The Flavour Profiles of Sparkling Wine
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The Flavour Profiles of Sparkling Wine

October 24, 2017

There’s nothing quite like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine and hearing the bubbles fizz their way into a chilled glass. Except, of course, the taste of said sparkling as it meets the palate. In fact, Dom Pérignon supposedly thought the experience was so delightful, he described it as “drinking the stars”.

But with an astronomical number of sparkling options out there to explore, it can be tricky to know which drop will best suit your tastes. So, to help you pick the perfect springtime sparkling, here’s our rundown on their principle flavour profiles.

The Blending Spectrum

The traditional method of making sparkling wine blends pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay. Winemakers use these grapes in different proportions to create a flavour profile that becomes their house style.

The grapes won’t be named on the label, but you may see the terms ‘blanc de noir’ (sparkling made from dark-skinned grapes) and ‘blanc de blancs’ (sparkling made from light-skinned grapes). Here are the holy trinity of grapes used in sparkling wine:

Pinot noir dominant is on the full-bodied end of the scale, meaning they produce rounder and richer flavour profile. Pinot noir grapes are traditionally used in light-bodied reds. However, for the purpose of sparkling wines, the contact between the grape’s juice and skin is limited, in order to make a truly distinctive white wine. Because they are often underpinned by gentle dark fruit flavours, brimming with honeyed notes and finished with a crisp tartness, pinot noir sparkling wines have a certain complexity to them.

Chardonnay dominant is closer to the lighter bodied spectrum of sparkling, creating a fresher and more delicate profile. While younger varieties tend to present more floral aromas, the ageing process can introduce hints of richer, buttery flavours into the mix, resulting in a more a savoury wine. Tangy citrus fruits cut through to provide some welcome, crisp acidity that complements the creamier, toasted flavours.

Not to be forgotten, meunier is a lesser known but essential element of sparkling wine. The dark varietal adds body, richness and floral aromatics to wine. Gradually it’s gaining more recognition for the richness it brings to champagne, it’s rarely sold as a single varietal but has similar aromas to pinot noir (though it is more acidic).

How Sparkling is Made

Those tiny bubbles have to complete a big journey before being bottled. The process of making champagne in particular is an old tradition that has stood the test of time. The wine is fermented, then there is a second fermentation, before it is aged (for sparkling this is from six months to several years).

The bottles are turned a little everyday (this is called ‘riddling’) which used to be done by hand. The bottles are placed neck first in a ‘neck freezer’ which traps the sediment at the top of the bottle. Then a small amount of sugar and reserve wine is added to make up for any wine lost during the process. The key is the second fermentation, which takes place inside the bottle. The bottle fermentation smooths the texture and creates finer bubbles than the tank method.

This method produces the highest quality sparkling and is the most labour intensive and expensive. It’s also known by its French name, Méthode Traditionelle, or its older name, Méthode Champenoise.

The tank method is much less laborious. The main difference is the use of a tank for fermentation instead of the bottle.

Popular Styles of Sparkling

Champagne

A classic for good reason, champagne has gained an illustrious reputation within the world of sparkling wine for its depth, character and flavour. The most popular champagne styles are intensely dry – which translates to less sweet – and favour warm, nutty flavours over their fruiter notes for a creamy finish.

Only grapes grown in one of the 319 villages in the region of Champagne in northern France are able to legally use the name champagne. As such, its exclusivity makes champagne the sparkling wine of choice for those premium celebrations.

In terms of what to look for on the label, remember that ‘vintage’ refers to a harvest from a single year and is often considered to be of a higher-quality than non-vintage wines.

As mentioned, you may see the term ‘blanc de blancs’ on champagne bottle labels, indicating that it is a sparkling wine made from white grapes. We love these lighter and drier wines as the perfect accompaniment to a zesty spring salad.

Prosecco

Italy’s entry into sparkling wine is fresh, clean and lively. Made predominantly from the highly aromatic glera grape – which produces a dry, brut style – prosecco’s sweetness comes from the grape’s characteristic fruit flavours of apple, melon and pear. These are often balanced with a touch of citrus or rounded out with peach for a creamier finish.

You’re also likely to note that prosecco bubbles are light and frothy, leaving a welcome tingle on your tongue.

Cava

A Spanish sparkling wine that tends to be on the dry side. Full of crisp apple flavours, cava is produced in the same way that champagne is made, but with different grapes – the three main grapes being macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo – and is mostly found in in Catalonia, in the northeast by Barcelona.

Cava can be white or a rosé, but it isn't usually sweet. Instead you’ll often find that it has pear and melon notes, with faint floral aromatics. Aside from tasting delicious, cava is also renowned for being great value for money.

Australian Sparkling

Australia is fast establishing itself as a competitor to the old houses from France. Much of Australia’s wine country is too hot to make truly great sparkling – but in looking to the cooler climates, the higher altitudes and more southerly regions, Australia has begun producing some world-class bubbles.

The cooler climates in our high-country areas, including Victoria, Tasmania, and Adelaide Hills in South Australia, are producing some excellent high-quality sparkling. This largely follows Champagne’s lead in blending chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier.

Australian Prosecco

King Valley is the home to a 50km food and wine trail known as ‘Prosecco Road’ – no prizes for guessing their specialty. Prosecco is also made with great success in cooler climate regions like Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley.

Thanks to a wave of Italian immigrants in the 1960s, like Otto Dal Zotto, the King Valley region gradually began to plant classic Italian varieties. In 2000 Dal Zotto planted the first glera grapes and Australian prosecco production began.

Beyond Traditional Sparkling

White wines aren’t the only way to enjoy sparkling!

We’ve noticed that sparkling rosé has recently surged in popularity. With its warm pink blush, you’d be forgiven for assuming sparkling rosé would be the epitome of sweetness. In reality, the opposite is true, with sparkling rosé tending to be at the drier end of the scale. Their fruit notes can vary in intensity, from just a hint of red berries, through to the warmer depths of a rich red wine.

The perfect party drink, sparkling rosés are ideal served as an aperitif. They’re also a lovely complement to delicate hors d’oeuvres made from smoked salmon, sushi or lobster.

Sparkling red is also transcending novelty status. This lesser explored area of sparkling wine is worth investigating as there are lots of gems to discover. It’s easy to see why Australians would like a chilled red – our climate makes a slightly chilled sparkling red a wonderful option during the warmer months. The main varietal has been shiraz but you’ll also find excellent sparkling merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.