Uncorking the Truth Behind the Bubbles

For many, the sound of a cork popping can bring back a host of fond memories. Whether it's a wedding or a big promotion, the presence of our beloved elixir seems to always accompany these special moments. But, how much do you really know about these sparklers?

In an effort to "uncork" the truth, we've poured our heart and soul into a guide that sheds light on this bubbly beverage.


First of all, where do the bubbles come from?

To do this, a liqueur de tirage consisting of yeast and sugar is added to the wine after the first fermentation. These ingredients convert to carbon dioxide as the wine ferments for the second time. When you release the cork, the carbon dioxide escapes as little bubbles creating the sparkling phenomenon. 

There are two methods of second fermentation that can be used to make sparkling wine. The most preferred is méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle which has the fermentation take place in the bottle; this produces smaller, delicate bubbles. The other option is the charmat or tank method. It's a more commercialized method where the fermentation occurs in a large, pressurized tank making it easy for mass production. This less expensive method creates large, agressive bubbles and lowers the quality of the wine.  

Champagne.

  Image from Total Wine & More.

Image from Total Wine & More.

Located near the French-Belgian border, 90 minutes from Paris, the cold climate, chalky soil, and sloped terrain make the Champagne region a perfect environment to make wine. The region is divided into three primary areas: Montagne de Reimes, Valleé de la Marne, and Côtes des Blancs. Vallée de la Marne produces the largest quantity of wine and has the most vineyards while Montagne de Reimes and Côtes des Blanc contain the Champagne houses with Grand Cru and Premier Cru designations. 

Champagne is comprised of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Each of these varietals plays an important role in making the toasty, crisp, and slightly floral characteristics of the wine. In addition to the classic trio, Champagne can be made in two other styles: Blanc de Blanc - made only with the Chardonnay grapes, and Blanc de Noirs - made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier but still white in color.

Prosecco.

  Image from Total Wine & More.

Image from Total Wine & More.

The sparkling wine of Italy, Prosecco is made in the Veneto region on the northeastern side of the country near Venice. The largest wine producing region in Italy, Veneto has a cooler, alpine-style climate which produces crisp wines. Prosecco is made primarily of the Glera grape but can contain up to 15 percent of locally grown varietals like Bianchetta Trevigiana, Pinot Blanco, and Verdiso; this produces a simplistic, fruiter wine. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is made with varying levels of bubbles: spumante (sparkling), frizzante (semi-sparkling), and tranquillo (still). 

Considered a daily drinking wine by Italians, Prosecco is made using the charmat method. This makes the wine easy to produce in large quantities and inexpensive. Because of its affordability, Prosecco is often mixed with other ingredients to create signature cocktails like the Bellini and Spritz. It is also used as a substitute for Champagne in our favorite brunch beverage, the mimosa. 

Cava.

  Image from Total Wine & More.

Image from Total Wine & More.

Hailing from the Catalonia region, Cava is the sparkling wine of Spain. Translated to cave or cellar, the Spaniards use the same Champagne method to produce their wine but with native grapes. Cava is made from three white varietals: Macabeo, Xarel.lo, and Parellada. Each of these grapes gives the wine its distinct taste; Macabeo creates a simplistic base while Xarel.lo enhances it with floral, melon and pear notes and Parellada rounds out the wine with hints of citrus and acidity.  Cava tends to be drier than Prosecco and absent are the distinct toasty notes of Champagne. 

With the traditional method and careful blending of the wine, Cava is known to be the most complex sparkling wine for its price point. To create a higher quality Cava, winemakers have been aging Cava to elevate its flavors. Taking a note from the French, the aged Cava adds classic Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This alters the lees, sediment from the wine, and changes the wine's profile to include characteristics of apple and almond. 

Rosé all day.

  Image from Total Wine & More.

Image from Total Wine & More.

With a beautiful pink hue and crisp flavors, rosé has grown in popularity over the years. In France, renowned Champagne houses (Möet et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, etc.) make sparkling versions of this beloved wine. To make rosé requires an additional step in the Champagne making process. The winemakers use a method called saignée which allows the juice to macerate with red grape skins for a short period of time to allow the color to leach into the wine, also known as bleeding. A less complex method for making rose blends red and white grapes to create the desired pink color.  

Since it takes an extra step to make, rosé is produced in small quantities; less than ten percent of Champagne is made into rosé. The United States, Italy, Spain, and other winemaking countries also produce rosé versions fo their sparklers. For Pink Cava, Grenche and Mouvedre are added to the mixture to create the color and add strawberry, peach and floral notes to the wine. Besides being pretty to look at, sparkling rosé is great on a summer day or with any seafood dish.  

Born in the USA.

  Image from Total Wine & More.

Image from Total Wine & More.

When you think of sparkling wine in the United States, one name can be recognized by most - Korbel. Established by three brothers that immigrated to California from Bohemia (now Czech Republic), they settled in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. Starting with traditional farming, the brothers started planting grapes in the late 1800's. In 1882, the rothers started producing sparkling wines with the help of winemaker Frank Hasek. With the halt in production due to Prohibition, the family was able to survive with its other businesses. Unfortunately, the brothers passed away before Prohibition's end but their legacy continued through the next generation. 

Seeing the success of the Korbel brothers did not go unnoticed. Some of the greatest Champagne houses wanted a piece of the action and established vineyards in California: Moët et Chandon founded Domaine Chandon, Louis Roderer founded Roderer Estates, and Tattinger founded Domaine Carneros. In addition the Ferrer family of Freixenet SA made California investments with Iron House, J Vineyards, and Gloria Ferrer.

Besides California, New York's Finger Lakes, Washington's Columbia Valley, and even New Mexico are home to some top-notch sparkling wines. 

WHY IS THE TERM "CHAMPAGNE" ALLOWED IN THE US?

It isn't. The French are passionate about the term; so much so that limits on the word's usage were included in the Treaty of Versailles. In 2006, the United States and European Union entered a wine-trade agreement which included the prohibition of the use of designating wine terms like Champagne, Port, and Chianti. Companies that had already been using the terms prior to the deal (Korbel's California Champagne and Miller High Life's Champagne of Beer) were grandfathered in.


Whether toasting an anniversary with a bottle of Bollinger or mixing up a Bellini after a long week at work, it's hard not to sparkle when drinking some bubbles. Now that we've given you have all the details, go forth and conquer. Santé, Salud, Salute, Saùde, Cheers!