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Wine Tasting Uncorked: Style & Quality of Sparkling Wines

I don’t know too many people who don’t like sparkling beverages, be it Champagne, sparkling wine or cider, Prosecco or Cava. However, most people don’t really know what to look for when considering the quality and value of these types of wine.

The fourth tasting in the Wine Tasting Uncorked series took a look at the Style and Quality of Sparkling Wines from different wine growing regions.

This tasting taught us how to assess sparkling wine’s special feature, it’s bubbles (or “mousse”). It also looked at variations in sparkling wine style from different countries, examined how you can make quality distinctions in these wines, and finally considered relative value for money among them.

If you missed the previous posts on the first three tastings in the series, check out the links below:

  • Style & Quality of White Wines, check out the blog post here.
  • Terroir & White Wines, check out the blog post here.
  • Old World vs. New World White Wines, check out the blog post here.

As with the other tastings, I continue to have everyone prepay for the event so that I could buy the appropriate wine that would allow us to compare the style and quality of sparkling wines. I set the event up as a seated, guided wine tasting (see the pics below) that would allow members to taste the  wines side-by side, comparing and contrasting the flavors and aromas.

1. Setup Collage

Prior to sitting down for the tasting, we enjoyed an array of food dishes that everyone brought to share. I made a Harvest Cake with Grapes and a Sangiovese Syrup for the event (a recipe from Food and Wine Magazine). Check out my other post for the recipe and review of the cake.

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7. Food Dishes

To start the tasting, I did a quick review of several things that I had introduced in the first tasting to aid us in our discussion of the wines:

  • The basic steps of wine tasting
  • Focusing on sight, smells and tastes
  • Wine tasting terms

I also reviewed the concept of terroir from the second tasting.

If you are interested in learning more about the aforementioned “lessons” check out my other blog post that goes over the notes I created to pass out to those in attendance at the wine tasting.

The line-up for the wine tasting was:

  1. Montelliana Prosecco Extra Dry. Veneto, Italy.
  2. Conde de Caralt Brut NV Cava. Catalonia, Spain.
  3. Graham Beck Bliss Demi Sec NV. Western Cape, South Africa.
  4. Montaudon Brut. Champagne, France.
  5. Sultan Sparkling Intenso, Serra Gaúcha, Brazil.

We started with an apéritif of Montelliana Prosecco (Italy) to stimulate the palate prior to the comparison wine tasting. At around $12 a bottle, the prosecco was an enjoyable start tot he tasting. The Montelliana Prosecco was fresh and fruity with melon and apple. This Prosecco was made with grapes cultivated in the Montello and Asolo hill areas and has a pale straw-yellow color and a slightly sweet taste. It is recommended that this is served between 42.8 and 44.6 degrees Farenheit. Acidity leve: 5.8 g/l.

2. Prosecco

Prosecco is made from Glera (the wine varietal formerly known as Prosecco). Under European law, only sparkling wines made with grapes grown in this region can have the name Prosecco, since the names of specific beverages, including some sparkling wines, are protected.

It is made using the Charmat method, which consists of first making a still wine out of the grapes, and then putting that wine in a pressurized steel tank with specific amounts of sugar and yeast. While in the tanks, the yeast and sugar react together to make carbon dioxide, which carbonates the wine. Fermenting the wine in steel tanks instead of in the bottle preserves the taste of the grapes, which gives the wine its fresh, fruity flavor, but also means that can’t be aged for very long. All varieties have a low alcohol content compared to other wines, averaging about 11% alcohol.

The two main varieties of Prosecco wine are spumante, which is fully sparkling, and frizzante, which is semi-sparkling. Spumante wine undergoes a secondary fermentation process, whereas frizzante wine has carbon dioxide added later prior to bottling. Both varieties are also labeled “Brut”, “Dry” or “Extra Dry,” referring to the sweetness or sugar content measured in grams per Liter (g/L). “Dry” (17-35 g/L) and “Extra Dry” (12-20 g/L) are generally more common than “Brut” (less than 15 g/L).

Unlike Prosecco, Champagne undergoes its secondary fermentation in the bottle it will eventually be sold in, rather than in a tank. This makes it less fruity, and allows it to age for years, as opposed to months.

In an effort to help people take notes on the wines and keep their glasses organized, I created a place setting. To recreate this tasting, feel free to use my tasting sheet: Style & Quality of Sparkling – Place Setting. The circles on the the tasting sheet are to help keep your wine glasses straight. :) The last wine, the Brazilian sparkling, is not listed on this tasting sheet as it was a last minute addition and something new I hadn’t yet tried.

As we worked our way through the different wines in the tasting, we also discussed some other information relevant to sparkling wines.

The History of Sparkling Wine

Ancient Greek and Roman writers attributed the bubbling in sparkling wine to phases of the moon as well as both good and evil spirits, thankfully nowadays we know all too well the history and method of this wonderful drink.
It may surprise you to know that despite popular belief, it was an Englishman by the name of Christopher Merrett who first recorded the recipe for transforming still wines into sparkling wine. It was in 1662 when Christopher Merrett presented a paper which stated that; “Sugar and molasses were being added to wines to make them sparkling” and more importantly this was some 20 years before the French Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon ever laid claim to the process.

French monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon did not transfer to the Abbey of Hautvillers until 1668 (6 years after Merrett had produced his writings) and it was some years after this time that wine was being made, let alone sparkling wine! Surprisingly, even when sparkling wine was being produced at Hautvillers Dom Pierre Perignon was originally charged by the cellarmasters at the abbey to rid the wine of the bubbles as the exploding bottles caused extensive losses to the wine stock.

At the time of documentation of the process it was only the English who had access to bottles strong enough to contain the pressure. The English also reverted to the Roman idea of using cork in the bottles over the French’s use of wood wrapped in cloth.

The Process

Sparkling wine is a result of a second fermentation process which is a chemical reaction that occurs when the bottled alcohol, with the addition of sugar and molasses (historically this was some residual sugar and dormant yeast) undergoes an increase in temperature and produces carbon dioxide (bubbles!)

What’s the difference between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?

The Champagne we know comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France, and claims the honor of being the most famous of the sparkling wines. Technically, it is the only sparkling wine that may be referred to as “Champagne.” Bubbly from all other regions in the world are simply referred to as “sparkling wine,” though regions have their own specialties, such as:

  • Spain’s sparkler is called Cava
  • Italy’s bubbles come in Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti
  • German Sparkling Wine is Sekt
  • French sparkling wines from everywhere outside of Champagne are referred to as Cremant.
  • Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. give France a run for the money by producing some fantastic sparkling wines at exceptionally competitive price points.

Where do the Bubbles Come from in Sparkling Wines?

The bubbles of sparkling wines are formed during a second fermentation process. For the second fermentation the winemaker takes still wine and adds a few grams of sugar and a few grams of yeast. This yeast and sugar convert to carbon dioxide (bubbles) and, of course alcohol. This conversion makes for millions of bubbles trapped in a very small space, sending the pressure soaring to about 80 psi in the typical bottle of sparkling wine. This second fermentation typically occurs in the actual bottle (referred to as the traditional Champagne Method), but can also take place in the fermentation tank (called the Charmat Method, as with the Prosecco discussed above), it’s up to the winemaker.

Creating sparkling wine got a little more scientific as time went on, especially in the 1800s when the method reduction Francois was introduced to measure the amount of sugar that went into wine in order to produce enough carbon dioxide in the bottles for the bubbles. CO2 is what is responsible for the effervescence in sparkling wine and much unlike still wine, sparkling wine goes through a double fermentation. In the early 1900’s a big step in the development of many of today’s sparkling wines was invented by French engineer Eugene Charmat, whereby the secondary fermentation takes place in a closed tank under pressure and this process produces a light, crisp style with baby bubbles. Yeast and sugar are added to build pressure and produce carbon dioxide, then the yeast and sediment is removed and the wine is bottles and aged for that fabulous bubbly taste.

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At the vineyard, grapes are harvested early when there is still high acid levels. In areas like Australia, winemakers aim to harvest the grapes at 17 to 20° brix. Unlike still wine production, high sugar levels are not ideal and grapes destined for sparkling wine production may be harvested at higher yields.

The primary fermentation of sparkling wine begins like most other wines, though winemakers may choose to use specially cultivated sparkling wine yeasts. The wines may go through malolactic fermentation, though producers wishing to make fruitier, simpler wines will usually forgo this step.

DEFINITION: Malolactic fermentation (also known as malolactic conversion or MLF) is a process in winemaking in which tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid. Malolactic fermentation often occurs shortly after the end of the primary fermentation but can sometimes run concurrently with it. The process is standard for most red wine production and for some white grape varieties such as Chardonnay, where it can impart a “buttery” flavor from diacetyl, a by-product of the reaction. Also referred to as second fermentation. Malic acid is typically associated with the taste of green apples while lactic acid is richer and more buttery tasting. Grapes produced in cool regions tend to be high in acidity, much of which comes from the contribution of malic acid. Malolactic fermentation generally enhances the body and flavor persistence of wine, producing wines of greater palate softness. Many winemakers also feel that better integration of fruit and oak character can be achieved if malolactic fermentation occurs during the time the wine is in barrel.
After fermentation the base wines are then blended to form a cuvee. While there are examples of varietal sparklers, such as blanc de blancs (white of whites) made from 100% Chardonnay, most sparkling wines are blends of several grape varieties, vineyards and vintages. Producers with wide access to grapes will use wines from several hundred base wines to create a blend that reflect the “house style” of their non-vintage wine. It is through the initiation of a secondary fermentation that distinguishes sparkling wine production and gives the wine its characteristic “bubbles”. One of the by products of fermentation is the creation of carbon dioxide gas. While this gas is able to be released during the first fermentation, efforts are taken during the second fermentation to retain the gas and have it dissolve into the wine. This creates a high pressure within the wine bottle and wine producers take care to package the wine in strong glass bottles. When the wine is open and poured into a glass, the gas is released and the wine becomes sparkling.

Cheaper wines may use “gas injection.” Comparatively inexpensive sparkling wine is made by simple injection of CO2 from a carbonator. This way of manufacturing is allowed in the European Union. Sparkling wines made via this method must use terms ‘aerated sparkling wine’ and ‘aerated semi-sparkling wine’ must be supplemented, where necessary, by the words ‘obtained by adding carbon dioxide’ or ‘obtained by adding carbon anhydride.

Vintage versus Nonvintage (NV) sparkling

Vintage is wine from the same batch. Nonvintage combines different vintages (years).

Méthode Champenoise

With this method the effervescence is produced by secondary fermentation in the bottle. As the name suggests, this is used for the production of Champagne, but is slightly more expensive than the Charmat process. May be called méthode traditionnelle on the bottle. Méthode champenoise is a protected term in Europe, so the bottle cannot use that phraseology on wine sold in Europe.

Steps:

  • Primary fermentation, blending (assemblage in Champagne) and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle.
  • Secondary fermentation. The blended wine is put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar, called the liqueur de tirage, stopped with a crown cap or another temporary plug, and stored in a wine cellar horizontally for a second fermentation.
    • Under the Appellation d’origine contrôlée, NV (non-vintage) Champagne is required to age for 15 months to develop completely. In years where the harvest is exceptional, a vintage (millesime) is declared and the wine must mature for at least three years.
    • During the secondary fermentation, the carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine in solution. The amount of added sugar determines the pressure of the bottle. To reach the standard value of 6 bars (600 kPa) inside the bottle, it is necessary to have 18 grams of sugar; the amount of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is regulated by the European Commission (Regulation 1622/2000, 24 July 2000) to be 0.3 gram per bottle. The liqueur de tirage is then a mixture of sugar, yeast and still Champagne wine.
  • Aging on lees. Non-vintage wine from Champagne cannot legally be sold until it has aged on the lees in the bottle for at least 15 months. Champagne’s AOC regulations further require that vintage Champagnes be aged in cellars for three years or more before disgorgement, but most top producers exceed the requirement, holding bottles on the lees for 6 to 8 years.
  • Riddling. After aging, the lees must be consolidated for removal. The bottles undergo a process known as riddling (remuage in French). In this stage, the bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres that hold them at a 45° angle, with the crown cap pointed down. Once a day (every two days for Champagne), the bottles are given a slight shake and turn, alternatively on right then left, and dropped back into the pupitres, with the angle gradually increased. The drop back into the rack causes a slight tap, pushing sediments toward the neck of the bottle. In 10 to 14 days (8 to 10 weeks for Champagne), the position of the bottle is straight down, with the lees settled in the neck. (This time can be shortened by moving the bottle more than once a day, and by using modern, less sticky strains of yeast.) Manual riddling is still done for Prestige Cuvées in Champagne, but has otherwise been largely abandoned because of the high labor costs. Mechanized riddling equipment (a gyropalette) is used instead.
    • Schramsberg (Napa) uses hand riddling.
    • Mumm uses mechanized equipment.
  • Disgorging. The lees removal process is called disgorging (dégorgement in French), traditionally a skilled manual process where the crown cap and lees are removed without losing much of the liquid, and a varying amount of sugar added. Before the invention of this process by Madame Clicquot in 1816, Champagne was cloudy. Modern automated disgorgement is done by freezing a small amount of the liquid in the neck and removing this plug of ice containing the lees.
  • Dosage. Immediately after disgorging but before final corking, the liquid level is topped up with liqueur d’expédition, commonly a little sugar, a practice known as dosage. The liqueur d’expédition is a mixture of the base wine and sucrose, plus 0.02 to 0.03 grams of sulfur dioxide as a preservative.
    o Some maisons de Champagne (Champagne brands) claim to have secret recipes for this, adding ingredients such as old Champagne wine and candy sugar.
  • The amount of sugar in the liqueur d’expédition determines the sweetness of the Champagne, the sugar previously in the wine having been consumed in the second fermentation. Generally, sugar is added to balance the high acidity of the Champagne, rather than to produce a sweet taste. Brut Champagne will only have a little sugar added, and Champagne called nature or zéro dosage will have no sugar added at all. A cork is then inserted, with a capsule and wire cage (muselet) securing it in place.

The Dom (Pérignon)

Rumor has it that Dom was initially brought on to get rid of sparkling wine! Sparkling wine was produced at the Abbey of Hautvillers, but cellarmasters enlisted the French monk to try and rid the wine of its bubbles. The pressure of the CO2 inside the bottles frequently caused the bottles to explode. These exploding bottles were expensive to replace and resulted in great losses of wine.

What Dom ultimately wound up contributing to sparkling wine was a change within how it was packaged – by the use of cork instead of wooden stoppers. Dom’s cork forms, mastered to fit perfectly inside of the glass bottles, were a method of wine packaging that has yet to go out of style, hundreds of years later.

And while Dom most unfortunately did not actually proclaim he was “drinking the stars” during his first sip of champagne (that was actually from an advertisement in the late 19th century), we can drink to the stars for him!

The Tasting

The first sparkling wine, Conde de Caralt Brut NV Cava from the Penedes (pronounced: pen eh DAIS) appellation of Catalonia, Spain. Conde de Caralt, in the Penedes region of Spain, is one of the most popular brands of Cava in Europe today. The predecessor of Conde de Caralt, Cavas Carbo, was acquired by Jose Maria de Caralt Borrell, the Count of Caralt, in the early 1960s. Since then, the winery has undergone a transformation, updating its image and elevating the prestige of its wines and cavas, creating a range of products that are greatly appreciated for their tradition, value and complexity.

Conde de Caralt is distinguished by its complex aromas and smooth, subtle intensity, which is achieved through years of painstaking bottle ageing.

Cava is far closer to Champagne (in terms of taste) than Prosecco. Macabeu, pronounced: mah-kah-BEH-oh, (aka called Viura in Rioja) is the primary grape used in Cava production. Despite its importance, Macabeu tastes somewhat simple. It has faint floral aromatics, a lemony flavor with a slightly bitter finish that tastes similar to green almonds. Xarel•lo (pronounced: shah-REHL-loh) on the other hand, is much more aromatic with rich floral aromas and pear/melon-like notes. The last grape, Paralleda (pronounced: par-eh-LYAH-duh), is blended for its ripping high acidity and zesty citrus flavors. Together the three Spanish grapes create a balanced fruity sparkling wine that’s less sweet than Prosecco but not as nutty as Vintage Champagne.

Brut Nature is a specific category within Brut that has even less sweetness. This style is growing in popularity because it’s lower in calories and Brut Nature is a great alternative to cocktails and lager.

• Brut Nature: 0-3 g/l residual sugar
• Extra Brut: 0-6 g/l residual sugar
• Brut: 0-12 g/l residual sugar
• Semi Seco: 12-17 g/l R.S. (aka Extra-Dry )

Cava DO (denominacion de origen) is the official classification of Cava. It can be produced throughout Spain but most Cava is made in Penedes (next to Barcelona) and in the Ebro River valley (in Rioja). There are now close to 200 producers registered with the Cava Consejo Regulador.

How does spain produce Cava so cheaply? They’ve fully adopted advanced mechanization in order to produce, store and bottle their Cava. This Brut confirms the prestige earned by the company for its cava production.

Overall impressions of the Conde de Caralt Brut (NV): Quite pale in the glass with lots of small bubbles. Dry, Green Apple, Citrus, Light-bodied. It is elegant on the palate with a smooth and balanced finish. A subtle nose with a hint of sweet apples. A refreshing cava and great value. Priced at $10. Great on its own or for brunch cocktails. Wine Spectator rated this at 86 points.

3. Cava

The second wine, Graham Beck Bliss Demi Sec (NV) from the Breede River Valley & Coastal Region district of the Western Cape of South Africa. For those who do not like their sparkling wines dry, the Graham Beck Demi-Sec is a great choice.

Methode Cap Classique or MCC denotes a South African sparkling wine made by the traditional Champagne method. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc have been the traditional Cap Classique grapes but the use of Chardonnay and Pinot noir have been on the rise.

This wine was blended from the two Cap Classique building blocks: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Whole bunch pressing ensures fractional recovery. After settling of the juice the two varieties are fermented separately. They are then cross-blended along with reserve wine if necessary, bottled and left for 15 months yeast contact time before disgorgement. A special selection of liquer d’expedition was added to produce this delectable demi-sec style of Cap Classique. The perfect bubbly for those who prefer their fizz not too bone dry.

Overall impression of the Graham Beck Bliss Demi Sec (NV): Semi-sweet, Honey, Dough, Medium-bodied. Light yeasty aromas, with hints of butterscotch, honey and praline, this sparkling wine will stimulate your sweeter taste buds. 85 points (Wine Enthusiast). At $18 a bottle, this was the favorite sparkler of the group tasting (and my favorite as well).

4. South African Sparkling

The third wine, Montaudon Brut is from the Champagne region of France. Montaudon began in 1891 has since been run by the founding family (4 generations thus far). They have 2400 hectares of vineyards (5930+ square acres).

In France the first sparkling Champagne was created accidentally; the pressure in the bottle led it to be called “the devil’s wine” (le vin du diable), as bottles exploded or corks popped. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet to prevent the corks from blowing out. Initial versions were difficult to apply and inconvenient to remove. Even when it was deliberately produced as a sparkling wine, Champagne was for a very long time made by the méthode rurale, where the wine was bottled before the only fermentation had finished. Champagne did not use the méthode champenoise until the 19th century, about 200 years after Christopher Merret documented the process. The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, going from a regional production of 300,000 bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850.

In the 19th century Champagne was noticeably sweeter than the Champagnes of today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to London. The designation Brut Champagne was created for the British in 1876.

Overall impressions of the Montaudon Brut (NV): Dry, Citrus, Peach, Medium-bodied. Beautiful straw color with glints. Abundant foam forming a persistent bubble/bead. The nose is very expressive and is characterized by floral scents (lime dominant) and ripe fruit (apple and pear). Initial impression is full of flavors of pear. A distinctive, memorable Champagne in a mature style, this is doughy, flinty and nutty in aroma and flavor and has a super smooth texture backed by firm acidity. Cost is around $40.

91 pts (Wine Spectator). “Fine texture and delicate yet vibant acidity are well-meshed with the subtle blend of white peach, candied berry, lemon zest and blanched almond flavors. A hint of fleur de sel shows on the finish.”

5. Champagne

The fourth and final wine, an last-minute addition to the tasting, was the Sultan Sparkling Intenso Brut from the Serra Gaúcha region of Brazil. This wine is made with a combination of Chardonnay and Riesling. It is considered an off dry sparkler. It has fine bubbles, produced with the Charmat method. Overall impressions: No one at the tasting liked this sparkler; the first time there has ever been such a negative consensus on a wine.

6. Brazilian Sparkling (Extra)

This fourth tasting of the series was an absolutely fantastic event! These types of tastings give us an opportunity to really study what we like (and don’t like) about each of the wines, while sharing our thoughts with the group. In this tasting, we looked at the effects of smelling wine before as well as after swirling it in the glass. We have also looked at the effect of warmer temperature on white wine, and the combination of oak and Chardonnay again. Finally, we have explored the effect of climate on varietal character and wine style.

8. Event Sign and Ice Bucket with Wines

You can see from the photos below that the members of the group took notes and checked the color of each wine. After our detailed tasting, describing the appearance, aroma, taste and overall impressions, we brought our food back over to check out how the wines held up against different types of food. All of these wines were food friendly, except for the 5th wine, the Sparkling from Brazil, that we still did not like.

9. People at Event

I’m excited to move on to the fifth tasting in the series that will look at the style and tannins of red wines. This first red wine tasting will examine color in red wine and will introduce the contrasting personalities of red wines. We will see how we perceive tannins, how different levels of tannin strongly influence the style of red wine, and how appropriate food can moderate tannic astringency.

Check back at the end of March for the next blog when we have our fifth guided tasting in the series.

Cheers,

Danielle

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