How sparkling wine and Champagne get their sparkle

Posted by Mirela Mart

With the festive season going on and the New Year approaching, our minds naturally turn to fizz. But sparkling wine isn’t just for New Year’s eve!

‘I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.’
Madame Bollinger, one of the grande dames of French champagne (1884 – 1977).

Supermarkets increase the shelving area devoted to sparkling wine and consumers are often overwhelmed with choice. Do we go for Champagne? Do we go for Prosecco? Do we go for other sparkling wine?

Three types of sparkling wine: Prosecco, Cava and Champagne
Three types of sparkling wine: Prosecco, Cava and Champagne at Chateau Vincarta
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A couple of years ago, I had no idea about sparkling wine and why it commands such a wide difference in price. I knew that Champagne is the French version which is produced in the region with the same name and that nobody else can use this name. I thought the price associated to it is because of the brand name and the scarcity. This is not entirely true, as part of the price is triggered by the method of production, which adds cost.

Since I first wrote this article, we’ve tasted hundreds of sparkling wines for the WSET Diploma and we now sell traditional method sparkling wine on Vincarta. Now, I know a little bit more and I wanted to shed some light on the whole subject based on my experiences so far.

What are the main methods?

A big factor that influences the price of sparkling wine is the method of production. There are five main methods of production, and each one influences the style of the wine in a particular way:

  • Traditional: the most expensive method to produce sparkling wine
  • Transfer: somewhere in the middle
  • Tank method: the cheapest

We’ll discuss these three methods in more detail below. We won’t go into the other two, which are mainly used for high volume, low cost production but for the record they are:

  • Asti: the first and only fermentation takes place in pressurised tanks, allowing some of the CO2 to be retained
  • Carbonation: like soda pop, the CO2 is injected into the wine. I will not drink this

Where do the bubbles come from?

In short, the bubbles come from the wine’s second fermentation.

Most wine, including the base wine used to make sparkling wine, undergoes a fermentation in which yeast turns grape sugar into alcohol. Good old yeast.

Begin at the beginning: with the base wine

The base wine for sparkling wine can be made from a variety of grapes, white and red. What all the grapes have in common is that they need to have a high acidity, as this will give the specific tartness, crispiness.

Stainless still tanks for making the base wine
Stainless still tanks for making the base wine (in this case at Mumm, Napa)

Most base wines are a blend of different vintages, grapes or wines. The famous champagne houses have access to a large varieties of base wines, which helps them maintain the house style over the years.

Yay, second fermentation!

The way the winery does the second fermentation affects the price, taste and quality of the wine. It can take place in two ways: in a bottle or in a large stainless steel tank.

Bottle fermentation is the traditional way of producing sparkling wine. This is the Champagne method, also called ‘méthode traditionelle’ or ‘méthode champenoise’. The ‘transfer method’ also starts with bottle fermentation.

The process is elaborate and involves adding to the base wine a solution called ‘liqueur de tirage’ which is made out of yeast, sugar, nutrients and clarifying agents. The bottle is then sealed and placed horizontally at a temperature between 10-12°C to ferment. The pressure in the bottle will reach approximately six atmospheres ( ~3 times more than a normal car tire pressure).

Lees sediment in a sparkling wine bottle
Lees sediment in a sparkling wine bottle

After the fermentation is completed, the yeast dies and leaves a sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The dead yeast cells (or ‘lees’ if you want the wine word) start breaking down releasing proteins and chemical components which give the sparkling wine made this way the specific flavours of bread, biscuit, toast, brioche. This is known as yeast autolysis. Yeast autolysis takes from 12 months to four or five years and even longer in the case of vintage champagne. This means a lot of fixed costs for the wine maker, for storage and stock, hence a higher price.

Riddle me this

When the sparkling wine made this way is ready for the next step, the lees have to be removed. The wine maker brings it to the bottle of the neck through successive movements called ‘riddling’, freezes it there and then pops it out like a cork in a process called ‘disgorgement’.

Traditional riddling rack
Traditional riddling rack – each bottle is turned by hand every day. Back breaking and tiresome work.
Mechanical riddling rack at Mumm, Napa
Mechanical riddling rack at Mumm, Napa. Hand-turned by robots.

What happens next makes the difference between the traditional method and the transfer method. In the traditional method, everything stays in the same bottle. After disgorgement, the bottle is topped up with a mixture of wine and cane sugar solution, called ‘liqueur d’ expédition’. The amount of cane sugar added, called ‘dosage’, will trigger in the end the sweetness of the final product. The final product will still have to age a period of a couple of months, to allow for the liqueur d’ expédition to integrate with the wine.

There are a couple of sparkling wines which are produced only using the traditional method, despite not being mentioned on the label: Champagne and Cava can only be produced using the traditional method.

The transfer method is a shortcut to the traditional method, taking advantage of the bottle fermentation, but without the complication and expenses of riddling and disgorgement. The content of the bottles is poured in a big tank, where it is filtered from the sediment and bottled into new bottles. Usually, the bottle says ‘bottle-fermented’.

In the tank method (or ‘Charmant’ method), the second fermentation takes place under pressurised tanks. This is cheaper in terms of production costs and the majority of the sparkling wine in the world is made using this method. The sparkling wines made this way will not show the yeast autolysis flavours, because the contact with the lees will be minimum. This method is ideal for grapes which are aromatic, like Muscat, Riesling and Glera (the grape used in Prosecco).

What sparkling wine to choose?

Choosing the right bubbly has taste and budget considerations.

  • If you like the fruity version, without too many things going on, you can chose a Prosecco. The price will be usually less than £10/ bottle.
  • An alternative to the Champagne would be the Cava, which would be in the majority of cases less than £20 / bottle.
  • A good Champagne, from one of the traditional houses would command a price between £30-45/ bottle.
  • A sparkling wine made in the traditional way but outside the Champagne region can be very good indeed; the word ‘Champagne’ on the label is no guarantee of quality. (This year, for example, we had a very good vintage DVX Mumm from Napa Valley, California at around £55-60 and we liked this Riesling Sekt from Reichsrat Von Buhl which is a more modest £18 a bottle in the UK.)
  • Sometimes a poor champagne is an expensive substitute for a good sparkling wine.

Of course, there are Champagne bottles which are more expensive than that, but we go into the area of vintage or luxury items, and we’ll cover some of the reasons why they are so expensive in a future post.

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