Sparkling: It’s not all Champagne.

Penfolds winemakers Ray Beckwith, Alf Sholz and Max Scubert
Everyone loves bubbly wine. Everyone loves to call it all Champagne too, but it’s not. There is nothing that makes a person feel like more of a wine snob than gently reminding a fellow drinker that Prosecco is not Champagne. It’s like driving a Datsun and telling people you drive a Maserati. They are both cars, yes, but there are not the same thing. So too, with bubbly - all wine with bubbles are different.

So what makes a true Champagne? If you are already well-read on the topic and know where it’s going, skim down about three paragraphs. For the rest of us - the key to categorising Champagne is all according to where the grapes are grown and how the wine is made. Champagne is a region in the North of France that has a very cold climate and particularly chalky soil. Champagne is an appellation, like Burgundy or Bordeaux. If you do not make your wine in Champagne, you cannot call it Champagne. By French wine law, Champagne is not only regional, it is “sparkling” wine, so it must have bubbles in it. Still wine is also made in the Champagne region, but this is called Coteaux Champenois and visibly does not have bubbles.

Champagne follows a strict method of production called Methode Champenois. This, by way of the simplest description, is as follows: grapes are initially fermented to make a still-base wine. This base wine is poured into bottles, and yeast and sugar are added to create a second fermentation in the bottle. It must ferment in this bottle (not a big tank) before being introduced to its final receptacle bottle. This is part of the wine law. There are two fermentations needed to make Champagne. The second fermentation takes place with a crown seal (like a beer bottle top) on the bottle, which allows the CO2 to be trapped, creating  the bubbles that make it sparkle. The wine is left with the yeast cells in the bottle for varying amounts of time, depending on the style and flavour profile required. As a minimum, Champagne must have 15 months on yeast lees for non-vintage wines (wines from a blend of vintages) and 3 years for vintage dated wines, defined as wine from a single year’s harvest.

Once the time on lees (the remains of the yeast) is over, the wines are disgorged. A process in enacted whereby the dead yeast cells are slowly moved to the neck of the bottle, usually called riddling. The neck of the bottle is then frozen. This allows that yeast that was loose to be frozen into a neat little block in the neck of the bottle. Then we disgorge. The sudden removal of the crown seal means the frozen plug of yeast is forced out by the pressure in the bottle. The wine is then topped up (if any is spilled out) and resealed with a cork, and is then ready for sale. It is quite laborious, although most of the big houses these days use robots.

This is the most elaborate method of making sparkling wine and is referred to as the method traditionelle for anyone mimicking the process outside of Champagne. You tend to get sued if you copy anything that happens in Champagne, so winemakers may wish to avoid the gamble.

A much faster way to get bubbles into your wine is used what is sometimes called the “bike pump” method, or Charmat process. It’s loosely like a large Soda Stream machine that injects air into the wine, creating the bubbles. It is fast, cheap, and comparatively simple. This is how the bulk of sparkling wine is made. Most sparkling wine under about $15 will be made in this way. The resulting wine is usually fruity, without the complexity you see in top-end sparkling wine or Champagne.

Most Australian sparkling wine is made using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the same as Champagne. The juice is still white despite using two red grapes, as sparkling wine production doesn’t employ skin contact, thereby avoiding red colour extraction as well as any potentially coarse flavours in the juice.

Prosecco is another widely familiar sparkling wine, made using the Charmat process. The grape used in Prosecco, happily, is called Prosecco. Or at least it was.  Prosecco is based on the style of Prosecco wines in Northern Italy - that is, light, bright and fruity. But just to make things more confusing, the name of the Prosecco grape in Italy is now called Glera.

In Italy, there is another more “serious” sparkling wine that is known as Franciacorta. This is where the great sparkling wine in the model of Champagne is created. The grapes that make Franciacorta are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but instead of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Bianco is used. The production method is essentially the same as Champagne.

In Spain, the sparkling wine of choice is Cava. Cava, unlike Franciacorta and Champagne, which must be produced in a particular region, can be made in a number of different regions in Spain. The heart of Cava production is near Barcelona near the town of Sant Sadurn d’Anoia. The process is that of the Method Traditionelle, but here the grapes may not be ones you’re familiar with - namely, Xarel-o (“Jirello”), Maccabeo ( “Macabow”) and Parellada (“Parayada”). International grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also allowed, along with other local varieties like Trepat. The style of young Cava is light and fruity, not too dissimilar to Prosecco, however the top end Cava can be extremely complex and resemble the wines of Champagne.

Whilst it may seem like a lot to remember, as always, the fun part is being able to taste them all one by one and sense the differences for yourself.

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