Tanked on Bubblies

(Originally published April 2008)

So, Hanes got a few ideas for mini-articles and here’s one. A topic not necessarily obvious because, on the whole, bubbles look like bubbles. But not all sparkling wines are created equal and here’s why.

The wine producing region in France called Champagne is by far the most famous area for sparkling wine. So much so that “Champagne” has almost become a generic term for sparkling wine sort of like “Windex” is for glass cleaning solution or “Google” is for searching for information online. Champagne is made in the “méthode champenoise.” This is because champenoise in the French language means something like “of Champagne.” So, it is actually a very truthful way of describing how Champagne is made!

This method is very complex. It involves a primary fermentation as with any still table wine and then an intentionally induced second fermentation in the bottle which adds the fizz as newly added yeasts consume newly added sugar creating trapped carbon dioxide bubbles. During all this the bottles get stored all kinds of crazy directions as they are aging, even upside down! Then bottle necks got frozen, bottles spit out some frozen stuff and corks get put into bottles. Usually in that order. Et, voila, Champagne!

Lots of places outside of Champagne make their sparkling wines in the same manner. But since 1994 European Union law forbids any European producer outside of Champagne to describe their wines as being made in the “méthode champenoise.” That would be cheating and deceitful as their wines are not from Champagne proper. But, don’t worry, recently France increased the size of the Champagne appellation by an additional 38 villages so there will still be plenty of labels which say “méthode champenoise” on them. That’s cool. Producers outside of Europe can still put “méthode champenoise” on their labels. But maybe these wines can’t be legally sold in Europe. Hmmm.

If a winery makes wines like they do in Champagne they can use other legally and morally sanctioned descriptors for sparkling wines such as “méthode traditionelle,” “méthode classique,” or “méthode traditionelle classique.” These terms don’t have to be in the French language per se, they can be in any language. But French is pretty.

You’ll see some labeling descriptors such as “Fermented in This Bottle” or verbiage to indicate that secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. There’s also effervescent wines which are less fizzy than Champagne and may or may not be made similarly to the méthode champenoise. These can be labeled “vin mousseux” or “vin pétillant” or “crémant” or “méthode ancestrale.” Or.

Hanes right now is not so interested in describing the méthode champenoise or Champagne. However, it is important to note the terms utilized throughout the world to designate sparkling wines made along the lines of the méthode champenoise. This is very informative, especially if one wants to buy a sparkling wine which is produced according to the méthode champenoise. People do care about these sort of things and they have a right to know.

Hanes is interested in mentioning sparkling wines not made along the lines of the méthode champenoise. These sparkling wines are rarely labeled as being made in any particular fashion. There’s a reason. A lot of these wines are made in much larger vats and along larger commercial lines. That’s not a sexy selling point (even if the end quality is very good).

The primary mode of making sparkling wines without secondary fermentation in bottle is called the “Charmat method” after its inventor Eugene Charmat who formalized the procedure in the early 20th century. Rather than add yeast and sugar to the base wine in the bottle, they are added to the base wine in a large sealed and pressurized tank. This is where the secondary fermentation takes place to the bulk liquid. Any detritus such as dead yeast (i.e., lees) gets filtered out of the tank and doesn’t get into the bottles. The production cost for this method is much, much lower than sparklers made via the méthode champenoise.

The wineries most often utilizing the Charmat method come from the Veneto region of Italy and are known by the name of the grape used, Prosecco. German sparkling wines called “Sekt” are also on the whole made via the Charmat method. Italian wines labeled as “Spumante” can be made in the méthode champenoise or Charmat method as the term “Spumante” has no legal regulations applied to it. In the United States only the really cheap brut sparkling wines from producers such as André, Cook’s, or Tott’s are made using the Charmat method. Mmmm, Cold Duck.

Wines made via the Charmat method are generally fresher with more fruit emphasis than other sparkling wines and are meant to be consumed young. Some can be aged for about five years but Hanes is not sure why.

Extremely cheap sparkling wines (cheaper than Cold Duck?) get their fizz on in the same manner as common soda does, with compressed carbon dioxide blasted into the still wine. But we never drink these sort of wines, do we? Quick, hide the bottles…