What is a sparkling wine?

Sparkling wine is a wine which bubbles when poured into a glass. This fizziness which causes the wine to sparkle is what makes this category of wine unique.

How do you get the wine to sparkle?
This is the result of dissolved carbon di-oxide in the wine – held under pressure in the bottle moving from a meta-stable state once the pressure is removed by uncorking.

Champagne is best known as sparkling wine originates from the Champagne region of France. While some other countries use the word Champagne for domestic sparkling wines, this practice is illegal in Europe as some sparkling wines are not even made using the Champagne Method.

There are 3 ways of making sparkling wines in descending order of quality:

Champagne Method:
The bubbles are produced in bottle

Charmat (or Transfer) Method
The bubbles are produced in a vat or tank

The bubbles are produced by adding CO2

All sparkling wines start as finished wine. Most of the time it is made from white wine. There are also some dark sparkling wines that start with red wine. The pink/rose style of wine can either be made from rose to start with or red wine is added at the end.

The Champagne Method

The wine is transferred into a bottle along with yeast and sugar. The yeast east the sugar and expels alcohol, carbon di-oxide and heat. There is no way of escaping the bottle so it mixes with the wine which makes it sparkle. After time the yeast runs out of sugar and dies off, which leaves you with a cloudy bottle of sparkling wine with dead yeast in it.

In the olden days, and possibly currently, the process of removing the yeast was done slowly by hand. It is now more often done faster and more economically by machine,

Whether it is by hand or machine,they gently co-erce the yeast to the neck of the bottle and for the bottle to end up neck down. When using the hands on method the wine is put into an A frame rack in a horizontal position and a mark is made on the bottom of the bottle with chalk. Over a period of time it is turned a few degrees until it has gone all the way around. It is then tilted slightly vertically and the turning operation is repeated. When using the machine method this process is much faster and doesn’t require any specialized labour.

Once all the yeast has accumulated together, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a cold brine solution which freezes the wine around the yeast and when the bottle is opened the plug of ice and yeast expels from the bottle.

The bottle is now a little emptier and replaced with the same amount of sugar . The amount of sugar is determined by what style of sparkling wine it will be. The different styles are extra dry-Brut, Dry-Sec, Semi-sweet-Demi-sec and Sweet/Doux.

The finished sparkling wine is corked and ready to be sold. Once the yeast is removed sparkling wine does not really improve with age.

Charmat or Transfer Method

The wine is transferred into a vat or tank and sugar and yeast is added to produce bubbles. Once the yeast has done its job the wine is transferred into bottles leaving the yeast behind in the vat or tank.

This is far easier and more cost effective but the result is usually a wine with less toasty flavours which the yeast imparts.

The bubbles tend to be larger than when using the Champagne method and in sparkling wines the bubbles are the main indicator of the quality. This style is very good for fresher, frutier styles of sparkling wines.

Carbonation Method

This is the approach for the least expensive style of sparkling wines.  There is no flavor from yeast and the bubbles are coarse. The only advantage that this style has is economic.