Sparkling wine is a wine with significant levels of carbon dioxide in it, making it fizzy. While the phrase commonly refers to champagne, EU countries legally reserve that term for products exclusively produced in the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wine is usually either white or rosé, but there are examples of red sparkling wines such as the Italian Brachetto, Bonarda and Lambrusco, Spanish wine Cava, Australian sparkling Shiraz, and Azerbaijani “Pearl of Azerbaijan” made from Madrasa grapes. The sweetness of sparkling wine can range from very dry brut styles to sweeter doux varieties (French for ‘raw’ and ‘sweet’, respectively).
The sparkling quality of these wines comes from its carbon dioxide content and may be the result of natural fermentation, either in a bottle, as with the traditional method, in a large tank designed to withstand the pressures involved (as in the Charmat process), or as a result of simple carbon dioxide injection in some cheaper sparkling wines.
In EU countries, the word “champagne” is reserved by law only for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. The French terms Mousseux and Crémant refer to sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region, such as Blanquette de Limoux produced in Southern France. Sparkling wines are produced around the world and are often referred to by their local name or region, such as Espumante from Portugal, Cava from Catalonia, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Trento DOC, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico and Asti from Italy (the generic Italian term for sparkling wine being spumante), and Cap Classique from South Africa. Sparkling wines have been produced in Central and Eastern Europe since the early 19th-century. “Champagne” was further popularised in the region, late in the century, when József Törley started production in Hungary using French methods, learned as an apprentice in Reims. Törley has since become one of the largest European producers of sparkling wine. The United States is a significant producer of sparkling wine today, with producers in numerous states. Recently, the production of sparkling wine has re-started in the United Kingdom after a long hiatus.
Effervescence has been observed in wine throughout history and has been noted by Ancient Greek and Roman writers, but the cause of this mysterious appearance of bubbles was not understood. Over time it has been attributed to phases of the moon as well as both good and evil spirits.
The tendency of still wine from the Champagne region to lightly sparkle was noted in the Middle Ages but this was considered a wine fault and was disdained in early Champagne winemaking although it made the pride of other historic sparkling wine production areas like Limoux. Dom Pérignon was originally charged by his superiors at the Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. Later, when deliberate sparkling wine production increased in the early 18th century, cellar workers would still have to wear a heavy iron mask that resembled a baseball catcher’s mask to prevent injury from spontaneously bursting bottles. The disturbance caused by one bottle’s disintegration could cause a chain reaction, with it being routine for cellars to lose 20–90% of their bottles to instability. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the then unknown process of fermentation and carbonic gas caused some critics to call the sparkling creations “The Devil’s Wine”
Fully sparkling wines, such as Champagne, are generally sold with 5 to 6 atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. This is near twice the pressure found in an automobile tire. European Union regulations define a sparkling wine as any wine with an excess of 3 atmospheres in pressure. These include German Sekt, Spanish Espumoso, Italian Spumante, and French Crémant or Mousseux wines. Semi-sparkling wines are defined as those with between 1 and 2.5 atmospheres of pressures and include German spritzing, Italian frizzante, and French pétillant wines. The amount of pressure in the wine is determined by the amount of sugar added during the tirage stage at the beginning of the secondary fermentation with more sugar producing an increased amount of carbon dioxide gas and thus pressure in the wine.
Red sparkling wine
While the majority of sparkling wines are white or rosé, Australia, Italy, and Moldova each have a sizable production of red sparkling wines. Of these, Italy has the longest tradition in red sparkling wine-making, with notable wines including Brachetto and semi-sparkling Lambrusco. In Australia, red sparkling wines are often made from the Shiraz grape. “Pearl of Azerbaijan” is a kind of red sparkling wine made from Madrasa grapes in Azerbaijan.
French sparkling wine
The most well-known example of sparkling wine is that of Champagne from the Champagne wine region of France. On average, Champagne is responsible for about 8% of worldwide sparkling wine production with many other regions emulating the “Champagne style” in both grapes used (generally Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier) and production methods—sometimes referred to as the “Champagne method”. French sparkling wines made according to the Champagne method of fermentation in the bottle, but sometimes use different grape varieties, are known as Cremants and are governed under their own Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) regulations. Another style of sparkling wine found in France is those made according to the method ancestral which skips the process of disgorgement and produces wines with a slight sweetness and still containing the particles of dead yeast matter in the form of lees in the bottle. The regions of Gaillac, Limoux and Clairette de Die are the most well-known producers of Methode ancestral wines.
Champagne is produced at the far extreme of viticultural circumstances, where the grape struggles to ripen in a long drawn out growing season. Cool climate weather limits the varieties of grape, and the types of wine that can be made, but it is in this region that sparkling wine has found its standard-bearer. The limestone–chalk soil produces grapes that have a certain balance of acidity, extract and richness that is difficult to replicate in other parts of the world. The Champenois vigorously defend the use of the term “Champagne” to relate the specific wine produced in the Champagne wine region. This includes objection to the term “Champagne style” to refer to sparkling wines produced outside the Champagne region. Since 1985, the use of the term Methode champenoise has been banned in all wines produced or sold in the European Union.
Blending is the hallmark of Champagne wine, with most Champagnes being the assembled product of several vineyards and vintages. In Champagne, there are over 19,000 vineyard owners, only 5,000 of which are owned by Champagne producers. The rest sell their grapes to the various Champagne houses, negociants, and co-operatives. The grapes, most commonly Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, are used to make several base wines that are assembled together to make Champagne. Each grape adds its own unique imprint to the result. Chardonnay is prized for its finesse and aging ability. Pinot noir adds body and fruit while Pinot Meunier contributes substantially to the aroma, adding fruit and floral notes. The majority of Champagnes produced are non-vintage (or rather, multi-vintage) blends. Vintage Champagne, often a house’s most prestigious and expensive wine, is also produced, but only in years when the producers feel that the grapes have the complexity and richness to warrant it.
Other European sparkling wine
Portuguese sparkling wine
Espumante is the Portuguese version of sparkling wine. Unlike Cava, which is produced solely in northern climates, Espumante is not only produced in the northern wet region of Vinho Verde but also throughout Portugal all the way to the southern region of the Alentejo, known for its extreme temperatures and arid climate.
While Spain has one regulating body, DOC Cava, spread across several different political regions, quality Espumante is produced solely in DOC Bairrada, located just south of Vinho Verde. In order for a wine to be certified as a quality Espumante from DOC Bairrada, it must be made in the traditional champagne (indicating the year of harvest) and stamped with the VEQPRD (Vinho Espumante de Qualidade Produzido em Região Determinada) certification.
VFQPRD is a regional sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne, charmat or transfer method in one of the following determined regions: Douro, Ribatejo, Minho, Alentejo or Estremadura.
VQPRD is a sparkling wine that can be made by injecting the wine with gas in the traditional champagne, charmat, transfer method anywhere in Portugal.
Espumoso is the cheapest and lowest level of sparkling wine, made by injecting the wine with CO2.
Top-quality Espumantes can be found in the Bairrada region and in the Távora-Varosa sub-region – Murganheira is an example of high-quality Espumante from this region.
Romanian sparkling wine
In Romania, sparkling wine is mostly made in Panciu. The same traditional method is used in Azuga, where the mountain climate is perfect for the second fermentation of white and rose sparkling wines in passively-cooled above-ground cellars. Grapes used (obviously not grown in this climate) are Chardonnay and a mix of Chardonnay and a Romanian variety called Fetească Regală. Rhein Azuga Cellars, now owned by Halewood International, was established in 1892 and still uses the same methods and even tools from that era. In 2006, they’ve become once again official Supplier to the Royal House of Romania, after having this honor between 1920 and 1947. Their Rhein Extra, still produced in the same building, was served at the coronation of King Ferdinand I at Alba Iulia, in October 1922.
English sparkling wine
Commercial production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines from grapes grown in England started in the 1960s, although there has been a long history of sparkling wines made in the UK from imported grapes. In the 1980s, some English winemakers started to grow the grape varieties as used in Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier – and in the ensuing decade’s availability of English sparkling wines made from these varieties increased. Today, there are over 100 vineyards in England producing sparkling wines with Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Chapel Down being some of the largest producers. In 2010, Chardonnay and Pinot noir were the two most commonly planted grape varieties in English vineyards. Along with Pinot Meunier, the three varieties combined accounted for around 40% of vines planted, which appears to reflect significant growth in interest in English sparkling wines. Other varietals used are Auxerrois, Seyval blanc, Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner, and Bacchus. To put that in context, the current yield for all types of English wine averages to around 2 million bottles annually.
New World sparkling wine
American sparkling wine
Sparkling wines produced in the United States can be made in both the méthode champenoise and the Charmat method. Lower cost sparkling wines, such as André, Cook’s, and Tott’s, often employ the latter method with more premium sparkling wines utilizing the former. The history of producing quality sparkling wine in California can be traced to the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County where, in 1892, the Korbel brothers (emigrated from Bohemia in 1852) began producing sparkling wine according to the méthode champenoise. The first wines produced were made from Riesling, Muscatel, Traminer and Chasselas grapes. Partly aided by the foreign influence, the overall quality of Californian sparkling wine increased[with the introduction of the more traditional sparkling wine grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot blanc into the production. US AVA requirements and wine laws do not regulate the sugar levels and sweetness of wine though most producers tend to follow European standards with Brut wine having less than 1.5% sugar up to Doux having more than 5%. As the sparkling wine industry in California grew, foreign investments from some of the Champagne region’s most noted Champagne houses came to set up wineries in the area. These include Moët et Chandon’s Domaine Chandon, Louis Roederer’s Roederer Estate, and Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros.
The growth of the Finger Lakes wine industry in New York State and the success of Riesling wines from the region has resulted in an increasing number of producers making méthode champenoise sparkling wines from primarily or 100% Riesling. Finger Lakes producers such as Glenora and Casa Larga are also producing méthode champenoise sparkling wine from other grapes such as the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
Canada sparkling wine
Canada’s sparkling wine producers are found in Southern Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, where growing conditions mirror that of Champagne, Provence, and Languedoc of France. In particular, Ontario’s appellations are emerging as strong producers of dry sparkling wines as their cooler climate conditions are very conducive to producing excellent, flavourful and not-too-ripe grapes.
While traditionally aimed at the domestic market, Canadian sparkling wines have recently gained prominence internationally. In 2011, L’Acadie Vineyards won a silver medal at an international competition for sparkling wines in France and in 2012, Benjamin Bridge winery’s 2004 Brut Reserve placed higher than a Louis Roederer 2004 Cristal (wine) champagne at a blind tasting held with noted critics, bringing attention to the country’s wine industry. In Ontario, wineries recognized for their sparkling wines include Henry of Pelham Winery, Jackson-Triggs, and Inniskillin.
Australia sparkling wine
Australian sparkling wine production has come a long way in a very short period of time, according to Wine Australia 2014-2015 annual report[with several notable French Champagne houses investing in production.
Tasmania is a center of Australian sparkling wine production. Wine commentator James Halliday states “the clear majority of the best sparkling wines are now solely sourced from Tasmania”, and Tyson Stelzer says “Tasmania confidently holds its place as Australia’s sparkling capital” with both the traditional grape varieties and method of secondary fermentation being employed.
Whilst most sparkling wine is produced from Chardonnay, Pinot noir and possibly Pinot Meuniere, an Australian specialty is sparkling Shiraz, a red sparkling wine produced from Shiraz grapes. Most sparkling Shiraz is traditionally somewhat sweet, but some producers make it dry, full-bodied and tannic.
Since 2012, Australian mass producers of sparkling wine have begun using screw caps in place of the traditional cork & wire closure.
Chile sparkling wine
Chile produces around 12 million bottles of sparkling wine per annum of which only around 1.6 million bottles are exported to overseas markets. Although sparkling wines have been made since 1879, they have not yet established a significant place in Chile’s wine portfolio. In recent years, the Pais grape variety has been creatively employed on its own or in blends, to make modern wines that have received favorable reviews. A rise in consumer demand and an ever-broadening selection of cool climate grapes has led to an increase in fresh and delightful sparkling wines ranging from bone dry extra brut to off-dry demi-secs, from blanc de blanc to blanc de noir to sparkling rosé. Valdivieso produces 60% of all sparkling wine in Chile. Most are an inexpensive tank method fizz, but 20% is a very good quality Champagne method from Pinot and Chardonnay. There is also a product made from a blend of sparkling Pinot wine and fresh handpicked strawberry pulp.
South Africa sparkling wine
Méthode Cap Classique or MCC is any sparkling wine made by the classic method of undergoing second fermentation in the bottle. There are quality standards that all producers adhere to voluntarily, apart from the minimum time on the lees (nine months) and the bars of pressure, which are mandatory in order to use MCC on the label. Traditional Champagne varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir are mostly used for MCC production, however, the use of other varieties is becoming increasingly popular and local MCC labels are seen with the likes of Sauvignon blanc and Chenin blanc. Sparkling wine is also made according to the Charmat method and red sparkling Pinotage can also be found. Methode Cap Classique tends to be very fruity due to the high temperatures of the South African Wine lands. The quality of MCC in South Africa can be compared to the wines produced in Champagne.
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