Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from heart bypass surgery we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is another from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Thanks Tom!
Everyone loves bubbles, right? So this will be a fun blog. Today I’m writing a general overview of sparkling wine, the various types and areas of production.
Sparkling wine is often associated with celebration and rightly so, but it is certainly not necessary to wait for a special occasion to drink some. While the most famous of them all, Champagne, tends to cost more than most of us might spend on everyday wine, there are many others that are more affordable and are almost as delicious (for me, there is nothing quite like Champagne). Sparkling wines are probably the most versatile wines to pair with food and among the most pleasant to drink without food.
Sparkling wines are made nearly everywhere that “still wines” (wines that are absent of any carbon dioxide) are made. Sparkling wines are made in a variety of styles from many different grape varieties in both white and rosé. Like anything to do with wine, the subject can be discussed for days, so here I will focus on the prominent wine types from the major countries that produce them.
It is thought that the first sparkling wine was made in southern France at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531. The bubbles were achieved by bottling the wine before the fermentation ended (carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation). This wine was and still is called Blanquette de Limoux (blanquette, meaning “white one” and Limoux, the town near the monastery).
A 17th century British scientist came up with the idea of adding sugar to a finished wine to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle and this has come to be known as the Méthode Champenoise or “Champagne Method,” used today by law in Champagne and several other areas of the world, and also by choice in many cases where it is not mandated by law. In areas other than Champagne the method is called Méthode Traditionnelle/Método Tradicional, etc., depending on the country’s language.
Another, the Charmat Method, has the second fermentation made in a sealed metal tank. Italian Prosecco is made in this way as are other sparkling wines around the world.
Now let’s look at the diverse countries producing their different regional styles of delicious sparklers.
Because this is where bubbly wine began, we must start with France. France also produces a far greater variety of these wines in more varied regions than anywhere else.
Champagne can and should be its own blog subject, and maybe it will be if Carl grows too fond of the life of leisure! So I will be brief on it to leave room for the rest of France and the rest of the world.
Champagne is located in the northeastern part of the country. It is one of the northernmost wine producing regions of the world and as such, struggles with cold temperatures more than other wine regions. But this is exactly what leads to the bracing acidity, one of the things that we love most about Champagne.
Most Champagne wines, as with other sparkling wines from around the world, are not labeled with a vintage date. They are blended with wines from multiple vintages, first to achieve a consistent profile from year to year and second, to increase the quality when using wine from a poor harvest. Of course there are many vintage-dated Champagnes, but only in the case of an exceptional vintage and in this case all the wine must be from wine of that vintage. This happens on average three or four times in a decade. It is the decision of the producer to “declare” a vintage in a given year rather than be mandated by regulating authorities.
The only grapes used in Champagne production are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted of the three. Most Champagne wines are a blend of all three but you have probably seen some called “Blanc de Blancs,” which are made of 100% Chardonnay, and “Blanc de Noirs,” which are made entirely from Pinot Noir or a combination of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Most Champagne wines are produced by large houses that source grapes from farmers who do not make wine. But these days there are more and more of what is known as Récoltant Manipulant or Grower/Producer Champagne that is made by the grower of the grapes, what we commonly term an “estate wine.” These tend to be more distinctive and varied as these smaller producers want to stand apart from the larger producers and their more uniform flavor profiles. They have a special status in the region and can be identified with the letters RM on the label or the words Récoltant Manipulant written in full.
Sparkling wine is produced everywhere in France that still wine is produced although the Rhone Valley has only two small appellations where sparkling wine is made. The term for these wines is “Crémant” (creamy). This term was created in the 1970s to denote a quality sparkling wine from regions other than Champagne, which has a legal protection of the name.
The principal Crémant wines are:
- Crémant de Loire, from the Loire Valley in the northwest, uses mainly Chenin Blanc but many other varieties of the region are used as well. Crémant de Loire is made in a range of styles, from very dry to quite sweet.
- Crémant d’Alsace (eastern France along the Vosges mountains and Rhine river bordering Germany) are made mainly from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois Blanc. These are generally dry and mineral driven with stone fruit characteristics. Crémant d’Alsace rosé wines must be made from only Pinot Noir and tend to be fruitier.
- Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) wines are made mainly from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, by far the most planted varieties in Burgundy, but can also contain Aligoté, Gamay and a couple of other very obscure varieties. In my limited experience with them they tend to be fruity and with less acid than those from Alsace, Loire and of course, Champagne.
- Crémant de Jura (Jura lies east of Burgundy near the border with Switzerland) has sparkling whites made from Chardonnay and Savagnin, and rosés made from Pinot Noir and Poulsard. The cool climate here yields crisp, acidic wines.
- As mentioned, the Rhone Valley has just two small areas making sparkling wine: Saint-Péray in the north and in the area of the town of Die in the southern Rhone. Saint-Péray wines are made from Marsanne and Rousanne, which along with Viogneir are the principal still white wine grapes in the area. Cremant de Die wines are made from Clairette, Aligoté and Muscat.
- There is an appellation in the southwestern Languedoc-Roussillon region called Crémant de Limoux. Like the Blanquette de Limoux mentioned earlier, it takes its name from the town of Limoux near the Pyrénées mountains. Both appellations exist in the same area with the difference being that the Blanquette uses mostly the regional indigenous grape Mauzac, while the Crémant uses more Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc.
- There is a winery called Saint-Hilaire carrying on the 500+ year tradition making a delicious Blanquette de Limoux (again, where it all started) that can be found for $10 to $12 retail! This is an excellent value and it is available in Indiana.
Italy produces several sparkling wines in a few very different styles. A couple are well known, a third is more under-the-radar but is quickly gaining recognition and deservedly so.
Asti Spumante is a wine that most people have heard of and many new wine drinkers find accessible due to its sweetness, fruitiness and low alcohol levels. “Spumante” is the Italian word for sparkling and Asti is the town in the Piedmont region around which most of the Moscato grapes, from which it is made, are sourced. It is made in the Charmat Method and meant to be drunk soon after release. You will see a still wine called Moscato d’Asti which comes from the same area. This wine often has very light, fizzy bubbles which is residual carbon dioxide from the fermentation process. Wines with this slight effervescence are known as “frizzante.”
The other well-known Italian sparkling wine is Prosseco. Prosecco comes from Veneto, in the northeast part of the country. It is made mainly from the Glera grape but can contain up to 15% of several others, including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio (Gris), Pinot Bianco (Blanc) and Pinot Nero (Noir). Prosecco wines are also made in the Charmat Method and are usually light and fruity without much complexity, but still enjoyable.
One of the most exciting discoveries that I have made in recent years is Franciacorta. This sparkling wine is produced in the north-central region of Lombardy and is probably the closest thing you will taste to Champagne in the world of sparkling wines. Like Champagne, it is made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Bianco is also allowed. It is made in the Méthode Traditionnelle Method and actually has longer aging requirements than Champagne for vintage bottlings. Franciacorta wines are starting to appear on more wine lists so try one when you get a chance!
Cava is the term for sparkling wine in Spain. Most Cava is produced in and around the Penedès area of Catalonia, but other regions also make Cava. Cava is usually made from three grapes indigenous to the northeast part of Spain: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello. Other grapes may be used and these days more producers are using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with other regional varieties. Cava is made in the Método Tradicional Method and is also similar in style to Champagne, albeit with less acidity and chalkiness that are unique to the climate and soil of Champagne.
Many great sparkling wines come from the various wine producing areas of the United States. California probably has the best ones, but Oregon, Washington and perhaps surprisingly, New Mexico, all produce quality bubbly wines. Napa Valley is home to annexes of some of the top Champagne houses: Taittinger (Domaine Carneros in Napa), Moët et Chandon (Domaine Chandon in Yountville) and G. H. Mumm (Mumm Napa in Napa). Just north of Napa Valley, in Anderson Valley, you can also find Champagne house Louis Roederer (Roederer Estate in Philo).
Many other countries produce quality sparkling wines including Germany and Austria, where it is called Sekt, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and eastern European countries and more. It’s a wonderful niche of wine making to explore and the possibilities are abundant.
I think it’s time for me to stop, go and pop a cork and toast to Carl’s continuing recovery! Thank you for taking time to read this and enjoy your bubbles.