Learning how sparkling wine is made helps you to make the best decision about which wine is best for you; different production methods yield different results, affecting quality, style, and price point.
All sparkling wine undergoes a production process to add carbonation that gives the wine its fizz. The carbonation level will differ depending on the method. Things can get very technically complex at this stage, so as a general rule, the higher the pressure level, the finer the bubbles produced. Because of the pressure in sparkling wines, their bottles are made of thicker glass resistant to smashing – as happened in the days of sparkling wine discovery.
Learn all about the different methods of making sparkling wine and the styles they produce in this full guide.
The Basics of How Sparkling Wine Is Made
All wine starts with the grape. Carefully cultivated grapes grow in vineyards and are harvested at just the right moment. They are then pressed and sugar, yeast, and nutrients for the yeast are added to the juice mixture, which is referred to as the base blend. Winemakers will choose certain strains of yeast in order to get the desired flavours.
After this comes the important fermentation process, which is where yeast converts the sugars in the juice to alcohol. The yeast cells produce deposits which are called “lees” which contribute to flavour and aroma development. Wines will be aged on these lees before they are filtered out before bottling.
When fermentation is finished, different juice mixtures will be blended into the base wine depending on the desired characteristics of the finished product. A bottle of sparkling wine is rarely made of just one grape variety, but rather a mixture of at least two or three. When sparkling wine is made of just one variety of grape, it’s referred to as a “Blanc de Blancs”.
The Five Major Methods of Sparkling Production
There are many variations in the general process of how sparkling wine is made. These generally fall into five categories:
Used for: Champagne, finer English sparkling wines, Cava
The traditional method is considered the most prestigious due to the quality of the wine it produces. It’s also time-consuming and costly, which translates to a higher price tag on the finished bottles.
The most distinctive part of Traditional Method sparkling wines is that their secondary fermentation happens in the bottle.
- The base wines undergo their first fermentation and are blended together into a cuvée.
- Yeast and sugars are added to the blend and the mixture is bottled so that the important secondary fermentation can start.
- Fermentation occurs over time and the yeast dies, creating the lees deposits which develop the texture and flavour of the wine.
- The wine will be aged on these lees for at least one year so the flavours can really mature and develop.
- The lees are filtered out with a long process called riddling, whereby the bottle is gradually orientated over time so that it is eventually upside down. This allows the lees to fall to the neck of the bottle so their removal is easier.
- The sediment is removed by disgorgement, which is the process of cooling the wine bottles so that the lees freeze in the neck. The crown cap that had been keeping the wine in is briefly removed, causing the built-up pressure to shoot the lees out.
- Before the bottles are corked and wired, the missing volume of liquid created by the disgorging is replaced with a mixture of wine and sugar.
Used for: Traditional Method sparkling wines in non-standard bottles
This method is for sparkling wines made in the Traditional Method for small or large format bottles rather than regular sizes. It eliminates the riddling and disgorgement. The lees are instead removed by the mixture being poured through pressurised filters before bottling.
Used for: Prosecco
The Charmat method is also known as the tank method.
- The base wine undergoes its first fermentation in a stainless steel tank
- It’s then emptied into a pressurised tank along with sugar and yeast and clarifying agents
- The secondary fermentation in this tank is a catalyst for the carbonation with creates the bubbles of the finished product
- The wine is filtered to remove any sediment and then bottled under pressure
This production process means the wine spends less time ageing on the lees and is therefore fruitier and fresher without the mature flavours provided by the dead yeast cells. It also makes it swifter than the traditional method and therefore less expensive.
Used for: Loire, Jura
Also referred to as Pétillant Naturel (shortened to “Pét-nat”), this is the oldest known method for sparkling wine production. It’s inexpensive but very difficult to get right. This method involves stopping the first fermentation before completion by use of icy temperatures, leaving the wine in stasis for a few months. The wine will then be bottled and the fermentation continues until the desired amount of carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle. The bottle is chilled again then riddled and disgorged, but no extra liquid and sugar are added like with the traditional method
Used for: Inexpensive sparklers
The carbonation method is the simplest and most inexpensive method for making sparkling wine. No secondary fermentation occurs here; instead, carbon dioxide is injected into the wine and it’s bottled under pressure.
See Sparkling Wine Production in Motion With a Bolney Wine Tour
At Bolney Wine Estate, we have been using the venerated Traditional Method to make sparkling wines that have won numerous awards. You can see our wine-making mastery in action with one of our vineyard tours and tastings, which includes an exclusive look inside our state-of-the-art winery. You’ll get to discover the journey from vine to wine and get a fully tutored tasting of sparkling wine in our stunning Sussex estate.
Book a tour experience for a day out with a difference.View Tours & Tastings