I’m not quite sure why many people gravitate towards sparkling wines only for special occasions. I can honestly tell you that a good sparkling wine tastes just as good on a random Tuesday in February as it does on New Year’s Eve. I’m going to blame it on labeling terms. They can be a bit confusing. What is the difference between brut and dry anyway? And let’s also blame tradition. We’ve been conditioned to think of sparkling wines only for special occasions such as weddings, New Year’s Eve, and Grand Openings! Since at least one of these occasions will present itself this week, let’s put to rest some of the confusion with a few tips for successfully choosing a sparkling wine for NYE and many occasions to come.
I think it’s helpful to know that sparkling wine is it’s own wine category… with endless options to choose from. Sparkling wines come in a wide range of tastes, styles, quality and price points. Trying to navigate a large category is much easier when you break it down into small, manageable sub-categories such as color which could include white, rosé, and red. Or quality level such as basic, good, and premium. And sweetness level including dry, off-dry, medium-sweet and sweet.
There are many other things to consider when choosing a sparkling wine, but we don’t need to dwell on all of them. After all we’d like to get in, get out, and get to the party right? So here are three basic things to consider when choosing a sparkling wine to get you on your way.
Where is the wine from?
Different wine regions grow different grapes so it’s easy to imagine that a region will produce a sparkling wine from the particular grape varieties the grow best there. A sparkling wine from Carneros, California, for example, is probably going to be made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir because that’s what grows there. And in many wine regions only certain grape varieties are authorized for sparkling wine production. Prosecco must be made from the Glera grape grown in a defined region of Italy, according to Italian law. If these and other requirements are not met, then it’s not labelled a Prosecco. So which grape varieties grow where and what’s in the bottle? All questions quickly and easily answered by Googling the wine on your phone.
The specific area of where the wine is from is also going to give you insight to the climate that the grapes grew in. Did you know that the most renown sparkling wine grape growing areas have relatively cooler growing seasons than grapes for still wines? Paying attention to where the grapes are grown is now given you you two key insights: grapes and climate—and an indication of aroma and flavor profiles, quality, and style.
How did the bubbles get in there?
All sparkling wines start out as a still wine. Then there are many ways to make a wine sparkle. How the bubbles came to be in the wine is a key influence on a sparkling wine’s flavor and aroma attributes, it’s quality, and style. Three very common methods include:
Carbonation (Hose)—simply adding CO2 to a still wine to give it bubbles. This method is typically reserved for low-cost, high-production bulk wines.
Charmat (Tank)—The still wine is placed in a pressurized ‘tank’ where more yeast and sugar are added. The yeast eats the sugar to create more alcohol and during this process it releases CO2 which dissolves into the wine under pressure. The sparkling wine is then bottled under pressure. The resulting wine will display prominent attributes of the grape variety(s), aromatic or not. Examples of sparkling wines that use this method include Italy’s Prosecco, Lambrusco, and Asti, also Sekt from Germany, and so many others. Ask you’re wine retailer from some other exmaples they may carry if you are looking for this style.
Methode Champanoise/Traditionnelle/Classique (Bottle)—All refer to the same method in which champagne is made. Here, the still wine is added to the bottle along with yeast and sugar. The wines is capped and put to rest for the secondary fermentation to take place in the bottle. Further more the wine is aged sur lie, a French term meaning on the yeast, in this very bottle for an extended period of time. How long depends on the quality of the produce in the bottle and/or to at least meet the minimum sparkling wine sur lie aging requirements of a particular region. The longer the sur lie bottle aging, the more complex, higher quality, higher priced (usually) the wine. The resulting sparkling wine will display fine bubbles, varietal characteristics, and a complex bread-like yeasty aromas, and texture from prolonged yeast contact. Examples of sparkling wines that use this method, with varying requirements, include France’s Champagne and Crémant, Spain’s Cava, Italy’s Franciacorta, and many others from all around the world.
It’s important to note another step in this method as it my come up in a sparkling wine conversation. Once the yeast is removed from the bottle there is inevitably a little loss of wine. Each bottle is topped off with wine and any sugar that is needed for the wine’s desired sweetness level. This topping off liquid is known as the ‘dosage’. Which leads us to our third and final question.
What is the sweetness level?
This is perhaps the most important consideration when buying sparkling wine. And as luck would have it it’s the least straight forward of the labeling terms. Grapes destined for sparkling wines are commonly grown in a relatively cooler climate during the growing season than are grapes for still dry wines. So often times sugar is added to offset the under-ripeness of fruit and higher natural acidity to make a more balanced wine that tastes dry. And sometimes greater amounts of sugar is added to make a wine that tastes sweet.
Here’s an easy chart for labeling terms as they pertain to dry and sweetness levels.
Easy, right? You’ve got this! Just don’t over think it andplease don’t over wine-snob it. Bubbles are meant to be enjoyed. If you need help ask to speak to a wine buyer in the store or at the restaurant. Whatever wine you choose I wish you a fun and safe New Year’s Eve.
Drop me a comment here and let me know what you ended up getting for bubbles. I’d love to hear about your success!
The photo at the top is a selection of wines from a Wine Wise Private Event: A Mother-of-The-Bride Sparkling Wine Tasting. The wines pictured are as follows from left to right:
2014 Renardat Fache, Cerdon du Bugey AOC, FR (Gamay, Poulsard)
2011 Gramona La Cuvee Gran Reserva Cava DO, ES (Xarel-lo, Macabeo)
2010 Monzio Compagnoni, Franciacorta Satèn DOCG, IT (100% Chardonnay)
N/V The Chook, Sparkling Shiraz, AU (100% Shiraz)
2015 Vietti, Moscato d’Asti (100% Moscato)
Photo Credit: Wine Wise