As wine professionals, we are often asked what our desert island bottle is. Many tipplers are surprised that the answer is so often sparkling. Effervescent wines bring about joy, whether you’re at a wedding, celebrating a victory or just have a Tuesday off – bubbles evoke a sense of fun and festivity. 

To start the new year off, we sat down with two wildly knowledgeable wine professionals – Karen Ulrich, Director of National Sales for T. Edwards Imports, and Emily Towe, co-owner and co-winemaker at J. Brix winery in California. Karen summed up the love for sparkling perfectly: “It’s zippy! It dances on the tongue and sends a shimmer through my body. It’s an all-encompassing experience. Texture, evolving aromas and a lingering pallet. It’s transcendent.” Who wouldn’t find this enticing?

There are many types of sparkling wines, and it can get confusing. In this month’s column, we hope to give you some insight into this category that is revered for so many insiders.

A little history

The most primitive form of sparkling has seen a resurgence, especially due to the natural wine movement. As far back as 1531, monks in the region of Limoux, France were writing about the wines created when fermentation is stopped early, and wine undergoes a secondary fermentation causing CO2 to be trapped in the bottle. Voilà – sparkling wine! 

This “Ancestral Method” was thought to be an accident; the winter chill stopped fermentation and as spring approached, the yeast awoke and began to do its magic. Sparkling wines were the result, and the monks were pleased. Cremant de Limoux is still produced today and offers wine that tends to be a great value (Try: NV J. Laurens Blanquette de Limoux)

The popularity of Ancestral Method today is seen in wines called Pét-Net or Pétillant-Natural. These wines often have quirky names and labels, and Emily Towe explains, “Pét-nat, simply put, is a naturally sparkling wine. It’s bottled at the very end of fermentation, when the yeast has converted most (but not quite all) of the grape’s natural sugars to alcohol, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Once bottled, the grape sugar continues to ferment, but the released carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, creating natural carbonation, [and] those chunks you sometimes see in a pét-nat are a harmless byproduct of fermentation – as we say on our label, embrace the cloud of delicious!” (Try: 2020 J. Brix Cabolorum Riesling Pét-Net)

And then came Champagne

The development of this style led to the most well-known and highly sought-after wine, Champagne. Again, monks are involved. Karen notes, “The first time I really read about how Champagne was made, I shed a few tears, for the commitment and care that goes into making it.”

In the 17th century a monk named Dom. Pierre Pérignon planted grapes in the region of Champagne in hopes of duplicating what they were doing down in Limoux, but died before any commercial wine was made. The house of Ruinart adopted the style and was the first to start selling sparking in 1764. 

In 1774, Madame Clicquot of Veuve Clicquot helped to create the process we know as Méthode Traditionnelle or Traditional Method. As explained by Emily, “the traditional method used to make Champagne (Methode Champenoise), where a base wine of either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a combo of the three is fermented fully to dryness, and then a combination of yeast and sugar is added to create a second fermentation in bottle. In both methods, sediment (lees) is created in the bottle as the byproduct of the fermentation. This sediment can be removed by a process called disgorging, where it is allowed to collect in the neck of the bottle; frozen; and ejected. All traditional method sparkling wines are disgorged to remove the sediment.” 

A dosage (another mixture of still wine and sugar) is often added to the wine to finish it. The sugar amounts are what dictates a classification of style – from dry to sweet: Brut Nature, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry and Demi-Sec. (Try: NV Champagne André Heucq ‘Heritage’ Blanc de Meunier)

This method and the region are synonymous if a wine is labelled as Champagne. For other wines made utilizing the same unique process, consider Cava, specifically from the region of Penedés, Spain. Wines here are often made in the Brut Nature or Brut style. (Try: 2019 Bodegas Naveran Dama Cava)

Italian flavor

Sparkling wines are also traditional in Italy. Prosecco is specifically made in Veneto principally with the grape Glera. First referenced in 1754, originally made with a method known as Col Fondo, a process similar to ancestral method, that is still employed today by natural winemakers (Try: NV La Vigne Alice ‘A Fondo’)

However, the most popular way of making Prosecco is the Charmat or Tank method – in Emilia-Romagna, Lambrusco is often made with this process as well. This method involves a large steel tank where still wine has a liqueur de tirage added to promote the secondary fermentation. The wine is held under pressure causing the CO2 (bubbles) to remain in the wine.

The wine is then filtered, bottled and a dosage is added. This usually brings about a wine that tends to be sweeter than others with bubbles that are softer. (Try: 2019 Mongarda Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut / NV Fattoria Moretto Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Secco)

Cheers to 2022 and we look forward to popping more bottles with you!

Sarah Pierre

Sarah Pierre owns 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.

Katie Rice

Katie Rice owns VinoTeca, a wine shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.