The holiday season always allows me to take pleasure in the epicurean opportunities that present themselves. In particular, I get the excuse to pair and consume what I believe may be one of the sexiest drinks in the world, sparkling wine.
Not all sparkling wine is the same. The processes for making wines “sparkle” vary as do the grapes used for the base (or starting) wines. This creates a wide variance in flavors, textures and colors for the final bubbly. Thus, we could spend a few hundred pages discussing this diverse topic. In the interest of time and my attention span, we will focus on my favorite this time of year, méthode traditionnelle.
This traditional method, called méthode champenoise until the EU banned the phrase in 1994, has a unique process of production. The process begins with a base wine that has high acidity, moderate alcohol and is relatively neutral in character. This base wine is placed in a bottle and the liqueur de triage (wine, sugar and yeast) is added. The bottle is then closed with a temporary seal that looks like a bottle cap and the second fermentation occurs. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide, a by-product of fermentation, has nowhere to escape. The carbon dioxide thus becomes dissolved into the wine, creating the little bubbles we see when we pour it into a glass.
As the yeast performs their job in consuming the sugar and producing ethanol, they perish and fall to the bottom of the bottle. This is where the process of riddling occurs. Over a period of time, decided by the producer in accordance with local laws, the bottles are slowly rotated a quarter turn at a time while ever slightly increasing the angle of the bottle downward. This slowly moves the expired yeast into the neck of the bottle. Eventually, the bottle will be turned on its head with the capped end facing downward, called “sur pointe.”
The bottle neck is submerged into a cold salt water solution freezing the yeast into an icy plug. The bottle is then turned upright, the cap removed and the bottle pressure expels the yeast plug in a process called disgorgement. Since a small amount of wine is lost with the expulsion, the bottle is “topped-off” to the proper level with liqueur d’expedition. This liquid can be sweetened with cane sugar solution and it is ultimately this addition that will determine the final sweetness in the sparkling wine. In other words, up until the addition of the liqueur d’expedition, all traditional method sparkling wine is dry.
Blending can also have a profound impact. The wines can be blended from different vineyards, grape varieties and even from different vintages (harvest years). All these decisions will ultimately impact on the final flavors, mouth-feel and ability to age. An interesting fact is that these types of wines are the only ones allowed to make a rosé by blending white and red base wines. This process is banned for all other quality rosé wine production, but that’s another article.
With all the different types of sparkling wines across the world, it is difficult to describe flavor profiles for them all. For that reason, I will make the suggestion that you learn sparkling wine like you would still wines, through personal experience. Whether you are having a holiday brunch, looking for a dinner appetizer or just want to ring in the new year with bubbles, these traditional method sparkling wines are a real holiday treat.