One of our resolutions this year? We're popping open that bottle of bubbly more often. But, we're the first to admit that the world of wine (the sparkling variety especially) can be complicated, especially if French isn’t your forte. Most people are a fan of a frosty flute of bubbly, but when it comes to selecting an entire bottle it can be overwhelming. You want to make an informed choice about what you’re buying; the only trouble is you’re not terribly informed.
Hey, we’ve all been there - ducking glances from fellow shoppers who seem confident in their selections and not the least bit confused. After today you’ll be one of those confident shoppers. Yes, today we’re going to give you the rundown on everything you need to know about selecting a bubbly. Welcome to Sparkling Wine 101.
→ Looking to try some new locally made sparklers? Check out our 5 Stellar Canadian-Made Sparkling Wines here!
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The only bubbly that can claim to be Champagne are sparklers produced in the Champagne region of France. Outside this region sparkling wine is called Espumante (Portugal), Cava (Spain), Cap Classique (South Africa) and Sekt (German, Austria) to name a few.
Grapes destined for sparkling wine are harvested early while the fruit is still highly acidic. Many high-end vineyards still choose to harvest by hand, in order to limit the grapes’ exposure to tannins. Mechanical harvesting runs the risk of splitting the berries, contaminating the entire harvest with the tannins found in the broken skin. Vineyards often have their presses close to the crop, so the grapes can be quickly pressed and separated from their skins. In rose varieties of sparkling wine, some skin exposure is preferred.
VINTAGE OR NON-VINTAGE
The cuvee refers to the blend of grapes found in each wine. A vintage wine boasts a cuvee featuring grapes from a single year. Winemakers do this if they’ve had an exceptionally good growing season. Non-vintage means the wine’s cuvee draws from multiple years. Sometimes cuvees are mixed in a particular way to achieve a specific flavour profile and other times cuvees from more successful harvests are added in order to maintain the consistency of the product in years when the harvest falls below expectations.
Most high-quality sparkling wines (including Champagne) are produced using the Traditional Method. After a typical fermentation process, the wine undergoes a second fermentation. Yeast and sugar (the preferred food of yeast) is added to the wine. The yeast converts the sugar into carbon dioxide, producing bubbles. This creates a large amount of pressure, so producers take great pains to store aspiring sparklers in strong glass bottles.
Once the yeast is added, the wine is left to “age on the lees” before disgorgement. Lees are dead yeast cells, which are extracted from the bottle during the disgorgement process. The amount of time the wine ages is unique to the producer and the wine. In the Champagne region, it is illegal to sell non-vintage bottles of Champagne if they haven’t been aged on the lees for at least fifteen months.
Other methods include the Transfer and Charmat method. These methods take place in large fermentation tanks rather than in the bottle. The Transfer and Charmat methods are cheaper to carry out, but often result in less sophisticated wines, and some claim, coarser bubbles.
THE DRY AND THE SWEET
During the disgorgement process, sugar syrup may be added to the wine. The amount added (dosage) depends on the flavour profile the producer wants to achieve. Labels like Extra Brut and Doux alert consumers to the amount of sugar in each bottle of sparkling wine. Brut Natural or Brut Zero varieties have less than 3 grams of sugar per liter. On the other end of the spectrum, Doux, Sweet or Dulce indicates that each liter of wine contains over 50 grams of sugar. Most of what you’ll find in North America is Brut, which contain less than 12 grams of sugar per liter.
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