Our Definitive Guide to Sparkling Wine
The basics of the beautiful, bubbly drink
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, American novelist
It’s 1693 in Champagne, northern France. Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedectine monk, comes rushing down to his cellar after hearing another glass explosion. It happens every so often: a wine already in bottle undergoes accidental fermentation, produces too much carbon dioxide, and causes pressure to build up, exploding the bottle.
At the time in France, they called this vin du diable — devil’s wine. Winemakers often wore masks in their cellars to avoid shrapnel from the bursting bottles.
Sparkling wine started as a grave accident. Nobody knew how to control it. In fact, the monastery that hired Dom Pérignon desperately hoped he could find a way to stop it.
It wasn’t until years later that bubbly became a magical, celebratory drink. Enjoyed by aristocracy and the middle class alike, it’s refreshing, bubbly personality is a pleasure to drink. It elevates you. The dynamic crispiness lifts you up! Americans agree; in 2018, the US will drink over 400 million bottles of it.
But, a word of caution before you indulge: sparkling wine suffers from a few hidden ills of modern conventional winemaking. Most sparkling wines contain high sugar levels, and in famous winemaking regions like Champagne, there’s almost no organic farming. This may explain your nasty headaches or hangovers after a few flutes.
Fear not; real, honest Natural Sparkling Wine exists. No sugar, all organic farming. These are the sparkling wines we enjoy drinking and sourcing. And here’s everything you need to know to find them.
So, what is sparkling wine exactly?
It is wine with effervescence — scientifically, carbon dioxide (CO2). There are many different ways you can add CO2 to an otherwise still wine. The most traditional and famous way is called the traditional method.
“La méthode traditionnelle” is most famously used in Champagne, but also in Spain for Cava and France for Crémant.
Start with grapes and yeast.
The yeast eats up all the sugars in the wine, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This is called primary fermentation, and usually occurs in a tank until there is no more sugar left for the yeast to eat.
The carbon dioxide bubbles produced from this first fermentation escape. But, sparkling wine needs bubbles, so add a tirage — extra yeast and sugar — to kickstart a second fermentation.
Before the second fermentation progresses too far, bottle the wine so the carbon dioxide stays trapped in the bottle as bubbles.
As the second fermentation continues, yeast particles die in the bottle. “Lees,” or dead yeast particles, are very important to the overall texture and taste of a sparkling wine.
(Certain regions require sparkling wine to age with the lees in the bottle for some time. In Champagne, it’s 15 months; in Cava, it’s 9 months.)
Once ready to remove the dead yeast particles, turn the bottles over and let the lees collect in the neck of the bottle. This is called riddling.
Then, drop the bottles upside down in freezing water to freeze the yeast particles in one large chunk. Pop off the cap to let the frozen block of lees shoot out, then re-cap the bottles. This is called disgorgement.
Finally, if you think the wine needs it, add a dosage — another round of sugar and wine — to fill the bottles and balance out the acidity in flavor.
Congratulations, you’ve made sparkling wine according to the traditional method.
Types of Bubbly
There are many types of bubbly around the world: Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, and Crémant are just a few. They vary in taste, winemaking styles, and regional practices.
Here a few characteristics of the most popular.
Champagne is a French sparkling wine from the northeastern region of Champagne, France. Sparkling wine can only be called “Champagne” if it is from this region and follows specific regulations.
(A French sparkling wine that isn’t from Champagne but is still made in the same way is called “Crémant”).
The three grapes used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Produced following la méthode traditionnelle, Champagne boasts very high bottle pressure, resulting in tight, fine bubbles. This buoys nutty and toasty aromatic notes, which makes it round yet precise.
Unfortunately, most of the region of Champagne is farmed conventionally using chemicals in the vineyards. And, Champagne often contains residual sugar left over from the dosage.
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine produced in northern Spain. Most Cava comes from the Penedès region near Barcelona.
The main grapes in Cava are Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Lean and high acid, Cava’s taste is highlighted by citrus notes. Underlying minerality often accompanies them. And, like Champagne, Cava production follows the traditional method.
This also means Cava runs high in sugar. And, because Spain is hot, Cava’s alcohol levels are typically higher than most sparkling wines (not so good for avoiding a hangover).
Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made in the Veneto region of northern Italy. Glera is the main grape used.
Unlike Champagne and Cava, Prosecco production follows the tank method. The process is similar to the traditional method except secondary fermentation occurs in a large tank instead of the bottles. This results in two unique aspects of Prosecco:
Bottle pressure is not high (since some CO2 gas escapes in the tank) so the bubbles are lighter — not as tight and bright.
Whereas aging is common for Champagne (vintage Champagne is some of the most expensive wine in the world), it’s rare for Prosecco. Secondary fermentation happens in tank and not in bottle, so Prosecco doesn’t gain as much intense flavor from the lees (dead yeast particles). It’s lighter, fresher, crisper.
Unfortunately, much like Champagne, Prosecco does not appear in sugar-free form very often. And, as the popularity of Prosecco skyrockets, producers in Veneto choose pesticides and other farming chemicals to make enough product to meet demand.
The Natural Way
Is it possible to make sparkling wine following Nature without pesticides, sugar, or high alcohol? Yes, and it’s called pétillant naturel. To us, it’s the most exciting, juicy, compelling, completely natural, honest way to make sparkling wine.
Called petnat for short, “pétillant naturel” is French for “naturally sparkling.” It’s crafted following “la méthode ancestrale,” one of the oldest and simplest ways to make bubbly because it requires little human intervention. It was also discovered unexpectedly.
Wine is brought into the cellar after the fall harvest to ferment during the winter months. Back in the days of Dom Pérignon, without advanced technology, cellarmasters used the naked eye to decipher when fermentation had finished. In the springtime, when it looked like fermentation was done, they bottled the wine.
But, the fermentation was not actually finished. The cold temperatures of the winter months had temporarily paused the chemical reaction. When the weather warmed up in spring, fermentation started up again in the bottles, causing bubbles to form and stay trapped in.
Here’s the best part: the wine growers didn’t open up the bottles again. They let them bubble and develop naturally.
Still today, once a petnat is bottled, the winegrowers don’t mess with it. No riddling, disgorging, or dosage. Fermentation continues in the bottle until there’s no residual sugar left to fuel the yeasts. The wine growers don’t filter either, so petnats are often cloudy with sediment — a beautiful sign of natural personality.
Petnats follow a basic principle: as little human intervention as possible. Let the wine express itself in its full glory.
Can Bubbly Be Healthy?
Sparkling wine tastes great. It’s refreshing and bright. The bubbles give it a dynamic kick.
But, most commercial sparkling wines contain lots of sugar. A bottle of bubbly can have more than 50g/L of sugar, which is roughly 2 teaspoons per glass. You won’t be able to tell unless you lab test the wine because the wine industry has lobbied for years to keep contents labelling off wine bottles.
And, because the demand for sparkling wine continues to increase, winemakers are choosing the industrial shortcuts in the vineyards to meet the demand: more pesticides, more chemicals, more machinery.
We feel the best when we avoid all this. That’s why petnats are our favorite wine style. Some health reasons include:
Since petnats naturally ferment in the bottle, they contain less sugar. Yeasts keep powering fermentation until there isn’t any left. And, without dosage, no sugar is added back in.
Natural wine growers who follow the ancestral method allow native yeasts to continue fermentation in the bottle. No GMO or synthetic, lab-made yeasts.
The taste reflects Nature. The wine isn’t driven by profits; it’s a beautiful expression of earth’s minerality and honesty.