How sparkling wine and Champagne get their sparkle

Posted by Mirela Mart

‘I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.’

Madame Bollinger, one of the grande dames of French champagne (1884 – 1977).

As supermarkets devote more shelf space to sparkling wine, consumers are often overwhelmed with choice. Do we go for Champagne? Do we go for Prosecco? Do we go for other sparkling wine?

A couple of years ago, I had no idea about sparkling wine and why it commands such a wide price difference. I knew that Champagne is the French version which is produced in the region with the same name and that nobody else can use this name. I thought the price was related to the brand name and the scarcity. Today, after completing my WSET Diploma and dabbling in the wine trade for a few years, I know better. The method of production - how sparkling wine gets the bubbles - is also an important factor.

Three types of sparkling wine: Prosecco, Cava and Champagne
Three types of sparkling wine: Prosecco, Cava and Champagne at Chateau Vincarta
Wine tasting for beginners CTA

What are the main methods?

A big factor that influences the price of sparkling wine is the method of production. There are five main methods of production, and each one influences the style of the wine in a particular way:

  • Traditional: the most expensive method to produce sparkling wine

  • Transfer: somewhere in the middle

  • Tank method: the cheapest

We’ll discuss these three methods in more detail below. We won’t go into the other two, which are mainly used for high volume, low-cost production but for the record they are:

  • Asti: the first and only fermentation takes place in pressurised tanks, allowing some of the CO2 to be retained

  • Carbonation: like soda pop, the CO2 is injected into the wine. I will not drink this

Where do the bubbles come from?

In short, the bubbles come from the wine’s second fermentation.

Most wine, including the base wine used to make sparkling wine, undergoes a fermentation in which yeast turns grape sugar into alcohol. Good old yeast.

Begin at the beginning: with the base wine

The base wine for sparkling wine can be made from a variety of grapes, white and red. What all the grapes have in common is that they need to have high acidity, as this will give the specific tartness and crispness.

Stainless still tanks for making the base wine
Stainless still tanks for making the base wine (in this case at Mumm, Napa)

Most base wines are a blend of different vintages, grapes or wines. The famous champagne houses have access to a wide variety of base wines, which helps them maintain the house style over the years.

Yay, second fermentation!

The way the winery does the second fermentation affects the price, taste and quality of the wine. It can take place in two ways: in a bottle or in a large stainless steel tank.

Bottle fermentation is the traditional way of producing sparkling wine. This is the Champagne method, also called ‘méthode traditionelle’ or ‘méthode champenoise’. The ‘transfer method’ also starts with bottle fermentation.

The process is elaborate and involves adding to the base wine a solution called ‘liqueur de tirage’ which is made out of yeast, sugar, nutrients and clarifying agents. The bottle is then sealed and placed horizontally at a temperature between 10-12°C to ferment. The pressure in the bottle will reach approximately six atmospheres ( ~3 times more than a normal car tire pressure).

Lees sediment in a sparkling wine bottle
Lees sediment in a sparkling wine bottle

After the fermentation is completed, the yeast dies and leaves sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The dead yeast cells (or ‘lees’ if you want the wine word) start breaking down releasing proteins and chemical components which give the sparkling wine made this way the specific flavours of bread, biscuit, toast, and brioche. This is known as yeast autolysis. Yeast autolysis takes from 12 months to four or five years and even longer in the case of vintage champagne. This means a lot of fixed costs for the winemaker, for storage and stock, hence a higher price.

Riddle me this

When the sparkling wine made this way is ready for the next step, the lees must be removed. The winemaker brings it to the bottle of the neck through successive movements called ‘riddling’, freezes it there and then pops it out like a cork in a process called ‘disgorgement’.

Traditional riddling rack
Traditional riddling rack – each bottle is turned by hand every day. Backbreaking and tiresome work.
Mechanical riddling rack at Mumm, Napa
Mechanical riddling rack at Mumm, Napa. Hand-turned by robots.

What happens next makes the difference between the traditional method and the transfer method. In the traditional method, everything stays in the same bottle. After disgorgement, the bottle is topped up with a mixture of wine and cane sugar solution, called ‘liqueur d’ expédition’. The amount of cane sugar added, called ‘dosage’, will trigger in the end the sweetness of the final product. The final product will still have to age a couple of months, to allow for the liqueur d’ expédition to integrate with the wine.

There are a couple of sparkling wines which are produced only using the traditional method, despite not being mentioned on the label: Champagne and Cava can only be produced using the traditional method.

The transfer method is a shortcut to the traditional method, taking advantage of bottle fermentation, but without the complication and expenses of riddling and disgorgement. The content of the bottles is poured into a big tank, where it is filtered from the sediment and bottled into new bottles. Usually, the bottle says ‘bottle-fermented’.

In the tank method (or ‘Charmant’ method), the second fermentation occurs in pressurised tanks. This is cheaper in terms of production costs and the majority of the sparkling wine in the world is made using this method. The sparkling wines made this way will not show the yeast autolysis flavours, because the contact with the lees will be minimum. This method is ideal for aromatic grapes, like Muscat, Riesling and Glera (the grape used in Prosecco).

What sparkling wine to choose?

Choosing the right bubbly has taste and budget considerations.

  • If you like the fruity version, without too many things going on, you can choose a Prosecco. The price will usually be less than £10/ bottle.
  • An alternative to the Champagne would be the Cava, which would be in the majority of cases less than £20 / bottle.
  • A good Champagne, from one of the traditional houses, would command a price between £30-45/ bottle.
  • A sparkling wine made in the traditional way but outside the Champagne region can be very good indeed; the word ‘Champagne’ on the label is no guarantee of quality. (This year, for example, we had a very good vintage DVX Mumm from Napa Valley, California at around £55-60 and we liked this Riesling Sekt from Reichsrat Von Buhl which is a more modest £18 a bottle in the UK.)
  • Sometimes poor champagne is an expensive substitute for good sparkling wine from another region.

Of course, there are Champagne bottles which are more expensive than that, but we go into the area of vintage or luxury items, and we’ll cover some of the reasons why they are so expensive in a future post.

Wine tasting for beginners CTA