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Bubbles 101 – Prepping for New Year’s Eve

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5 minute read

A Bubbles Primer

It is almost New Year’s Eve, the evening we drink an estimated 360 million glasses of Champagne and sparkling wine in the USA. That is a lot of bubbles. Notice that I said Champagne and sparkling wine. Are they not the same thing? Well, it’s complicated.

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Premier Cru = “first growth” Extra Brut – second driest.

First, all Champagne is sparkling wine, but most sparkling wines are NOT Champagne. Stay tuned, I will explain below.

Second, all Champagnes and sparkling wines have additional carbon dioxide dissolved into the wine that creates the bubbles once you open the bottle.

After that, is when it gets really complicated so allow me to explain. 

bubbles 101
Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

A Historical Clarification

There are many stories that the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon invented Champagne/ sparkling wine in 1668. It seems that these are fabricated stories although still widely used and promoted. He did make Champagne then, but invent sparkling wine is a very strong statement.

For a more detailed explanation of its history, please go to this article on Guildsomm, the website of the international membership organization for sommeliers and wine professionals.

What Makes Wine “Sparkling”?

The quick answer is a second fermentation. One of the by-products of fermentation is the creation of carbon dioxide gas. While the winemaker releases this gas during the first fermentation, the gas is retained and dissolved into the wine during the second fermentation. When the bottle of wine is opened and poured into a glass, the gas is released, and the wine becomes sparkling.

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Notice the French spelling of Champagne method on the bottle

What Grapes Are Used?

In the Champagne region of France, the primary grape varieties used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. It can be made using just a single one of these three varieties or any combination, thereof.  Outside of Champagne but still in France as well as in all other counties, many other grape varieties are used. There are regulations specific to different regions and other countries, but that is “TMI” for this primer.

Wait One Minute, Did You Say Pinot Noir?

Yes, I did. And yes, Pinot Noir grapes make red wines.  But the juice from most grapes, including Pinot Noir, is clear. So you can make a “white” wine from a “black or red” grape. To keep the wine “white,” the dark-skinned grapes are just lightly pressed to keep the skins from bleeding into the juice. Then the skins are quickly removed to avoid staining. 

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Composition: 78% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay; Cooperage: 90% neutral French oak, 10% stainless steel

How To Make Wines “Sparkle”?

There are several methods used to carry out this secondary fermentation. The most well known is the Traditional method or Champagne method where the base cuvée is bottled with an additional dose of sugar and yeast. The bottle is capped and the second fermentation occurs in the bottle. The additionally added dead yeast is later removed, and the wine is corked, caged and usually foiled.

Legally speaking, any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region should not be referred to as made “méthode champenoise,” but rather as “méthode traditionnelle,” although some still do. In the USA, you will see it on labels written in French more so than in English.

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MontLouis Sur Loire aka Cremat de Loire * méthode traditionnelle

The other common methods include the Charmat method (aka Tank method, Martinotti method or Italian method) and méthode Ancestrale (Ancestral method and also known as rurale, artisanale, or gaillacoise.). Lesser known still includes the Dioise method, Transfer method, Continuous (or Russian) method, and Soda method (as in like the way soda pop is made).

And Semi-Sparkling

The method used also affects the volume and size of the bubbles. As such this produces wines that need further clarification. Some wines may be called semi-sparkling, frizzante (Italy), perlant or frizant (France), and perlwein (Germany). Prosecco is by far the most well-known of the semi-sparkling wines.

{Check out my previous post about Mas de Daumas Gassac’s Rosé Frizant here.}

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Prosecco is semi-sparkling

What’s In A Name?

Only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France may be called Champagne*.

*International trade agreements and treaties codify this regulation but the US was one of the last major wine producing countries to agree to it in 2006. However, it did so with a caveat. If an American wine producer had used the name Champagne in its branding before March 10th, 2006, they could continue to use that branding on their label indefinitely as long as that specific brand was made. While most winemakers did happily accept the decree and stopped, there are still a few lower end winemakers that continue to call their wine “Champagne” to this day.

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Champagne? Really? Composition: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French  Colombard, Pinot Noir

 What are sparkling wines called then?

  • France outside of the Champagne region, it is Crémant:  Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant du Jura, Crémant de Savoie, Crémant de Die.

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  • Spain, it’s Cava
  • Italy it is Prosecco, Franciacorta, Trento DOC, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico and Asti ( or generically throughout Italy, it’s called Spumante)
  • Portugal it is Espumante
  • Germany and Austria, it is Sekt.
  • South Africa, it is Cap Classique
  • The USA, it is Sparkling Wine

The Color Of Bubbles

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Traditionally, Champagne is a white sparkling wine. The actual color can be many; from pale straw yellow, bright yellow, pale pink-yellow, pale gold, green-gold, light pink gold, dark gold, and gray-gold. The color depends on the blend and the style of wine.

Additionally, there is also Rosé Champagne and sparkling wine. It is made by allowing for the black/blue/red skin of the grapes to macerate in the juice for a short time to attain a “pink” color. In addition to white and rosé sparkling wine, some countries also produce a sparkling red wine, (i.e.Lambrusco in Italy).

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Are You Sweet? You Brut!

Champagne and sparkling wine come with varying levels of residual sugar left over from the second fermentation but more commonly from dosage (pronounced doe-sahje). Dosage is sugar or wine and sugar added to Champagne and sparkling wine to balance out the overpowering acidity from grapes that are not quite ripe. Unripe fruit is common in the Champagne region due to its climate and shorter growing season.

The dosage is a means to temper the intensity of the acid or in many cases to impart some level of sweetness. And depending on the amount of dosage added, you’ll end up with a variety of wines whose descriptive terms can be confusing but are basically a scale from the sweetest to the driest. 

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Composition: 75% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir

To the uninitiated, it seems like “Extra Dry” should be the driest of all sparkling wines. Ah, but au contraire! I will not geek out on you here with a further explanation. Just know that the level of driest to sweetest is the following:

  • Brut Nature – is the driest with no added sugar
  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra Dry
  • Dry
  • Demi-Sec
  • Doux – this is the sweetest

One Last Drill Down

What is Blanc de Blanc, and Blanc de Noir?

These terms are used to inform you of the grape varietal used to make a specific style of Champagne or sparkling wine. These terms are used mainly in the Champagne region but are also used in other countries, including the USA.

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I have no idea why the “s” is added to Blanc de Noirs

Blanc de Blanc means “white of white.” This refers to white-skinned grapes (traditionally 100% Chardonnay) used to make white sparkling wine.

Blanc de Noir means “white of black” which refers to dark-skinned grapes used to make white sparkling wine. (traditionally Pinot Noir and or Pinot Meunier)


Bubbles and More Bubbles

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Italian Bubbles – Prosecco
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Spanish Bubbles – Cava
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California Bubbles – Sparkling Wine
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British Bubbles – Sparkling Wine

That is all for now. Hope you had a great holiday.

Cheers and Happy New Year,

rick

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Thank you.  Photo by Tristan Gassert on Unsplash
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