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THE ABC OF SPARKLING WINES

THE ABC SPARKLING WINES

For me, Champagnes are the most complex and exciting of the wines. Their delicate fruitiness, their noble acidity, their sparkling and foaming all blend together with a characteristic maturing note to form a one-of-a-kind harmony of wine. The kind that refreshes the drinker, engages all their senses and lifts their spirits without causing alcoholic intoxication after just a glass or two. Sparkling wines not originating from the Champagne region are called penine in Slovenia. Even though sparkling wines are produced in the same way and from the same varieties of grapes, their character is very different. So, which should you choose, a sparkling wine or a Champagne? Simple. Drink a glass of one or the other.

Pay attention to the aftertaste. If you like it and if it remains intense and distinguishable for a while without losing its purity and recognisability, the wine is good. But if you can still remember the aroma and taste the next day, you had something truly special in your glass. After a few tests, you will simply keep buying and drinking the style and brand that you like. According to my experience with Slovenian sparkling wines, we Slovenians are too easily satisfied with the quality of the local sparkling wines, never try foreign ones, and are almost afraid of the French ones. Once you enter the world of really good sparkling wines, you will no longer be able to do without them. The Slovenian market offers a diverse and rich selection to choose from. While before you may have looked for sparkling wine for a special occasion, now you mighty start looking for special occasions to justify opening a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne.

How is sparkling wine produced?
In the alcoholic fermentation of must, yeasts convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide – if the latter escapes into the atmosphere, we get a still wine, but when it is retained in the vessel and left to dissolve in the wine, a sparkling wine is produced. According to some studies, there are 250 million bubbles in a bottle of sparkling wine. The pressure of the gasses in the bottle is the same as in a bus tyre.

What varieties of grapes are used for sparkling wine?
In the home of sparkling wines, the best cuvées are produced primarily using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while other wine-growing regions also use local varieties in addition to these two.

What are the processes for producing sparkling wines?
Base wines for sparkling wines or Champagnes are produced just like still wines – the alcoholic fermentation of must takes place in large stainless steel tanks, while in exceptional cases and only for the best sparkling wines, some of the wine is fermented in wooden containers. After this stage, the wines are dry (without any residual sugar) and still. Bubbles are formed after the secondary alcoholic fermentation, when sugar and yeasts are added to the base wine. This process takes place in large stainless-steel tanks – the tank method, also known as the Charmat method – or traditionally and classically – in the bottle. Called the Champagne method in the case of wines from the Champagne region, this process is also known as the classic method in countries outside France.

Why are some sparkling wines called Champagnes and others sparkling wines?
Only sparkling wine from the French province of Champagne (and only if it comes from an AOC area – an approved and controlled vineyard area) is called Champagne. Sparkling wines from other wine-growing regions had to find different names: Cava in Spain, Sekt in Germany, Cap Classique in South Africa, etc.

Why is the vintage year not indicated on the labels of most French Champagnes?
Champagne lies in the far north zone where grapes can still ripen. Rare are the vintages where the red and white varieties ripen optimally, are not attacked by disease or decimated by frost. This is why some of the base wines are always kept as a reserve for the following years. The base wine for secondary fermentation is therefore a cuvée from a variety of (usually up to five) vintages, and that is why the vintage year cannot be indicated on the label. In the years when the grapes ripen optimally, some of the Champagnes are fermented only from the wines of this vintage, which is then shown on the label.



What does it mean if a sparkling wine has an autolysis or a yeasty or brioche character?
After the secondary fermentation in the bottle, the yeasts break down (enzymatic degradation) and partially dissolve in the wine. This process is called yeast autolysis. If the wine spends a long time (at least 15 to 18 months) in contact with dead yeast cells, it acquires characteristic and particularly noble aromas that make it even more interesting and complex.

How is the yeast sediment removed from the bottle?
By shaking and tilting the bottle in an upright position, the sediment settles on the special crown-cap that is used to close the bottle during secondary fermentation. The neck of the bottle is then frozen by immersing it in a freezing solution, after which the cap is removed and the frozen sediment is ejected from the wine by the carbon dioxide gas pressure inside the bottle. The bottle is then topped up with the same wine and a special cork is inserted.

What is an expedition liqueur?
This is the wine that is used to top up the bottles after the yeast sediment removal process. This wine contains some sugar, except in the Extra Brut style.

Can sparkling wines and Champagnes be aged (matured)?
Most sparkling wines and Champagnes are best drunk within a year of appearing on the market. Few cuvées are able to acquire truly complex flavours and aromas through maturation. The best vintage champagnes and special editions are capable of slowly maturing for decades.

How should sparkling wines and Champagnes be stored?
Wines with bubbles are more sensitive to temperature and light than still wines but are easily stored in a dark place at temperatures between 12 and 18 degrees Celsius. A temperature of between 9 and 11 degrees is recommended for longer storage. When buying sparkling wines in large quantities, it is best to keep them in their original boxes or corrugated cardboard packaging.



How should a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne be cooled?
It is best to leave the bottle in a refrigerator overnight. The ideal wine serving temperature is five to seven degrees Celsius. If you have unannounced guests, it is easiest and fastest to cool the wine in a bucket of water and ice. The whole bottle should be cooled, including the neck.

How should the bottle be opened?
Carefully! The pressure in the bottle is at least three and a half atmospheres, which means that it is possible to hurt someone if the bottle is uncorked carelessly. You must keep your hand on the cork at all times after you remove its protective wire cage, called a muselet. It is best to hold the cork tightly and rotate the bottle when opening it. When you feel the cork is about to be ejected, hold it with your hand and let the gas inside the bottle escape with a quiet sigh – not a pop!

How should a sparkling wine or Champagne be poured?
Due to the intense foaming, the wine should be poured into special glasses in two parts. Special glasses for sparkling wines are narrow and tall – so you can enjoy looking at the rising bubbles – but if you do not have them, glasses for still white wine are good, too.

Can you store any leftover sparkling wine or Champagne for the next day?
Of course. You can buy special sparkling wine stoppers in wine shops that will seal the bottle tightly, allowing you to store your sparkling wine or Champagne for the next day (or two at most).
GLOSSARY
penina – the Slovenian term for sparkling wine (first mentioned in Bleiweis’ Novice in 1853); Champagne – a protected name for sparkling wines from the French region of Champagne; Brut – dry (up to 15g/l); Extra Brut – very dry (up to 6g/l); Brut Nature, Brut Savage – extra dry sparkling wine with no added sugar in the expedition liqueur; Blanc de Blancs – Champagne made only from Chardonnay; Blanc de Noirs – Champagne made only from red varieties (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier); cuvée – a blend of varieties and vintages, also a blend of the same variety but from different growing locations; mousse – the foam, foaming and the release of bubbles in the glass and your mouth; Grand Cru – well-known/best growing location; Prestige/Deluxe cuvées – Champagne houses’ prestigious cuvées made from the grapes from the best growing locations and ripened for a longer time. Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon) is the most famous. These wines have a very high price due to their quality, prestige and demand that exceeds supply.
The article was published at our new Wine Magazine, 2019. Author: Leon Beton

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