Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, cremant de (insert regional here), no other wine goes by so many monikers. While sparkling wine is the category all these wines fall into, much like Kleenex and facial tissue, Champagne has so fully dominated the market many people associate all sparkling wine with Champagne. Champagne is in fact a region in France, only wine that has been made in Champagne has the legal right to call itself Champagne.
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Champagne is emulated the world over however it is by no means the only style of sparkling wine that exists. To create wine in the tradition method, the method that is legally required in Champagne, is rather labour intensive but yields what must be desirable results considering the success of Champagne. The traditional method involves two fermentations. Like normal still wine the grape juice is collected and yeast is allowed to consume the sugars transforming them into alcohol and CO2. The resulting wine is then bottled, sugar is added and again fermented but this time in the bottle.
The second fermentation traps the CO2 that is produced in the wine, leading to the attractive fizziness we all love so much. This second fermentation causes sediment, mostly made up of yeast poop and dead and living yeast cells, to form in the bottle. Eventually all the sugar is eaten by the yeast and there is no food left to eat. The yeast resorts to what the ill fated rugby team flying over the Andes resorted to: cannibalism. This process is known as autolysis and adds complex bread like flavours and aromas to a wine. The longer a wine sits on it’s lees (the dead yeast cells) the greater the effect becomes, and longer truly does mean longer, some sparkling wines sit for years.
Once the wine maker has decided he has been sufficiently cruel to the yeast the bottle is popped open, the sediment discarded, the wine is topped up and sealed with a cork. If you have ever noticed that quite often sparkling wine has an opening similar to a beer bottle that is because it was, during this time of cannibalism, sealed with a beer cap… probably, it could also just be a result of the style of bottle.
The traditional method produces yeasty bready flavoured wine, not to say there isn’t fruit but that isn’t the aim, this lies in contrast to the charmat method. While there are more than two methods of producing sparkling wine, the traditional method and the charmat method are, for simplicities sake, the two main categories.
The charmat method is the method that is responsible for producing lively fruity wine. Prosecco is made by using the charmat method. In this case the yeast is not forced into cannibalization instead the yeast does its secondary fermentation and than filtered out of the wine immediately. Where the traditional method is meant to add savory notes to a wine, the charmat method is specifically designed to keep a wine fruity and fresh.
There is a quick and easy way to tell how the bottle of sparkling wine in front of you was made and therefore what it will probably taste like. If the bottle says something along the lines of traditional method, or method champagnois (a term which is now outlawed in the EU), or is labeled Cava, or Champagne than the flavours are probably going to be more savory and bready. Any sparkling wine that is not labeled with any of these indicators is probably going to express more fresh fruit flavours. Prosecco, to the best of my knowledge, is always made by the charmat method but there may be a couple exceptions.
Generally speaking the traditional method creates wines that are more highly regarded than the charmat method. There is typically more complexity in wines that have undergone the traditional method, but complex or not sometimes you are just in the mood for fruit flavours rather than bread.
Interesting finishing note: sparkling wine corks are completely cylindrical before being put into the bottle.