is a dbag.
Sparkling wine is merely carbonated wine and it is made throughout the world. Carbonation can occur naturally and accidentally and prior to modern winemaking, secondary fermentation in the bottle was considered a flaw–it could cause bottles to explode, destroying many of the neighboring bottles as well.
But wait! Why is that?
It’s because when yeast digests sugar, it produces two byproducts: first, there’s alcohol. which is what makes wine delicious and ugly people attractive; second, there’s carbon dioxide which is a greenhouse gas. When wine ferments in open containers, CO2 is released into the air and by the time it’s bottled the fermentation is over and the gas has dissipated, meaning that the wine is bottled with minimal risk of secondary fermentation–i.e. the yeasts reawakening and munching on residual sugar, producing additional CO2–which would cause slightly spoiled wine in a best case scenario, exploding glass in a worst case scenario. If CO2 builds up in a sealed environment like a wine bottle, however, eventually it will have to come out somewhere–usually shattering the glass at the bottle’s weakest point.
(As an interesting side note, during the beginning stages of deliberate sparkling wine production, cellar workers would wear iron masks to prevent injury from exploding bottles.)
(Another interesting side note is that Champagne was first noted for its sparkling wines because, being one of the coldest wine making regions of France, it would get so cold in the cellars that fermentation would temporarily cease in the winter, leaving dormant yeast and residual sugar. Often this wine would be shipped in barrels to England and bottled there, where the sturdier English coal-fired glass bottles and cork stoppers more reliably contained the effervescence once the yeasts reawakened and got to carbonatin’.)
So yes, Champagne is sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France and it tends to be the most expensive of all sparkling wines. Sparkling wines are made throughout France and in other regions are referred to as “Cremant.” For a long time, many sparkling wines around the world were referred to as “Champagne” or some variant–for instance, “champana” in Spain–but with the rise of EU regulations, only wines made in Champagne can be called such. The USA is not part of the EU, however, which is why there are a few dirt cheap shitty American sparkling wines that still call themselves Champagne, like Korbel and Cook’s. But most regions either call it “sparkling wine” or have their own proprietary regional names like “Cava” in Spain, “Sekt” in Germany and “Cap Classique” in South Africa.
Champagne is the most expensive sparkling wine largely because of tradition, marketing and a long time spent as the only major player on the sparkling wine block. But thanks to developments in the wine world over the last 20-odd years, you can find sparkling wine that greatly exceeds some Champagnes in quality for a fraction of the price, particularly Cavas from Spain. That being said, Champagne is delicious and is among my very favorite wines of the world.
What makes Champagne special is that its carbonation is produced through the “methode champenoise” or “methode traditionelle.” The wines are carbonated by undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, allowing the yeasts to digest additional sugar to produce the carbonation. Natural carbonation produces bubbles that are finer and more delicate and the additional time spent with yeasts in the bottle (“on the lees”) adds richness to the wine. It’s also time consuming and more expensive, requiring many steps and either expensive equipment or a lot of man hours. This is how Champagne, Cremant, Cava and high-end Portuguese and American sparkling wines are made. A more in depth description of the traditional method can be found here.
Another method, called the Charmat Process, involves wine undergoing a secondary fermentation in a large batch in a tank to produce the carbonation and then bottling that wine under pressure so that it retains the natural carbonation. This is a less expensive process, producing a cleaner though some would say less elegant and complex sparkling wine. This is how virtually all Italian sparkling wine and many mid-priced sparklers throughout the world are made.
The final method of producing sparkling wine is via direct CO2 injection, the same way that soft drinks are carbonated. This is the cheapest way to carbonate wine, but produces tight, fizzy bubbles that go away quickly. This is how Korbel is made.
One last bit of information: Most sparkling wines will have an indicator of sweetness borrowed from the French. A hundred years ago we drank our Champagne much sweeter on average, which is why we have sweetness designations running from “Doux” all the way down to “Brut Nature,” despite most sparkling wine currently produced being one of the 2-3 “driest” designations. These designations indicate how much sugar (in grams per liter) is added at the end to finish and balance the wine. Almost all sparkling wine you find will either be “Brut” (fewer than 12g/L) or “Extra Dry” (12-17g/L). “Extra Brut” (fewer than 6g/L) and “Brut Nature” (fewer than 3g/L) can both be labeled merely as “Brut” wines. All Brut wines will generally be perceived as “dry” whereas an Extra Dry will have a small level of perceivable sweetness. Sweeter sparklers are well worth seeking out, as they are excellent food wines, often still having very good acidity and richness. The Demi-Sec sparkling wines from the Vouvray region of France are reasonably easy to find and a great introduction to sweeter sparklers.
I’d encourage you to skip the dirt cheap bubbly this holiday season. You can get some good, serious, traditional method sparklers for only a few bucks more than some CO2 injected crap, just ask your friendly neighborhood wine merchant. If you want big-C French Champagne, look for what are called “grower Champagnes”–Champagnes produced by the growers themselves–which are generally more interesting and less expensive than the big name Champagne houses you’re familiar with, though you’ll still need to spend at least $30. The good news is you can get a Cava, Cremant or Vinho Espumante for $15-$20 that might be just as good. Cheers.