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What Is Sparkling Wine? A Sommelier’s Definitive Guide

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Have you ever found yourself wondering what sparkling wine is, exactly? This catch-all term actually includes more wines than you may think, encompassing a variety of them with a variety of manufacturing methods.

If you’re curious about what makes wine sparkling, how it can be dry or sweet, and the difference between champagne and sparkling wine, our guide will break everything down for you so you can become a veritable sparkling wine connoisseur.

What Is Sparkling Wine?

Sparkling wine is a wine that contains noticeable levels of carbon dioxide, which results in the wine being fizzy. This is why it is referred to as “sparkling.” Simply put, it’s fermented grape juice with alcohol and bubbles.

 

Usually, sparkling wine is either white or rosé, but unique sparkling red wines are also available.

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What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

This is a very common question. While “sparkling wine” is the right categorisation of champagne, the actual word “champagne” is legally reserved for products produced exclusively in the Champagne region of France.

 

So, a bottle of champagne can only be named as such if it’s made in this region. If a wine is made from the same grapes and in the same method as a bottle of champagne but is not made in the Champagne region, it is just referred to as sparkling wine.

 

 


What Is Sparkling Wine Made Of?

As with all wines, sparkling wine is made of grapes that are grown on vines and harvested at the right time, ready to be fermented, blended and stabilised, filtered, and finally bottled. You can learn the full winemaking process from grape to glass for an overview of winemaking.

 

There are, however, different methods for producing sparkling wine, each with different results.

The Different Methods for Making Sparkling Wine

In wine production, the fermentation process of the sugar of the grapes into alcohol will always cause carbon dioxide to be released. This is especially used in sparkling wines.

 

Production will begin with a base wine that goes through a first fermentation. Some methods then include a second fermentation, which means that the carbon dioxide will come under excess pressure and bind to the liquid.

 

Dead yeast cells form deposits called “lees,” which contribute to pleasing aromas and flavours. Lees need to be removed before bottling, the process of which is referred to as “riddling” and “disgorging.”


 

The Traditional Method

The traditional method, or méthode traditionnelle if you’re French, is widely regarded as the finest method for making sparkling wine. It’s the same method which is used in the Champagne region of France – though when it’s done there, it’s referred to as méthode champenoise.

 

In the traditional method, the wine will be fermented once in a barrel and then undergo a  secondary fermentation that happens inside the bottle once yeast, nutrients for the yeast, and sugar have been added. Then, the wine is aged on its lees to develop its aromas, flavours, and textures.

After this, the wine is “riddled.” This is the method of turning the bottles upside-down and lightly shaking them to move the lees to the bottle’s neck. This must be done in small steps, gradually orienting the bottle over time.

 

The inverted bottles are then cooled to freeze the lees into a little block of ice, turned back upright, and opened so that the pressure pushes out the lees. Finally, the missing volume of liquid, caused by the riddling process, is filled in and the wine is bottled and corked. Removing the lees like this is called “disgorging.”

 

This riddling, sometimes done by hand, and disgorgement process usually translates to a higher price for traditional method sparkling wines.


 

The Tank Method

This is also known as the Charmat method and is a swifter method for making sparkling wine. After the first fermentation in a vat, the wine will be transferred to a large, sealed, pressurised tank where a secondary fermentation creates carbon dioxide. The wine is then immediately bottled.

 

Because less time is spent on the lees, sparkling wines made with this method are often lighter and more fruit-forward. The tank method is often associated with Prosecco.


 

The Transfer Method

The transfer method uses some aspects of the traditional and tank methods. The secondary fermentation here happens within the bottle. It’s then stored on the lees and transferred to a filtering tank to remove the lees.

 

With this method, the need for riddling and disgorgement is eliminated but the character created by the lees ageing is still maintained, making it more cost-effective.


 

The Carbonation Method

Here, the wine does not go through a secondary fermentation, and carbon dioxide is instead injected into the wine to achieve the fizz. The wine is then bottled under pressure and voilà. It’s the least expensive style of sparkling wine production.


 

The Different Types of Sparkling Wine: Sweet VS. Dry

You’ll often see sparkling wine categorised as “sweet” or “dry.” Generally, this is a sweetness scale on which there are four main categories:

 

  • Extra Brut: Extra Brut is the driest style of sparkling wine that you can find, with little-to-no sugar content.

 

  • Brut: Brut wines are dry with a hint of sweetness and are the most popular type of sparkling wine. Champagne is the most common example of this category.

 

  • Extra Dry: Extra Dry wines are sweeter but still retain some dryness. The most common example is Prosecco.

 

  • Demi-Sec: A Demi-Sec wine is the sweetest sparkling wine type, ideal for dessert pairings.

 

So, what actually makes a sparkling wine sweet and what makes it dry? It can depend on both the method and the grape type. Most sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grape varieties, while Pinot Meunier is also common for brighter, fruitier wines.

 

 


 

What is a Sweet Sparkling Wine?

A sweet sparkling wine will have higher sugar content. This can be achieved in the dosage portion of winemaking, which is when a final mixture of wine and sugar is added to fill the partially empty bottle.

 

Or, it can be down to the grape variety and its natural sweetness. Moscato grapes, for example, are a particularly sweet-tasting variety.

 


What Is a Dry Sparkling Wine?

A dry sparkling wine is far less sweet. This flavour is referred to as “dry.” The driest flavour is achieved by the yeast being allowed to consume all of the sugar, thus resulting in the lack of sweetness.

 

Can You Get English Sparkling Wine?

When you think of bubbly wine, you may often think of French or Italian sparkling wine. Well, did you know you can get fine English sparkling wine, too?

 

We are award-winning sparkling wine producers, having been cultivating our Sussex vineyards for over 50 years. Using the traditional method, we make beautifully-aged bottles of bubbly that have been endorsed by our peers in the industry and countless customers alike.

 

Explore our range to see the best of British sparkling wine and get it delivered straight to your door.

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