Champagne and sparkling wines are synonymous with celebration. Perhaps part of their allure is their ability to captivate all our senses at once – from hearing the satisfying pop of the cork to feeling the tongue-prickling fizz on your first sip – there is something very special about enjoying a glass of bubbles.
At Christmastime, these wines feature particularly heavily in households nationwide and beyond. They feel indulgent and exciting, providing an excellent way for friends and family to come together and chink their glasses as they let out festive cheer!
With an incredibly diverse and expansive range of sparkling wines available, it can be hard to navigate your way through. Is Champagne always better? What is a traditional method sparkling wine? Why is Prosecco fruitier? Read on to delve into the fascinating fizzy world and ensure you have the perfect bottle lined up to add sparkle to your Christmas.
Champagne and Traditional Method Sparkling
This labour-intensive method is the most widely recognised way to create a sparkling wine, but it requires great skill and patience. Also referred to as the ‘Champagne Method’ or ‘Méthode Champenois’, it is very often associated with Champagne.
This lengthy process is broken down into the following steps:
Cuvée Assemblage: after the wine has undergone its first fermentation to create a still ‘base wine’, the Cellar Master blends several different base wines together to create the cuvée. Ordinarily, in Champagne, each Champagne House will aim to produce a consistent style for their Non-Vintage wines year after year, which is referred to as the ‘house style’.
Liqueur de tirage: once the cuvée is bottled, a mixture of sugar/grape must and yeast is added to the wine before it is sealed under a metal crown cap (like on a beer bottle). This promotes a second fermentation in the bottle, but because the CO2 is trapped, it forms bubbles in the wine.
Ageing: the wine is then aged for a minimum of 9 months, although many producers often extend this to years to add more depth and complexity to their wines. During this time, the wines are stored sur latte (on their side) to ensure the wine is kept in contact with the lees – the spent yeast cells which, having fulfilled their primary job of turning sugar into alcohol, now impart biscuit, brioche and yeasty flavours to the wine.
Remuage: after ageing, the bottles are carefully transferred to a pupitre (riddling rack), whereby trained ‘riddlers’ painstakingly rotate the bottles fractionally each day by hand until the bottles are sur point (upside down). This slowly shifts the yeast to the neck of the bottle in preparation for removal. Mechanical gyropalettes are a modern alternative to this process – and are arguably just as good at it.
Disgorgement: once all the yeast sediment is gathered in the neck of the bottle, it is dipped into a freezing solution, forming a solid ‘plug’. Once the crown cap is removed, the pressure from the CO2 that has built up in the bottle during its second fermentation ejects the solid mass of sediment.
Dosage: now that the sediment has been taken out, the wine needs a top-up to ensure nobody is short-changed by the level in their bottle! The liqueur d’expédition or liqueur de dosage (a mixture of base wine and sugar) is added to replenish any missing liquid and determine the final style of wine before the bottle is sealed with a cork – the more sugar added, the sweeter the finished wine.
With so much work going into creating these wines, it is easy to see why they are so revered. Champagne is easily the most iconic sparkling wine that uses this method, so it would be remiss of us not to highlight a celebration-worthy bottle for Christmas. Champagne JM Labruyère Prologue Extra Brut NV is a Pinot Noir-dominant Champagne that tantalises your taste buds with generous fruit – soft red berries and apple pie interlaced with brioche and biscuit notes.
Of course, there is a variety of other sparkling wines besides Champagne that use the traditional method too. English Sparkling wine is perhaps the second most renowned example. Ambriel Blanc de Blancs Brut Traditional Method 2017 is made by Charles and Wendy Outhwaite, who swapped their lives in London as a banker and barrister to relocate to Sussex and set up their wine estate in 2006. Their small-scale operation is impressive and shines through in this delicious Blanc de Blancs, which is brimming with lemon cream, Royal Gala apples and meadow blossom, complemented by a saline edge.
From areas in France outside of the Champagne region, the traditional method sparklers are called Crémants. Tissot-Maire Blanc de Noirs Crémant du Jura Brut NV hails from the sub-region of Jura, nestled between Burgundy and Switzerland. A vibrant style of bubbles, this boasts notes of orchard fruit and crushed strawberries on a backdrop of spiced fig and a mineral core.
Finally, another ‘trad med’ classic to highlight is Cava. This Spanish fizz uses three different indigenous grape varieties, Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, to produce wines of great character, often at a fraction of the cost. Cava Joan Sarda Reserva Brut NV is a beautiful bottle of bubbles from the Alt Penedès in north-east Spain brimming with crisp apple fruit laced with almond croissant and evocative acacia blossom enriched by a creamy mousse and saline zing.
Prosecco from the tank
Known as the Charmat method in France, the more commonly titled ‘tank method’ is typically associated with popular Italian fizzes Prosecco and Lambrusco. After the assemblage (blend) is completed, instead of bottling the wine to promote a second fermentation, the wine has its dose of liqueur de tirage added and is transferred to a sealed tank. As the wine begins to ferment, it releases CO2, which in turn pressurises the tank so that bubbles are formed in the liquid. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is filtered from the tank and bottled with a top-up of liqueur de dosage.
This method retains the fresh and fruity character of the wine and can feasibly be bottled in a matter of weeks following the grape harvest.
Pianer Prosecco DOCG Valdobbiadene, Le Colture Extra Dry NV has delicate white blossom aromas followed by beautifully pure fruit on the palate and a sumptuously rich mousse. Also available in magnums, this is a surefire way to get the party started during the festive season.
Asti also uses a variation of this tank method, except it is only fermented once; the grape juice is transferred to a pressurized tank where yeast is added to promote fermentation. Once the desired alcohol level is reached, the wine is chilled to interrupt fermentation before the yeasts are filtered out and the wine is bottled under pressure. The result is a delicious sip of light, fruity and gently fizzy Asti, which is often low in alcohol too.
Moscato d’Asti DOCG Fratelli Antonio e Raimondo 2022 is sweet, fruity and refreshing, delighting the palate with acacia flowers, honeyed undertones and grapey flavours. It pairs well with fruity desserts such as Pavlova or Panettone but also serves well as an apéritif for Christmas celebrations.
The oldest trick in the book
The Méthod Ancestrale technique is considered to be the oldest way to make sparkling wine, pioneered by monks in Southern France in the 1500s. This has been disputed by Champagne winemakers ever since, who firmly believe that their traditional method was the original sparkling winemaking technique.
How it works: before the wine has completed its first fermentation, it is cooled to make the yeasts inside dormant and then bottled to trap any resulting CO2. The wine requires no disgorgement, so it may appear cloudy, but that is all part of its charm!
While traditionalists in the Limoux region of Southern France have used this method to create their Blanquette wines for centuries, Méthode Ancestrale also saw a resurgence in the 21st century with Petillant Naturel, more commonly known as ‘Pet Nat’.
Bubbles on a budget
By far the cheapest way to create a bottle of sparkling wine is by CO2 injection. These wines are made in bulk and are generally reserved for inexpensive, lower-quality wines. To satisfy the high demand for sparkling wine on the domestic market, Germany regularly uses this method by importing base wine from across the globe and injecting Carbon Dioxide into it to create the desired amount of bubbles, labelling the wine as Sekt.
Note that Deutscher Sekt is not the same and generally uses the traditional method to create sparkling wine of high quality.
A touch of sweetness
So what makes a bottle of sparkling sweet? It all depends on the amount of sugar added during the dosage stage (note dosage occurs in all methods). A winemaker may choose to add a dollop more sugar to help balance out high acidity or simply to achieve a particular style of wine.
To help you spot the style, there is usually an indication on the wine label, which is as follows:
Brut Nature: 0-3 grams of sugar per litre (bone dry).
Extra Brut: 0-6 grams of sugar per litre.
Brut: less than 12 grams of sugar per litre (the most popular style on the British market).
Extra Dry: 12-17 grams of sugar per litre (confusingly not that dry! Often a style used for Prosecco).
Sec: 17-32 grams of sugar per litre.
Demi-Sec: 35-50 grams of sugar per litre.
Doux: More than 50 grams of sugar per litre (rarely seen on the British market, think a fizzy dessert wine).
Champagne vs Sparkling
So to conclude, should you drink Champagne or Sparkling Wine this Christmas?
The truth is, it really is up to you! Explore the variety of styles on offer to discover what your favourite tastes are. As you can see, there is an abundance of wines made in the same way as Champagne and some of them offer incredible value. However, a rich and biscuity style isn’t for everyone, so if you prefer a glass of something fruity, there are many options for you there too.
Whatever you decide to celebrate the festive season with, make sure there are plenty of glasses to go around, and we are sure you’ll see many smiling faces before you.
For more festive inspiration and shopping, visit our Christmas Hub.