Wine Savvy Class
The Secret To Making Sparkling Wines

The Secret To Making Sparkling Wines

Introduction

If we had been asked to point out the main (and only…?) reason why Champagne can produce outstanding sparkling wine, we would have probably brought its cool climate up a few years ago.

And even though this isn’t a bad answer, we would argue that this isn’t specific enough to explain its secret. Besides, this answer would cut off wine countries or regions without a cool continental climate (and this would be “unfair”…).

“Cool climate” is the answer a beginner would give. But we all are here today to jump to the next level and be more critical and exhaustive about it.

These are the main secrets and basic requirements for making great traditional and/ or thank method sparkling wines.

Grapes With Low Sugar Levels

This is perhaps the most important requirement and, as a result, we need to stress it out a bit more.

Why do winemakers need grapes with low sugar levels to make these styles of sparkling wines?

Both traditional and tank methods undergo a second fermentation. The difference between them is that for the former the second fermentation happens within the bottle, whereas for the tank method it happens in a pressurized vat.

The second fermentation is required to obtain the “crispy” bubbles we all love. But, wines increase their alcohol levels with the second fermentation. To be more specific, this is increased by 1.2-1.3% abv. So, winemakers usually aim to produce a still dry base wine with 10-11% abv.

The concept is directly related to the phenomenon of fermentation. In a nutshell, this is the process in which yeasts convert sugar into alcohol. The higher the sugar level, the higher the alcohol content.

Therefore, having grapes with low sugar content will allow winemakers to reach their goals.

Figure 1: Epernay, an iconic town of the Champagne region (grapeescapes.net, 2020)

Grapes With High Acidity Levels

Why do we all, or at least the majority of us, like sparkling wine?

We think we can all agree that it’s impossible to compare to any other wine the refreshing and thirst-quenching properties of sparkling wines!

High acidity, combined with the bubbles, is definitely essential for creating that pleasant feeling every one of us has while sipping a cool sparkling wine.

At this point, you might think that grapes with both low sugar and high acidity levels are direct consequences of cool climate. This is why the answer “cool climate” to the question “what is the secret to making great sparkling wines” is a generalization that needs further explanation to sound like a professional.

Next time someone asks you this question, you should go this way: “Grapes with low alcohol and high acidity levels are the secret to great sparkling wines. These characteristics are enhanced in cool climates, where the grapes’ sugar content is kept low due to the lower ripeness level. On the other hand, cool temperatures allow grapes to retain acidity levels. These two factors will allow winemakers to make balanced and high-quality sparkling wines”.

Figure 2: Some vineyards in the Champagne region (winetastingfrance.com, 2019)

Harvesting And Pressing

We spoke a bit about viticulture, and it’s now time to dig into winemaking processes. How grapes (with the above-mentioned properties) are handled before and upon arrival at the winery?

Grapes for the best sparkling wines are typically (but not always) hand-picked. This allows winemakers to be more selective, to harvest full-bunches (more in a second), and to avoid splitting grapes.

Winegrowers need to be extra-careful as splitting grapes would mean extracting harsh phenolics into the grape juice. This could cause astringent, coarse characteristics which would be even further enhanced by the pressure of the bubbles.

Pressing is also an important stage when it comes to sparkling wine. Grapes should be pressed as soon as possible upon arrival at the winery. This should be extremely gentle. In fact, gentle pressing is required to minimize the extraction of tannin and color. Whole-bunches help with this because by avoiding crushing, the contact between the skin and the juice is minimized.

Gentle pressing is particularly important when black varieties are used. No one likes astringency in sparkling wines…

Figure 3: Pouring sparkling wine into a glass (realsimple.com, 2017)

Conclusions

Too many times people focus on Terroir and its “miraculous” (still debatable) properties. But we believe that relating everything to that concept would mean (apart from getting old) minimizing the hard work made by grape growers and winemakers.

But if we forget about romanticism for a while and we take into account viticultural as well as winemaking approaches, we will realize that the secret to great sparkling wines goes much beyond the vague concept of Terroir.

Choosing the perfect vineyards’ sites, the suitable grapes for the climate, and adapting proper winemaking techniques (such as hand-harvesting and gentle pressing) are just a few aspects to consider when talking about sparkling wine wines.

Now that you know what are the main key factors in terms of viticultural and winemaking practices in order to make remarkable sparkling wines, you can jump to the next level.

Buy a plane ticket and fasten your seatbelt as we are about to discover the best “Sparkling Wine Around The World“.


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