Love, raisins, fireworks and… sparkling wine! A review.

The final countdown has started and with only a few days to go until we welcome 2019, it’s now time to begin the preparations for the last night of the year. There are a few things to cross off the list like rethink our New Year’s Eve resolutions after another year of messing up, stock up the pantry with raisins, have the loved ones around, organize the fireworks and invite that friend good at blowing up things and… sort out the sparkling wine! People have different ways of celebrating the start of the new year depending on the culture and traditions, but one thing seems to be always in our hand after midnight regardless of who and where we are and it is a glass of sparkling wine. Bubbles seem to sparkle the moments of celebration and on this article we will explore the ‘when, what and why’ of this festive drink.

England or France? The paradox.

Just like many other happy accidents throughout the human history, sparkling wine could be the penicillin of the wine world as there are records of incidental fizziness since Biblical times. However, the product owes its existence mainly to the development of technology unrelated to the production of the wine itself. We must ignore all the faults, accidents and the effervescence attributed to the phases of the moon and focus on the year of 1662 when Christopher Merret stated to the Royal Society in London “our wine-coopers of recent times use vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling”.

There is an erroneous believe that Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine in the late 1690s, but Merret’s report a few decades earlier is the first documented proof that still wine was intentionally turned into sparkling by adding sugar and molasses and by that time only England had the required technology to make it: the ability to produce stronger glass and the reintroduction of cork as closures.

A strong glass bottle able to withstand the high pressure of sparkling wine is mandatory and England was able to produce it in the early 1600s by using coal-fired glass furnaces at much higher temperature instead of wood-fired ones used in France, only able to produce structurally weaker glass. Also, it is essential to use a closure able to withhold the pressure and back in the XVII century it was cork. Cork was lost during the decline of the Roman Empire and only rediscovered by France in 1685 at the earliest, but England was shipping bottled wine from France sealed with corks decades earlier in the XVI century.

England had advanced glass technology in the early XVII century, which led the country to surpass the French competition.

It is clear that England had the knowledge and the means to produce and preserve the effervescence of a sparkling wine, the paradox (and what makes everything much exciting!) is the fact that they were making it with wines shipped from… Champagne! The primary fermentation in this cold region in the north of France would prematurely stop because of the low temperatures late in the season and naturally restart a few months later in the warmer spring days.

The process

It took a few decades to get to the product with the characteristics as we know in our days, essentially to understand and optimize the science behind the effervescence and establish the relation between the sugar required to the second fermentation to produce a certain amount of carbon dioxide (pressure). In our days there are strict legislation to produce this special wine, with the OIV stating that a sparkling is a wine supersaturated in carbon dioxide (CO2) from an exclusive endogenous origin (secondary fermentation), resulting in an excess pressure of this gas in the bottle of at least 3.5bars at 20°C (68ºF) or 3.0bars for bottles less than 0.25L.

The production of sparkling wine can be separated in two main stages: base wine production and second fermentation/ageing. The base wine production follows the general principles of a white wine, with the particularity that the grapes are harvested earlier in the season to retain a higher acidity (essential to the freshness and balance) and have a lower sugar content (potential alcohol normally under 11%). Once musts have fermented to dryness and the wines are filtered, stabilized and eventually fined, they are ready to the second stage: blending, second fermentation and ageing.

Blending or preparing the cuvée is generally a critical moment to define the quality of the wine and to which winemakers pay great attention.

It consists on blending wines from different vintages, sites, varieties or even press fractions, to achieve desired characteristics and consistency. The cuvée is ready for the second fermentation once the tirage liquor is added: the required sugar to achieve 5-6bars of pressure in bottle (±4g/L → 1bar) and yeast.

Most of the sparkling wine, and particularly the premium quality sparkling, is produced by the Traditional Method or Méthode Champenoise (Champagne), where the second fermentation occurs in bottle. This is followed by ageing on lees for a certain period of time (variable), removal of yeast lees and sediments by riddling and disgorging, dosage and corking. The dosage permits topping up the bottles after disgorging and adjust the final desired sugar level by adding a more or less sweet wine/syrup (tirage liquor). Along with the production method, the final sugar level of the sparkling wine is the base of one of the classification systems:

Brut Nature – 0-3g/L
Extra Brut – 0-6g/L
Brut – 0-12g/L
Extra-dry – 12-17g/L
Dry – 17-32
Demi-sec – 32-50
Sweet (Doux) – more than 50g/L

The Traditional Method has the particularity that the bottle where the second fermentation occurs is same that reaches the consumer. There’s no discussion possible when it comes to the high quality wines produced by this method, notably the fine bubbles produced and the bouquet developed during ageing on lees, but it is labour intensive and time demanding and during the 20th century other methods and technologies were developed in order to minimize the production costs. In the Transfer Method the sparkling benefits from fermentation and ageing on lees in bottle, but riddling and disgorging steps are eliminated as the bottles are then emptied to a tank under isobaric pressure for filtration, dosage and bottling. The Charmat Method took another step forward on bringing the production costs down by allowing lower quality sparkling production entirely in stainless steel tanks, with the wine being bottled only when it is finished and ready for sale.

The Traditional Method is tipically employed in higher quality sparkling wines such as Champagne.

Innovation and future of sparkling wine

When it comes to new technologies developed in recent decades, I have to mention the use of immobilized yeast in sparkling wine production as the Portuguese company Proenol has pioneered the industrial production of immobilized yeast in the world. The immobilization of yeast in a calcium alginate matrix allows the wine to remain clear and when used in the Traditional Method it will shorten the riddling time from several days/weeks to a few seconds with the beads settling immediately.

Sparkling wine production worldwide is on the rise and has seen the biggest growth in terms of volume and value in recent years. Between 2003 and 2013 there was an increase in 40% of production and by 2017 it accounted for 8% by volume and 19% by value in the world wine trade.

I love a good sparkling, but I have to admit that I’m not the greatest enthusiast of bubbles. However, it was my passport to the wine world and I honestly find fascinating the whole process of traditional sparkling wine production and the short but intensive history of the wine. Won’t complain if I spend the first moments of 2019 sipping again ‘Millésime Bruto 2013’ by Ataíde Semedo, the last great Espumante that I had the pleasure to drink. From Bairrada, of course. Salut!

Author: Joel Santos

Expert in winemaking and wine biotechnology. Winemaker and technical manager at Tim Adams Wines (Clare Valley, Australia). The only Portuguese winemaker selected for the 2nd Ningxia Winemakers Challenge (Ningxia, China), working at Xin Hui Bin winery. Joel has done multiple vintages in several continents and regions. Experience as a wine researcher, focusing on the production of sparkling wine.

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