Sparkling Wine & other tales..

Believe in the impending Prosecco shortage or not, sparkling wine IS a rather fitting way to celebrate pretty much anything. Be it the pop of the cork, or rush of bubbles as it’s poured, us Brits have held a trusty & well-documented love affair with fizz.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we’re now producing our own, & not just any old plonk.. UK wine won no less than 80 medals at this year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC).

 

Given this unequivocal rise, all things Italian shortage & summer being nearly upon us (a cause for celebrations in its own right) it felt like a timely opportunity to consider the bubble-options available,  & learn a little more..

 

Sparkling wine puzzled people both side of the production fence for many, many years.  The Greeks & Romans saw them as a sure fire sign of spirits (good AND bad) in their favourite tipple; the more pragmatic cited phases of the moon; those brave enough to work in the cellars sought cast-iron facial protection.  It should therefore come as no surprise that Dom Perignon was initially tasked with removing bubbles by his monastic superiors at Abbey Hautvilliers. Or indeed, that CO2 is a naturally occurring phenoma.

 

It came down to the Brits, however, to finally understand both the origin & virtue of bubbles: a British scientist named Christopher Merret wrote a paper detailing sugar’s propensity to turn wine into something altogether more effervescent.  The Brits also had the manufacturing advantage to bottle the stuff: with sturdier glass & the use of corks, they had an evident upper-hand over their iron-clad counterparts the other side of the channel.  So much so, champagne was shipped over the aftorementioned in barrel for bottling.

 

Even though CO2 is natural in wine, there are (of course) many different ways of making it.  From the traditional ‘Méthode Champenoise’ (only allowed to be called so in Champagne; traditional method elsewhere!) where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle; to the Italian ‘Metodo Martinetti’ (latterly adapted by Frenchman Eugène Charmant & now named after him) where it all occurs in tanks & then bottled under pressure; To hybrid of the two,  the ‘Transfer Method’ where the secondary fermented liquid is transferred back into vats for blending & ageing; To the damn-right lazy injection of CO2 via a carbonator!

 

Let us first consider the most famous of all sparkling wines, the ‘Grand Seigneur’ if you will.. Champagne has long provided us with palate pleasure.  From Napoleon to Churchill, Byron to Balzac; greats both side of the channel offer quotes to pique even the most skeptical amongst us’ interest.  Churchill notoriously loved the stuff so much, Pol Roger have an entire cuvée named after him.  But what is the ‘Champenois’ secret.. & why do they still enjoy the global acclaim they do?

 

Successfully creating sparkling wine is a labour of love (carbonator notwithstanding).  In Champagne grapes are harvested early for that all-important acidity; they are then pressed almost immediately (unless it’s a rose) to undergo their first fermentation in a regular fashion with the CO2 being allowed to escape.  The resulting liquid (which isn’t very drinkable) is then blended to form its cuvée – a blend of different wines from different growers & often different vintages (for Non-Vintage champagne at least!).  This is a crucial stage in a Champagne Maison’s quest for their house ‘style’. And perfection, of course.

 

The cuvée is then bottled with additional sugar & yeast which help precipitate ferment no.2.  The bottle is then left ‘sur lie', or 'on the lees', for a mimimum of 18 months (in the case of Non-Vintage) to 8 years for Vintage (with the minimum being 3) for the yeast to work its magic & form deposits.  The bottles are then ‘riddled’ – placed pointing down on a rack at 45% angle & systematically turned, shaken & lowered until all the lees are at the bottle neck.  The crown cap is then removed to extract the deposits, aiming for a minimal amount of liquid loss. (Today this is done by freezing the neck).  The remaining liquid is then topped up with a ‘liqueur d’expédition’, a mix of the original cuvée, touch of sugar & some sulphur dioxide for preservation’s sake.  NOW you begin to see why the Champenois guard their heart-strings with such diligence..

Champagne tends to be made out of a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier; all of which thrive in its cool climate & chalky-limestone soil.  Vintage champagne (from 1 maison, 1 year) only makes an appearance if the growers deem the particular crop worth it: many of the grapes are sold to négociants & other houses.

 

However, the king the bubbles only makes up for less than 8% of all sparkling wines. And is rightly protected by the French AOC system, despite its name being bandied about wily-nily by consumers & producers alike.  So what are the other pretenders to the throne?  And are they really pretenders or has the sparkling-road been sufficiently paved that there is ample room for many different types of bubbled fare.  Whilst Champagne is the indisputable trail-blazer (with a little help from the British), the latter is most definitely true.  Let us first consider Europe, in all her sharing & caring glory.

 

The most obvious place to start is the rest of France; Champagne can only be from Champagne, but the are some other regions that make particularly delicious sparklers too.  These are generally called ‘Crémants’ due to their lower levels of  CO2 & therefore creamier texture.  It is made by the traditional method & is strictly limited to 8 different appellations: Alsace, Bordeaux, Die, Jura, Bourgogne, Limoux, Loire & Savoie.  The AOC also impose some fairly arduous guidelines as to its production too: grapes must be hand-picked & from a specific selection of grapes.   Other sparkling wines are similarly appellation-specific but are not allowed to call themselves crémants, & invariably don’t follow the ‘traditional’ method of production.  Think Mousseux, Blanquette, or even just plain AOC.

 

Moving across the border the Spanish were playing with bubbles around the same time as the French.   In the late 19th century many vines in the Penèdes region of Catalonia were wiped out by phylloxera.  A Spaniard named Josep Raventos decided to try to turn bad fortune into good by replanting more white grape & experimenting.  The resulting ‘Spanish Champagne’ is what we now know & love as Cava & comes in four different guises from dry (seco) to sweet (dulce).  Grapes are mainly local, aside from Chardonnay which was only introduced to the blend in the 80s.

 

Nestled in neighbours Portugal unsuprisingly produce their own fare too: ‘Espumante’ is produced all over the country, from the cool & wet Vinho Verde in the North to the hot & dry Alentejo of the South.  With little regulation there is, of course, great variance in quality: Portuguese protective bodies operate on a regional rather than national basis.  The BEST, however,  is found in DOC Barrida, which is just below Vinho Verde.  Worth looking out for!

 

Hop over the Med, if you will, to fellow Romantics the Italians.  Similarly they produce fizz all over, regardless of climate & soils.  More typically Italian is the amount of different names bandied about: from Prosecco to Asti to Franciacorta: Lumbrusco to Oltrepo Pavese to Trento DOC.  The range of style varies dramatically too, from the very dry Prosecco to the sweet & low alcohol Moscato d’Asti.  Most are made with the Charmant (so returned to tanks to blend & age) with the exception of Franciacorta & Trento DOC, both of which follow the traditional method, the former most strictly with Vintage & non-Vintage varietals, 30 & 15 month aging apiece.

The German term for sparkling wine is Sekt: ex-Veuve Cliquot employee, Georg Christian Kessler, brought it over in the early 19th Century.  Generally produced from a blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc & Pinot Noir grapes, the majority of Sekt follows the Charmant method, much like nearly neighbouring Italy.  What varies however, is where they source their raw materials from: around 90% of sekt is made from grapes harvested in Italy, France or Spain.  It also appears that was enough of a journey for the grapes, as sekt is barely exported.  The Austrians produce it too, only with local grapes Welchriesling, Gruner-Veltlinger & Blaufrankisch for rose.  Both countries opt for village & producer identification, rather than adhering to a uniform style or brand.

 

Hungary was actually one of the earlier European fans of fizz, Pezgo was first produced in 1835 & was a wholeheartedly local affair.  Given the grapes used, this means it can be quite sweet, although the introduction of Chardonny, & Pinot Noir, there are now much drier varietals on the market.  Their climate & soil is pretty much spot on too.   Moving more Baltic, there’s a whole host of local fare from the Soviet Union, most countries from Armenia to Belarus, have a pop.  The only ones that currently hit foreign markets are the Russians in Europe & the Moldovans in the US.  Quite the sparkle of adventure.

 

Last but certainly not least of the Europeans comes the UK!  With conditions that are increasingly akin to those of Champagne & rather a healthy appetite for the stuff, us Brits produce reassuringly good, not to mention Award Winning, fizz.  And in the name of supporting local produce & lowering carbon footprints, we shouldn't need any further encouragement to drink it.  Made following the traditional method, using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier (like Champagne) grapes, brands like Nyetimber, Ridgeview & Chapel Down are leading the way, regularly usurping more established opponents with professionals & consumers alike.  The only thing it’s missing is a name.   Whilst English Sparkling Wine does do what it says on the tin, it doesn’t feel as defined or as tongue-roll worthy as most European counterparts.  Or maybe that’s our crowning point of difference!?

 

The New World naturally has a fare few options too: from the rather sweet (& not regulated) bubbles in the US, to a local Sparkling Shiraz in Australia.  Our compatriots down-under are, however, worth talking about in a bit more depth:  French Champagne houses have invested out there, & for good reason.  The white is made from a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier blend in the traditional method – given how quickly things have moved forward in a relativelt short space of time, they might well be one to watch.  Span the Oceans across to South Africa, Cap Classique is probably the most refined New World option.  Again, following the traditional method, growers formed their own organization to protect standard & those in the know are enjoying it’s slightly more under the radar price-tag.

 

With SO many fancy fizzes on the market, we can now merrily toast away to our heart's abandon.  Even if choice can feel a little threatening for those who rather the risk the glass falling flat, it's reassuring to know cork-popping is well & truly a global pastime.  And perhaps the Italian drought need not evoke panic after all: the world does feel decidedly sparkly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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