The month of December has many different occasions to pop something effervescent; and there are many different styles of sparkling wine to choose from. Some, like Champagne and Prosecco are well-known and obvious choices, others, like Crémants and Pet Nats are more obscure but also offer the wine lover unusual and sometimes exotic choices. We will take a close look at the different methods and explain why they are either similar or how they differ from the most famous and prestigious of all sparkling wines, Champagne. At the end of the post there will be links for various bottles of bubbly and two new sampler packs.
The Champagne region in France, with its rolling hills and chalk laden soils, lies roughly 90 miles west and a bit north of Paris. Here, in this storied place, some of the most prestigious sparkling wines in the world are produced. While these wines aren't the first known wines with bubbles, the procedure used to make them, Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle is not only the most labor intensive, but most emulated. There are essentially three grapes used for Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. A few other grapes are allowed but are rarely used. With very few exceptions, only wine made in Champagne France can be called Champagne.
The basic process goes something like this: You start off with the base wine, or the Cuvee, which can be one, two, or all three of the grape varieties allowed. The base wine can be from a single vintage, or reserve wine from past vintages can be blended in to maintain a "house style" which is why NV (non-vintage) Champagnes generally taste the same year after year. To this base wine, which is fully fermented and dry, you add a solution of wine, sugar, and yeast, called the liqueur de tirage; this creates the second fermentation that will occur in the bottle, as opposed to the fermentation process in barrels or tanks for the base wine. The bottles are capped and are aged for a minimum of one and half years for NV and a minimum of 3 years for Vintage. During the time spent aging they are riddled, which is a process, called remuage, of shaking down the lees (sediment) to the neck of the bottle. The bottles end up upside down before the final steps of freezing the sediment in the neck, popping the cap off, which releases a frozen plug of lees, and then adding a dosage of wine and sugar that will determine the wine's sweetness level. For example, a bottle of Champagne that says Dry or Sec on the label with have between 17-32 grams of sugar per liter, while a bottle of Champagne that says Brut will have 6 or less grams of sugar per liter. The less residual sugar in a wine, the drier it will be. After the dosage the bottle is corked and a little metal cage called the muselet is twisted around the cork and the neck of the bottle. Viola! Champagne!
Crémant wines are sparkling wines made in France that aren't made in the Champagne region but are made in an historical region such as Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux, Loire, etc. The one exception outside of France that I am aware of is the Crémant de Luxembourg. Crémants are made using the same methods as Champagne; the difference is generally the grapes. In Burgundy, the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the same as in Champagne, but in Alsace, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Auxerrois are a few of the different grapes that can be used in the blend. In the Loire, Chenin Blanc is the usual suspect. Even though the same method is used in Crémant the wines generally don't age as long as Champagne and a good rule of thumb is 3-5 years.
Cava has become a popular and mostly inexpensive sparkling wine from Catalonia in northeast Spain. Cava uses the same method as Champagne, which they call Método Traditional (Traditional Method) so one of the main differences here are the grapes - Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada - which generally give the wines a more neutral flavor, although the wines can have a ripe apple fruitiness. Another difference is the region/climate. It is warmer here and the grapes get riper and there will generally be lower acid. The Penedès sub-region is a fertile plateau where most Cava grapes are grown and with the exception of the higher altitude wines, Cavas tend towards the riper flavors and have a more gentle mouthfeel than Champagne.
Prosecco, from northeastern Italy in the Veneto region, is the first sparkling wine on this list that is not produced similarly to Champagne. For one thing, Prosecco is generally made from one grape, Glera. There are exceptions and up to 15% of other grapes may be blended into some Proseccos. To make a distinction between the name of the grape and the region in which the wine was made, in 2009 the grape name Prosecco was changed to Glera, an ancient name of the grape. While this may have made it less confusing for some, in my experience it has mostly produced blank stares while explaining. The main difference, however, between Prosecco and Champagne is the production method. Far simpler than Méthode Traditionnelle is the Charmat or "tank" method. To save time, money, and general worry, the second fermentation of the finished wine occurs in large tanks, and are aged for a much shorter time in those tanks before bottling is done. The bubble on Prosecco is generally less fine, and less persistent. The wines tend to be fruitier and much simpler without any toasty brioche aroma. Great for simple sipping and mimosas.
Pétillant Naturel, or Pét-Nat as the cool kids like to say, is the original, oldest, most obscure, and possibly most fun or simple technique of bubble production . Pét-Nat is also called Méthode Ancestrale as it predates sparkling Champagne production and was most likely an accident. If fermenting juice gets too cold it may stop fermenting. So if wine-makers of long ago thought their wines were finished in the fall and bottled too soon, the warmth of spring could reactivate the yeasts and restart the fermentation process. The problem is that the wines were in closed bottles and the CO2 had nowhere to go. Bottles being much thinner and with more flaws than today, they would explode in cellars from the unexpected pressure. To make a Pét-Nat you would ferment your grapes as usual, but before the fermentation was finished you would bottle the wine. The fermentation would continue in bottle and produce CO2 that would remain in the bottle. While Pét-Nats may seem to be simple to make, they take much trial and error, and produce wines that are dissimilar even within batches. Maybe this is why Pét-Nats can be such fun; buying two or more bottles doesn't guarantee you the same experience each time. For me that is a game of chance that just seems like fun!
In December we will be offering a wide selection of sparkling wines, all discounted 10% on bottle one. In addition, there are two Exploration Packs for you to try with a deeper discount.
To browse the current sparkling wine selection click HERE.
The Different Methods of Bubbles in a Bottle: The Sparkling 4-Pack Exploration (The Basics)
The 4-Pack contains one each of the following wines.
Bisson 2019 Prosecco “Bianco delle Venezie” Vino Frizzante Trevigiana (Italy)
100% Glera. Delightfully dry Prosecco. Crisp, vibrant, with lovely white peach and green apple fruit aromas. Made in the Charmat or "tank" method where the wine goes through its second fermentation in a pressurized stainless steel tank before being bottled.
Bohigas NV Cava Brut Reserva (Spain)
A blend of Xarello, Macabeo, and Parellada. Apples and pears with a light toasty-ness. Gentle bubbles make this very easy to get along with, and makes it a perfect accompaniment with food or by itself. Made the same way as Champagne with the second fermentation in bottle.
Lambert, Arnaud NV Crémant de Loire Brézé Blanc (France)
75% Chenin Blanc and 25% Chardonnay. Fresh apples, and quince, with toasty, and bread dough aromas. Fresh and fruit-forward in it's approach, the wine reveals itself to be fleshy, with bubbles of a fine mousse. Nice long finish, this compliments food elegantly and with style. Made with the same method used to make Champagne. Organic.
Lenoble, AR NV Champagne Intense Mag 15 (France)
45% Pinot Meunier, 40 Pinot Noir, and 15% Chardonnay. Bartlett pear, Golden Delicious apple, orange peel, currant, ginger, and bread dough are some of the persistent aromas you may find in this lovely Champagne. Although this is non-vintage a good portion of the blend is from the warm 2015 vintage with about 30% from vin de réserve. This is reflected in the riper fruit notes in this expansive and "Intense" wine.
The Different Methods of Bubbles in a Bottle: The Sparkling 6-Pack Exploration (Go Deeper)
The 6-Pack contains one each of the above 4-Pack, plus one each of the following wines.
Onward 2019 Malvasia Bianca Pétillant-Naturel (Pét-Nat) (USA)
100% Malvasia Bianca. Fruity and flowery notes, with lime, melon, preserved lemon, jasmine, orange blossom and delicate brioche. The wine may have a ripe, almost sweet aroma, but it is a dry wine without sweetness on the finish. Méthode Ancestrale, or Pét-Nat as the cool kids like to say, is the ancient way of leaving bubbles in the bottle by putting a wine still fermenting into the final bottle and capping it. A fun way to spend the day! ;) Most bottles will have a bit of lees (sediment) in them. Perfectly natural.
Karanika 2016 Cuvée de Réserve Brut Nature (Greece)
100% Xinomavro. Red fruits, subtle cherry and pomegranate, with a freshly punched down dough-rising-kind-of-freshness, and a bit of apple blossom. While the fruit aromas seem ripe and almost candied, the finish is bone dry and carries a moderately long finish. Delicate mousse. This Greek Méthode Traditionelle sparkler with less than a gram of residual sugar is simply superb, and more than a bit special. Organic.