What the Fizz? A guide to sparkling wine

What Christmas is complete without the sound of someone popping open a bottle of sparkling wine? Whether you go for Champagne, Prosecco, Cava or English sparkling wine, there’s something about those bubbles that really hits the spot at various intervals throughout the day…

  • You wake up: seems like the perfect time for a Buck’s Fizz by the fire – you know, to ward off the frost.
  • You have a festively late breakfast: wouldn’t that go perfectly with a glass of Champagne?
  • You exchange presents: it seems wrong not to have something in your glasses to toast each other with.
  • You’re cooking Christmas dinner: one glass for you (chef’s treat), one for whoever’s helping/keeping you company/sick of listening to Cliff Richard in the living room.
  • You’re about to start eating: best to raise a glass of fizz for good measure before digging in and cracking open the red.
  • You’re all on the verge of falling asleep at 6pm after gorging yourselves half to death: somehow, the suggestion of a post dinner glass of that great English sparkling wine you’ve been saving still sounds like an excellent idea!

With all of these opportunities, you’ll need to stock up on a few bottles before the big day. But nailing those choices doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune, and it’s a lot easier to get a good deal if you know what the differences are between the various types of sparkling wine.

To help you out this Christmas, here’s our crash course in all things fizzy. We’ll take you through the basics for Champagne, Prosecco, Cava and English sparkling wine: how they’re made, where they’re from and which grapes are used.

But first, the basics.

Why is it bubbly? The most common way of making sparkling wine is by putting a base wine through a second stage of fermentation. The first stage of fermentation is essentially the process of transforming grape juice into alcohol by adding yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugars in the grape juice and converts it into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

The second stage of fermentation occurs either in the bottle, which happens during the traditional method and transfer method, or in a pressurised tank (known as the tank method… surprise, surprise). All three methods aim to create carbon dioxide in a confined space so that it becomes incorporated into the wine, rather than escaping into the atmosphere.

There used to be various cases in which the bubbles were achieved by carbonating the base wine (literally adding carbon dioxide – imagine a soda stream for wine). This is very rare nowadays, so we’ll focus on the methods above.

The Traditional MethodUsed in the production of Champagne, Cava and some English sparkling wines.

A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the base wine in individual bottles. The bottles are sealed and stored horizontally.

The glass has to be very strong in order to withstand the build up of carbon dioxide without exploding – which does happen sometimes! – the aim is for the gas to build up inside the bottle and dissolve into the wine.

During this stage of the process, known as ‘autolysis’, the wine takes on complex flavours because of the fact that it’s sitting on a sediment of dead yeast cells called ‘lees’ for a prolonged period of time. This might sound a bit grim, but it’s a form of maturation that gives the sparkling wine that lovely biscuity, savoury deliciousness, which keeps you coming back for more.

Now, as much as we have to thank the lees for that amazing taste, you don’t want it to be in your bottle making the wine cloudy when you come to open it on that special occasion. The next stage is called ‘disgorging’ during which the sediment is encouraged down into the neck of the bottle with a gentle tipping and jiggling motion until the bottle is vertical (neck side down).

This can be done by hand (‘riddling’) or by using mechanised palettes (called ‘gyropalettes’). Both ways require the tilting to take place over an extended period of time, so that all of the sediment from every iota of the bottle ends up settling in the neck ready for the next stage.

Next, the necks of the bottles are frozen so that the plug of yeast becomes solid and is forced out by the build up of pressure, resulting in all of the yeast being removed in one go. Then, before resealing the bottle with a cork, a very small amount of sugar and wine (called the ‘dosage’) is added, which determines the sweetness/dryness of the finished wine.

The Transfer Method – Used in the production of some English sparkling wines.

The transfer method is largely the same as the beginning of the traditional method but, instead of disgorging each individual bottle to remove the sediment, the bottles are emptied into a tank under pressure and the yeast is filtered out.

The wine is then dosaged and rebottled. It’s a bit cheaper, takes less time and labour, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine’s quality will suffer, but it is not permitted as a method for making Champagne or Cava. It’s used in parts of Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

The Tank Method – Used in the production of Prosecco.

The main difference between the tank method and the two methods above is that the second fermentation takes place in a pressurised tank, rather than in individual bottles. Sugar and yeast are added to the base wine, then the tank is sealed so that the carbon dioxide created gets dissolved.

Next, the wine is filtered to remove the yeast and bottled under pressure so that the carbon dioxide doesn’t escape.

You won’t get the deep, complex flavours that you get with wines made via the traditional or transfer methods, because autolysis doesn’t really take place. 

The pressure created in individual bottles is much greater than the pressure created in the tank – meaning that the bubbles are a little bigger, less mousse-like and not quite as long-lasting in wines made via the tank method.

Wines made using this method are often fresh and fruitier than wines made via the other methods. It’s also less labour intensive, which is why Prosecco costs less than Champagne. 

How is it made? Using the traditional method.
Where is it from? Champagne, a protected region in France. Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s made in this area and follows the specific guidelines called appellation laws. Sparkling wines made in other regions of France using the traditional method are known as Crémant – which can also be extremely good!
Which grapes are used? Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It might be surprising to realise that the latter two of the three grapes used to make a white sparkling wine are black. When making the base wine, the skins and stalks are removed before the first fermentation so that the wine doesn’t take on a red colour from contact with the black skins.
Note: See James’ guide to affordable champers here.

How is it made? Using the tank method.
Where is it from? North-east Italy in a protected region. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco doesn’t get its name from the region, it gets it from the grape used.
Which grapes are used? Glera (formally known as Prosecco). Other grapes can be used alongside Glera, but they can only make up a total of 15% so that Glera is the majority. The other grapes could be Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.

How is it made? Using the traditional method.
Where is it from? Most Cava is from Catalunya in Spain.
Which grapes are used? Local Spanish varieties: mainly Xarel.lo, Macabeu and Parellada. (You can learn more about Xarel.lo and Parellada in the write up of our tasting with L’altreVi here.)
Note: Cava is a great choice for Christmas and a massively underrated sparkling wine in my opinion! It’s made in the same way as Champagne, one of the only differences being that Cava should be drunk pretty much as soon as it’s released, whereas Champagne generally gets better with a bit of time. Champagne houses will often store their wines for a few years before release, which is expensive to do and therefore one of the reasons for Cava being cheaper to buy. 

English sparkling wine
How is it made? Sometimes via the traditional method (e.g. Ridgeview wines) and sometimes via the transfer method (e.g. Rathfinny Estate).
Where is it from? Hint’s in the name! But particularly good areas for sparkling wine are Sussex, Cornwall, Devon, Kent and East Anglia.
Which grapes are used? There isn’t a set combination of grapes used for English sparkling wines, because there are no laws defining what should be used, but producers often do use the Champagne grape varietals.
Note: It’s a really exciting time for British sparkling wine, with many of them being singled out as world-class and comparable to (or even better than) some Champagne!

Hopefully this will have given you confidence so that, when you’re looking at the shelves during the Christmas food shop, you have an idea of what you’re buying and what you can expect! There are some brilliant sparkling wines out there and we’ll be releasing our list of personal favourites in the New Year.

Merry Christmas everyone! Enjoy getting ‘Wined Up’!

– Lily




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