The World of Sparkling Wine

Let’s face it, we all love bubbles. Whether they are in a glass, bottle, can; even floating in the air, sparkling wine has fascinated us for many years. There is an undeniable sense of ceremony to both opening and drinking sparkling wine, and yet, as a whole, we understand relatively little as to how it is made. Or indeed about respective cork-poppers around the world.

Champagne – the original sparkling wine

First let us consider the original perpetrator and undeniable ‘Grand Seigneur’ of fizz: Champagne. Having stood the test of time, the ‘Méthode Champenoise’ is protected to be called so just in the region and the particulars of each champagne house are a closely guarded secret. A general overview (for a more in-depth account please see our Guide to Sparkling Wine) of events would be as follows: grapes are harvested early to retain acidity and first fermentation happens in tanks. The resulting ‘cuvée’ is then blended and bottled with additional sugar and yeast for secondary fermentation. This involves being left ‘on the lees’ where the bottles are systematically turned and tilted to as to collect all the yeast deposits in the neck of the bottle. Once these have been removed the bottle is topped up with a special ‘liqueur d’expédition’; a blend of the original cuvée, a small measure of sugar and sulphur dioxide.

Given the variances in each Champagne house style, blend, cuvée, and taste; not to mention the harvest from year to year, you can begin to imagine why sugar levels vary so much from one bottle to another. Whilst we may not tend not to over-analyse exact sugar quantities as consumers, we inevitably gravitate towards styles that suit our own tastes, sweet-toothed or less so! With the growing global interest in the sugar content of what we consume we thought it would be interesting to have a look at the different classifications of champagne (from ‘Brut Nature’ through to ‘Doux’) and their corresponding sugar amounts.

Sparkling Wine and Champagne's Sweetness Levels

Being made from grapes, champagne, or indeed any fizz or wine will, of course, contain residual sugar. The variance in champagne is better defined than with other sparkling wines: the sugar additions, both before secondary fermentation and in the final ‘liqueur d’expédition’ may well be closely guarded Maison secrets, but they, alongside the final grape blend, allow for the 7 different classifications above. Champagne’s penchant for classification is all part of their armed protection, given the rise in sparkling wines from elsewhere and that their 3 chosen grapes are not specific to the area.

In fact, the Champagne blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir is used in both the UK and Australia for their sparkling wines.; they even use the same method to produce it, although outside of Champagne it is called the ‘Traditional Method’ as ‘Champenoise’ is protected. These grapes work particularly well in cooler climates as they retain the all-important acidity at harvest, and whilst the blends and end products may be different, there is no denying the Champagne influence on both UK and Australian sparkling wines. The UK soil is even created by the same fault line, ensuring mix of chalk, clay, and sand: ideal for the grapes in question. What is interesting is Champagne houses recent interest in vineyards in both Hemispheres: both in terms of quality and quantity of sparkling wine globally and how climate change will affect vineyards moving forward.

Champagne vs sparkling wine from other regions

But not all sparkling wines follow the Champagne holy grail when it comes to grape varieties used: in fact most countries now produce their own sparkling wine, be it sweet, dry; delicious or less so. Even within France there are plenty more offerings, ‘Crémant’ being the predominant name used for sparkling wines from other regions. Crémant is limited strictly to 8 appellations and handpicks from a specific selection of grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc.

Given the technicalities and extended processes needed to make wine sparkling, it tends to suits particular grapes more than others, those that can retain acidity but with residual sugar for the fermentations – a fine balance to strike. If you also consider the variance in climate and soils, the difference and restrictions in use of grapes globally, country by country, becomes a logical conclusion.

Sparkling wine grape blends

Over the border to Spain heralds an interesting story – with most vines of the Penedès region wiped out by phylloxera in the late 19th Century, white grapes were introduced to the region as a bit of an experiment. The resulting Cava has stood the test of time with those local grapes, save for the addition of Chardonnay to the blend in the 80s. Portugal too favours local varietals for its sparkler: grown all over the country, Espumante varies region to region thanks to the Portuguese policy of localisation but is predominantly made from a blend of 3 local grapes: Gouveio, Arinto, and Bical.

Keeping within Europe the Italians also favour local grapes although all three pinot grapes (blanc, grigio, and noir respectively) are allowed in the blend. What is interesting is the 85% minimum quota of the Glera grape, which gives Prosecco its distinctive palate and ensures it is seen as a bit of a safe bet alongside the more complex Champagne. It also means it is subject to Glera thriving of a given harvest, hence the recent “Prosecco drought” headlines.

German Sekt is made predominantly from a blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir: it tends to be bottled and named at the local level, so by village and producer rather than anything more controlled. 90% of the grapes used are sourced from fellow Europeans, so Italy, France or Spain: this evidently is enough of a journey for the grapes as the end product is barely exported!

Last but by no means least we look at 2 new world offerings, USA and South Africa respectively. Whilst the USA follows the Champagne blend (with the addition of Pinot Blanc being allowed), production is not regulated and tends to cater for a rather sweeter palate, therefore is not a huge success outside of the US. South Africa on the other hand, regulate their Cap Classique assiduously with growers having formed their own organization, complete with its own trademark, to protect both quality and production. Sparklers stamped with the Cap Classique mark are made from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc traditionally with the inclusion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the up.

Sparkling wine consumption

With all this growth and increasing regulation within the world of Sparkling Wine, the next logical question is surely who is drinking it and how much? We teamed up with The IWSR (International Wine & Spirits Research) who have the world’s largest wine and spirits’ database and who kindly supplied us with global consumption data. First, we consider how much of the country’s Sparkling Wine is consumed in the country itself vs abroad alongside the consumption of Sparkling Wine within that country – how much of it is home fare vs imported bubbles made elsewhere. This provides the 2 pie charts as seen in the infographic below: red donating the domestic figure (percentage and volume respectively) and blue the foreign or abroad figures.

Sparkling wine consumption

Immediately there are some interesting observations to be had: France, Spain, and Italy predominantly drink their own fare and have strong export figures. This tallies with Champagne, Prosecco and Cava being the most widely available and recognized sparkling wine offerings. This almost matches up to the overall market share figures as shown by the colour-coded ring next to our world map, although interestingly both the US and Germany hold a larger chunk than Spain! The Germans certainly drink the most bottles per head a year (at 8 and a quarter bottles): they barely export their Sekt and certainly opt to predominantly drink local too. The Americans share similar export figures and have a more even-handed approach when it comes to what they drink at home. Given the size of the US population, their relatively low bottle count a head is not surprising!

Closer to home, the UK is evidently the smallest market: no export to report on as yet and predominantly drinks import, sitting discreetly within the other category on the Market Share representation. Portugal similarly barely exports and yet drinks predominantly it’s own fare: each area’s Espumante a reassuring staple both in restaurants, bars, and at home.

However, when you consider the UK’s growth, both in volume and value over the last 5 years, a different picture is painted. With volume up 35.4% and value 40.8%, the UK sits high and dry (or indeed less so!) above its European counterparts. All the more so if you consider that this growth is entirely driven by domestic consumption… and with the likes of the US and Asia sniffing around our sparkling fare, we should have plenty more cause for celebration. This becomes all the more interesting when you compare with what’s happening in France: whilst the French evidently dominate the overall market share, but in fact the volume they produce has scarcely (0.2%) moved over the past 5 years. With the value up 1.9%, nearly 10x the rise in volume, it is clear that the price is going up whereas yields are not.

Growing market Australia may be also on the up but still has some way to go until it starts competing with Old World offerings. Australians do drink most of their own fare and their 2 pie charts are fairly evenly matched, meaning their export and import figures are reassuringly proportionate to what they consume at home: definitely one to watch for the future. All the more so with the gap being left by Champagne: smaller yields at increasing cost could lead to their pricing themselves out of the market.  Across the Southern ocean, South Africa may not be big players on the market share front as yet, but they do export as much as they drink. When you consider they consume the least per head out of all the countries detailed, this perhaps feels less significant, but Cap Classique is a bit of a hidden gem – those in the know are stocking up.

With this growing market, both in terms of consumption and production, showing no sign of slowing down, and the increase in offerings from countries far and wide, we can only feel there are exciting times ahead for Sparkling Wine. The UK, Australia & South Africa especially have some big and promising boots to fill. Not to mention local fizzes as yet to be detailed: from South America, Russia, and the Baltics – everyone is at it! With Prosecco allegedly in shortfall this year; Champagne with another reduced (yet spectacular, or so we hear!) harvest, the next 10 years could see some very interesting progression and diversification within the world of sparkling wine. Let’s just hope we have plenty of cause to celebrate!


The Author

Helen Richards

Helen Richards

Hely's love of wine was born from a young age, spending summers exploring the vineyards of France. After studying Modern Languages at Oxford, she worked in publishing and branding before joining the JF Tobias team to help build our blog / written content. She loves wine, writing, yoga and adventure in equal measure and strives to balance all four, although not necessarily all at the same time!