It starts with the bubbles. Those lovely little pearl-like capsules of sheer joy carry the essence of the wine’s innate sparkle. But it’s precisely how those bubbles are made that determines the final style of sparkling wine in the flute. With Italy and France laying the traditional groundwork for sparkling wine production, there is considerable variation depending on the region. In general there are four common courses of creating bubbles in a bottle of wine: Champagne, Charmat, Asti and Transfer methods.
Popular Sparkling Wine Production Methods
As the name infers, the Champagne method (“méthode champenoise” or the “traditional method” used in Champagne) was discovered, implemented and is still maintained in Champagne, France. This particular approach to making sparkling wine consists of taking a still wine (often referred to as a “base wine”) and adding sugar and yeast to initiate a second fermentation in the closed environment of a capped bottle.
As the yeast ingests the sugar, alcohol and carbon dioxide are formed. The carbon dioxide is effectively trapped inside the bottle as bubbles. At this point winemakers determine if the wine should “age on the lees” code for hang out with the dead yeast cells for a bit of time (creates creamy textures and yeasty, fresh-baked dough aromas). The wine is then clarified, whereby the spent yeast cells are collected in the bottle neck, frozen and popped out of the bottle like a yeast-laden ice cube. The wine is topped off with a dash of sugar and wine and corked. Typically, these wines run dry to very dry and carry elegant flavors and textures with smaller-sized bubbles.
Wines to Try Using the Champagne Method: Champagne (of course), Cremant (a term often used to refer to regionally produced French sparkling wine made outside of Champagne), Cava (Spain’s sparkling wine), Franciacorta (from Italy) and many New World sparkling wines from California and Australia.
Because it is used extensively in the production of Italy’s famous prosecco wines, the Charmat method(pronounced “Shar-Mah”) may also be called the prosecco method. In this style of sparkling wine production, the still or base wine is popped into a sealed tank to run through the second fermentation.
Once again, additional yeast and sugar are added to create alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is trapped inside the tank and effectively funneled into bottles under pressure and then corked. There is typically not any sort of extensive time spent on the lees and these wines are bottled young and fairly fresh, carrying a range of sweetness levels from quite dry to off-day and semi-sweet… The bubbles are larger and don’t persist as long as the Champagne method.
Wines to Try Using the Charmat Method: Prosecco, Lambrusco, Brachetto, many less-expensive sparkling and semi-sparkling wines from around the globe.
The Asti Method is similar to the Charmat method, but even faster (and cheaper). Instead of taking a base wine that has already been fermented and running it through a second fermentation to capture the carbon dioxide, the juice or “must” is essentially tossed into a sealed fermentation tank to undergo primary fermentation and the carbon dioxide is trapped the first time around. Typically, fermentation is cut short to retain the sugar levels and subsequent sweetness in the wine. This method creates fast bubbles that lack the elegance and smaller size of traditional Champagne.
Best bets for tasting the Asti Method, would be to find Asti Spumante (“Spumante” literally means sparkling), which is the full throttle sparkling version of Moscato d’Asti.
This is a hybrid method of bubble creation. The base wine undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle and spends some time (typically 6 months) on the lees, or spent yeast, and then the bottles are dumped back into a sealed tank to filter out the lees and add a bit of sugar before being re-bottled and corked.
By Stacy Slinkard, Wine Expert, Wine-About