There are different ways wine can sparkle resulting in a luxurious concoction.
By Anthony Giglio
Whenever I’m asked how I got into writing about wine, spirits and cocktails professionally, I answer truthfully: I took my first sip in utero! I even have proof (no pun intended) by way of a Technicolor Super 8 home movie from a New Year’s Eve party my grandparents threw in 1966. When the clock strikes midnight, my mom, dressed in a ballgown, holding a Parliament in one hand, and a Manhattan in the other, shouts “Happy New Year!” takes a gulp of her cocktail, followed by a puff of her cigarette, as the camera pulls back to reveal she’s eight months pregnant with me.
You see, I grew up in an Italian American family that had absolutely no discomfort with alcohol whatsoever. In fact, my siblings and cousins were given wine during Sunday lunches when we were kids, a tumbler of ice-cold red wine with a cream soda floater (to dilute it for us). We called it a Spaghetti Spritzer. However, a memory that stands out from my childhood is my first sip of Champagne. When I was seven years old, my godfather got remarried and I was the ring bearer at his wedding, sporting a black crushed velvet tuxedo with a white ruffled shirt and a giant black bowtie. As my dad was making the best man’s speech, we were poured coupes of Champagne, which was so sweet and delicious I gulped it down quickly. It was truly a prescient moment.
Years later, my aunt told me it wasn’t actually Champagne, but rather Asti Spumante. And that got me thinking about how often we’re handed coupes or flutes of sparkling wine at parties and weddings and told it’s Champagne. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s almost never Champagne, usually because of costs, but also because few people understand the differences between Traditional Method (a.k.a. Champagne) and ‘Charmat method’ (a.k.a. Prosecco) sparkling wines. With the toasty holidays upon us, there’ll be lots of bubbly poured. Let’s break down which is which.
The Traditional Method: Where Champagne Got Its Name
Champagne is a region in France that lends its name to sparkling wines made only in this region. Everything else made like Champagne (I’m getting to the how next) is either Crémant if it’s from elsewhere in France, or Traditional Method sparkling wine everywhere else. In Champagne, the holy trinity of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier reign supreme. The grapes are handpicked and carefully sorted to ensure only the best make the cut. Once the grapes are pressed (typically without skin contact), the juice goes through its first fermentation, creating a still wine that is pale and clear—all wine is born white until skin touches juice, which is why most Champagnes are white, even though they’re made with both red and white grapes. Got that?
Next is the second fermentation. The still wine (a blend of several different barrels) is transferred into bottles, and a mixture of sugar and yeast is added, causing a secondary fermentation in the bottle. As the yeast consumes the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide, which has nowhere to escape, infusing the wine with effervescence.
The wine is left to rest on its lees, those spent yeast cells, for an extended period, often years, which imparts a complexity and toasty, creamy, brioche-like character. This lengthy aging process is where the wine’s personality matures and evolves, resulting in a nuanced and refined expression of its terroir, or the place where it was made.
Finally, before being released to the world, the wine undergoes a laborious process called riddling, where the bottles are gradually turned and tilted until the yeast collects in the neck. This yeast plug is then disgorged, and a ‘dosage’ of wine and sugar is added to balance the acidity and sweetness, creating the final blend. Net-net: Traditional Method sparkling wines are known for their elegance, complexity and ability to age gracefully.
The Charmat Method: The Party in a Bottle
The Charmat Method is often used in the production of Prosecco, Asti and many other sparkling wines, and it’s all about capturing the essence of freshness and fruitiness, preserving the primary fruit flavors of the grapes. The grapes used are typically different from those used in the Traditional Method. In the case of Prosecco, Glera grapes are picked for their youthful, zesty character.
The primary fermentation produces a still wine, just like the Traditional Method, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of undergoing a secondary fermentation in individual bottles, the wine is transferred to large tanks called autoclaves, and this is where the Charmat method gets its nickname as the “tank method.” In the autoclave, sugar and yeast are added to trigger the second fermentation, and the carbon dioxide that’s produced is trapped in the tank. The wine is kept under pressure, forcing the bubbles to dissolve into the liquid, creating a fresh and frothy effervescence.
This method allows for a quicker and less labor-intensive process, resulting in wines that are meant to be enjoyed in their youth. Net-net: The wines are often bright, fruity and approachable, with a focus on freshness and simplicity. What they lack is the complexity and depth of Traditional Method wines, but they more than make up for it with their easy-drinking deliciousness.
So, which method is better, you may ask? I liken this choice as between tangerines and grapefruits; they’re from the same family but very different. For me, Champagnes and their brethren are more for savoring every sip, while Prosecco gets the party started. Bottom line? This is the classic win-win situation. Cheers!