Champagne, Prosecco, Cava or English sparkling? Read our blog and find the right wine for the right occasion.
A short history of sparkling wine
To understand sparkling wine we must understand the basics of the fermentation process.
- When the juice inside the grapes (full of sugar) comes in contact with the yeasts (traditionally from the skin of the grapes) the yeasts feed on the sugar, creating alcohol and CO2.
- Most wines are fermented in open tanks so the gas evaporates, but in a closed vessel the gas is trapped and the wine becomes effervescent.
- Yeasts become inactive in a cold environment but once the temperature rises they wake up and become active again, creating gas and alcohol.
This process first started to be understood in the 17th century when a monk named Dom Perignon began to experiment in the Champagne village of Hautvillier. Although he actually dedicated his life to getting rid of the bubbles, his studies helped future generations understand sparkling wine and craft the first Champagnes. Today all sparkling wines go through two fermentation processes. The first one converts the sugar into alcohol and the second retains the gas and creates the effervescence.
Various styles are made which include Non Vintage, a blend of several years, Vintage, only made in exceptional year, Blanc de Blancs, only made with white grapes (Chardonnay), Blanc de Noirs, only made with red grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Both whites and rosés are produced, although the latter is not made the usual way – via skin contact so the grape’s skin colours the must during the maceration – when produced in Champagne but by mixing red and white wine together.
How to make sparkling wine
The traditional method is the most famous and arguably the most esteemed, but this is also the most expensive and the slowest as the transformation from still to sparkling takes place inside the bottle and goes through several phases listed below. The main advantage is to age the wine on its lees, so it develops biscuity and toasty aromas as a result of a process called autolysis. This method is mainly used to produce Cava, Champagne and Crémant but is also used to make most English sparkling wines too.
First fermentation: once the grapes are picked, they are fermented dry in opened tanks usually until the wine achieves around 10% abv. The resulting wine is highly acidic at this stage. Usually, grapes and vineyards are vinified individually and stored in separate tanks.
Assemblage: about five months after the harvest, grapes and plots are blended together. In Champagne they are also blended with some reserve wines (fermented in previous years) in order to create the final style desired by the winemaker. Due to the cold climate, most Champagne houses have created a non-vintage signature style representing their brand. Each year, oenologists blend the wine from the current year with previous years so the style remains the same.
Second fermentation: This takes place inside the bottle where the liqueur de tirage (yeast and sugar) is added to the blended wine so the second fermentation can kick off. This time the CO2 created is trapped which creates the effervescence. Once the fermentation stops, the yeasts die and fall to the bottom of the bottle, which lies on its side, and form a sediment called lees.
Ageing: The wine is aged on its lees in order to gain complexity and texture. This process is called autolysis. Usually, the longer the better. Wines must be aged for 15 months minimum or three years for a vintage in Champagne – nine months in Cava and for making Cremant.
Riddling: The lees are slowly brought to the neck of the bottle. Traditionally this was down manually on wooden boards called pupitre but nowadays it is done mechanically.
Disgorging: Once the lees are at the neck of the bottle, the bottle is placed upside down in a freezing liquid so that it is trapped, ready to be popped out of the bottle, as a result of the pressure.
Dosage: Finally, the liqueur de dosage (wine and sugar) is added to fill the gap created. Depending on the dosage the wine will be bone dry (extra brut), dry (brut), off dry (demi sec) or sweet (doux).
Charmat or Tank Method
This method is simpler, quicker and cheaper that the traditional one, yet it can still be used to produce premium wine. After the first fermentation, the wine is blended and added to a pressured and closed tank where the liqueur de tirage is added. Once the CO2 is trapped in the tank, the wine is filtered, dosed and bottled without ageing. As a result, the wines retain the character of the grape and are fruitier and fresher. This method is mainly used in Italy to make Prosecco and Lambrusco.
The Perfect Food and Sparkling Wine Match
Parties and formal receptions
Sparkling wine and parties go hand in hand but lighter styles are recommended. They are versatile and can accommodate a wide variety of food, so they are brilliant with canapés. Of course, Prosecco is the first name that comes to mind and it is now one of the UK’s most popular wines. Prosecco Botter is very easy drinking but more serious examples can be found such as our award winning Prosecco Toffoli. Made in the heart of the appellation in the villages of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, this is a serious step up!
For garden parties you may be looking for a fruiter style. Crémants are a really good option such as Crémant de Loire Rosé from Domaine Langlois-Chateau – but if you want to try something different then opt for Gouguenheim Rosé, made with 100% Malbec. English sparkling such as Court Garden Rosé and Exton Park are also perfect on sunny days and have far more depth than Prosecco.
For a formal reception, nothing can beat Champagne. A non vintage Champagne, like our ever popular Davy’s Celebration is always well received, as are other small family producers like the award winning Champagne Dumenil. We recommend the Grande Reserve. Big names such as Louis Roerderer or Pol Roger are great alternative and better value than some of the most famous brands. Richer on the palate, yet delicate, they have plenty of red berry and citrus fruits with notes of toast and almonds.
If you want to try an English alternative then Nyetimber is the one! It has beaten many Champagnes at various blind tasting competitions. Finally, if you don’t want to break the bank, try a Cava. They may have fallen out of fashion but they are very good and excellent value. Our organic Cava Savia Viva is a great example.
Fish and seafood
Sparkling wines are a perfect match for very delicate dishes. Oysters taste fantastically when paired with a Blanc de Blancs. Their mineral quality goes well with the oyster’s salinity. Gosset Blanc de Blancs, the oldest wine house in Champagne, and Hoffman & Rathbone Blanc de Blancs, a small English négociant in Sussex, are both great options.
The Non Vintage Champagne style, made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, (listed in the reception section above) will work well with any fish dish due to its crisp texture and yeasty aromas, but light fish will work particularly well with a good Prosecco or a light Crémant from the Loire Valley. Rich fish like salmon or monk fish will also pair well with a sparkling rosé such as our Duménil Rosé and also more muscular styles like Bollinger. If you would like to experiment why not try our exclusive Crémant d’Alsace Jean Becker Extra Brut – more aromatic yet crisp with hints of almonds and apricot.
Roasted poultry and game
Sparkling wines also work well with roasted poultry. Here again a Non Vintage Champagne style (listed in the reception section above) is a good match due to its yeasty aromas and buttery texture.
While this is not the most obvious choice, game is a brilliant match for Champagne. Blanc de Noirs are only made with red grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They are well-structured with plenty of wild berry fruits that complement game dishes. After all, Pinot Noir is a must with game so there is nothing surprising here. Duménil Amour de Cuvée will work wonders. Aged for five years on its lees, it is full of character.
Rosé, mainly made with red grapes and Vintage Champagne are obviously worth your attention. Vintage Champagnes are only produced in exceptional years and as a result they are very intense and complex. Why not combine the two with Louis Roederer Rosé Vintage. Made from the saignée method (the only Rosé made entirely with skin contact in Champagne) it is rich and full-bodied.
Cheese and dessert
Light goat’s cheese works well with lighter styles of sparkling wine such as good quality Prosecco and Crémant while hard and matured cheeses, like Parmesan, are the perfect accompaniment to a sparkling wine with extra ageing on the lees due to their similar buttery and nutty flavours. Vintage Champagne, which is aged for a minimum of three years, but usually longer, or award winning Gusbourne from Kent will do just that.
Most sparkling wines pair nicely with dessert but a sweeter style would work best. Ochoa MdO, with its typical Muscat variety aromas and white roses, ripe fruits and citrus notes, is fresh and elegant and will pair especially well with fruit cake or mousse.