Deconstructing sparkling wine

IMG_1150Sparkling wine is both one of the most enjoyable, even, fun parts of the world of wine – and one of the most technically demanding.   You need a good guide.  What is the difference  between a Crémant and a Champagne, a Prosecco and a Cava?  Why do some bottles cost under £5 and some £100 or more?    Andover Wine Friends’ December 2011 tasting set out to answer some of these questions with the perfect guide, Martin Hudson MW.  Martin confessed to not drinking as much Champagne as he should (before reeling off the important vintages in the last two decades).  But judging by this tasting, we were in expert hands.

Méthode pompe à bicyclette

We start in the (very pleasant) foothills.  As Martin says, there are a variety of ways of trapping carbon dioxide in the bottle and so producing sparkling wine.  The gas comes free as part of the business of turning the sugar in grape juice into alcohol – but it is trapping it in a way that makes for a sophisticated sparkler that is the tricky bit.  And as we are into the sophisticated bit, we don’t taste the cheapest method of all – simply pumping carbon dioxide into still wine as though it were a soft drink.   Even in French it sounds terrible – la méthode “pompe à bicyclette” – which indeed it is as once the wine is poured the gas begins to escape.  The bubbles are large and there is no integration with the wine.  The rule of thumb is: the quicker the bubbles get into the wine, the quicker they escape. 

Pressurised tank

But help is at hand.  The tank method (Charmat to the French, Martinotti to the Italians) makes a distinctive style of sparkler which is inexpensive, makes the most of fruit characteristics and comes in a variety of styles.  We taste two good examples.  The first is a wine in recovery from a bad reputation – Asti.  To try to impress it has dropped the ‘spumante’ tag but it is still made in the same highly skilled way.  Ripe but not over ripe Moscato (Muscat) grapes are picked and turned into white wine in the normal way in a tank.  However, it needs to be a pressurised tank as the bubbles are trapped by closing the lid at the right moment so that you end up with a wine that is – in the case of Asti – low in alcohol, sparkling and still moderately sweet.  For it to be stable, it has to be filtered under pressure at a very low temperature and then bottled in sterile bottles. Our example is Asti, Allini, Piemonte non vintage, 7.5%, all of £4.99 from Lidl.  It is a lovely wine of its sort – attractive grapey notes with a whiff of pineapple; pure lemon sherbet with a sweet finish.  And yes you can win prizes at big international wine competitions with a sub-£5 wine. 

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Our second tank fermented wine is from Italy, from the Prosecco area, north west of Venice.  Prosecco is now well known as inexpensive fizz – and let’s be honest, much of it is just cheap fizz.  But there are good examples and indeed some pink ones, a bonus point when it comes to celebrations.  This is made in a tank again but this time fermented to dryness, with  the bubbles again being forced into suspension as the pressure rises.  Our example is Silvola, Vino Spumante Rosato, Beato Bartolomeo, 11.5%. It can’t be called Prosecco as it would need to be made of at least 85% of the Prosecco grape (now to be called Glera) plus other white grapes: Verdiso, Perera, Bianchetta (local varieties) and/or Pinot Grigio/Bianco and Chardonnay. But this wine is pink, which is achieved by using 15% of the local red grape, Marzemino. For around £11 it gives you a pink bubbly with pleasant strawberry and lemon fruit and decent persistence in the mouth. 

Méthode traditionnelle

From the tank to the bottle.  The traditional method to produce sparkling wines in the modern era has been second fermentation in the bottle.  This involves making a dry, lowish alchohol, acidic wine first and then adding some sugar and yeast and refermenting the wine in strong, individual bottles.  There is then the tricky bit of removing the dead yeast cells without losing the dissolved carbon dioxide which constitute the bubbles.  Martin explains that the traditional method is a product of European technology transfer – the method was discovered/invented in France (in Champagne or Limoux depending on which version you prefer), but the strong and reliable bottles were first made in England and the high quality corks from Portugal.  This method is inherently more expensive but not necessarily hugely so – presumably the maintenance cost on a cave in the Loire valley, once you have acquired it for storage of maturing bottles, is not that great! 

Our first example is a Loire bottle, made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and so contributing to the pink theme of this part of the evening.  Despite its low price (€7 at source), it is made in the traditional way.  Galop des Clos Rosé, non vintage, Clos Maurice, AC Crémant de Loire has attractive red fruit on the nose, a very slight leafiness on the palate plus those red fruit, and the tiny hint of phenolic bite on the finish – it is after all made from a red skinned grape with tannins.  Before we can enjoy a wine like this those dead yeast cells in the bottle have a crucial part to play.  The big difference between tank fermented and bottle fermented wines is that the latter can get the benefit from interaction with the lees (dead yeast cells and other matter which drops out of the maturing wine) in the bottle.  This can be for a shorter (9 months) or longer (five years) time and imparts the toasty, brioche aromas that are such a big part of much Champagne and other quality bottle-matured sparkling wine. 

Once the ageing in bottle is completed you have to remove the lees so that you end up with a clear, attractive wine.  (There are  few examples to be found of wines that retain their yeasts in the so-called méthode ancestrale, but most people want their fizz to be sparkling bright.)  Removal involves two stages. First, the bottle needs to be progressively tipped from the horizontal access to the vertical so that the larger yeast cells take the smaller ones with them and settle in a compact ‘plug’ over the cork.  Traditionally this is done by hand over several months by a skilled remueur who can twist and turn thousands of bottle a day – and still want to go to the bar and play table football, as Martin recounts.  Less romantically it is now often done by a large machine called a gyropalette (or in the American jargon, a VBM – a very big machine), which can do the same in a matter of days by repeated gentle actions.  Finally, the built up pressure in the bottle is used to expel the plug of dead yeast cells.  Again, the highly skilled version was to do this manually, the modern version is to freeze the neck of the bottle to exactly the right level and thereby only expel the frozen plug.  The bottle can then be topped up (on which more when we get to Champagne), dressed, rested and sold.  All this explains why bottle-fermented sparkling wine is rightly more expensive than still wines … there is a great deal more work involved and time. 

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Incidentally, we can now answer one of our questions: what is the difference between a Crémant and Champagne.  Crémant used to be style of Champagne, with a lower pressure mousse, a bit like the Italian frizzante as opposed to spumante.  But in a deal to protect the name Champagne, since 1994 the agreement enshrined in French and European law is that the magic name Champagne can only be used of products produced in the Champagne area, while Crémant has come to mean a bottle-fermented/matured sparkling wine from any area other than Champagne which has spent at least nine months on its lees in its glass home  – the Loire, Alsace and Limoux being the most important areas of production. This rule also applies to adjectives – so the rather romantic méthode champenoise has become the rather less informative ‘traditional method’.

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Transfer method
 
The attentive reader will have noted that the traditional method is a lot of work, a lot of faffing, to use the technical term employed by our Master of Wine. As such it was ripe for simplification once those clever new world wine makers applied their minds, uncluttered by centuries of tradition, to the problem.  Enter the transfer method, not something that happens to professional footballers in summer and January, but a way of combining the benefits of maturing in the bottle with the convenience of removing the yeast by filtering under pressure from a tank to create clear and stable sparkling wine at a lower price.  Thus, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle and is matured for a length of time; the wines are then chilled, decanted into a tank, filtered under pressure and rebottled – hey presto, a less expensive bottle-fermented, but not ‘bottle fermented/matured in this bottle’ sparkling wine.  A good example of this method is the Australian speciality, a sparkling Shiraz.  The Jacob’s Creek website does not give anything away but the very reasonable price makes it likely that is made by the transfer method, as much new world sparkling wine is.  The style of the wine takes some getting used to: moderately rich fruit, lean palate (by Shiraz standards), some residual sugar, ripe tannins – perfect for the BBQ.  Martin speculates there is some older, reserve, wine in the blend because of a slight leathery note on the finish. 

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Some traditional method styles

From this point on, all the wines are made in the traditional method, ie second fermentation and maturing in the bottle in which it is finally sold.  We start with three sparklers, one from the south of France, a second from Cava and third which uses classic Champagne grape varieties but grown in northern Spain.  The first illustrates the current fashion for zéro dosage, wines which have no sugar added in the mix after the yeast plug has been expelled.  Antech Brut Nature, Blanquette de Limoux, a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac, from the Languedoc.  The nose is pretty neutral but it has the soft, fine mousse which is the hallmark of ageing in the original bottle.  It is dry but not super-dry because, as it comes from Limoux, not northernly Champagne, the fruit will be that much riper and the acidity lower.  The two Spanish wines follow. The first illustrates the great value there is in Cava – if you get to a reasonable quality level.  Codorníu, Método Tradicional Cava, 2009, under £7 from Tesco, is golden in colour (ripe fruit again), a faint smell of rubber bands (the give-away for blind tasting apparently), then, ripe rounded fruit, good texture.   Pleasant and extremely gluggable.  Unlike many modern Cavas this sticks to the traditional Catalan grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo – ie, no Chardonnay.  The second Spanish wine is a bit of a star: Raimat Gran Brut, Costers del Segre, non vintage.  Made by another large company (in fact at 3200 hectares the largest vineyard extension in private single ownership), it is a very good take on a ripe version of Champagne – though of course we can’t call it that as the Chardonnay (60%) and Pinot Noir (40%), the classic Champagne blend for top wines, is grown in Spain.  The distinctive point here is that the wine has spent 14 months on the lees in bottle, which results in the classic brioche, fresh bread, aroma, along with ripe green apples, a hint of red fruits, a little residual sugar for richness and good persistence. Great value too at £15. 

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Champagne, blends and components

We have finally reached our goal – deconstructing Champagne.  As the method (second fermentation in this bottle) has already been described, we can focus on the classic blend, preceded by its components.  As Martin explains, classically Champagne is a blend of three varieties, Chardonnay for texture to the mousse and for length, Pinot Noir for structure, backbone and longevity, and Pinot Meunier for lift and fruitiness. Many of the top wines skip the Meunier, especially in wines intended for ageing.  Unusually for a wine made from two black grapes, it is most often white, which means very careful and soft pressing, followed by rapid removal of the skins.  But there are also single varietal styles.  We start with R & L Legras, Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru, ie 100% Chardonnay, where the fruit is sourced from the village of Chouilly.  A beautiful pale straw colour with a hint of green, superb biscuity nose, ‘quite fat but in an elegant way’ Martin adds. By contrast, Mailly Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru is 100% Pinot Noir, ie a white wine made from red grapes.   It is made by a very quality conscious co-operative, so good in fact that Berry Bros source their own brand from them.  The nose here has a hint of autolytic aromas (ie derived from the ex-yeast cells) but there is also that tell-tale ‘farmyard’ smell of Pinot Noir and some red fruit – a completely different aroma profile to the preceding Champagne.  Another fine wine, another Grand Cru – but completely different. One of Champagne’s fascination’s is its endless subtle variation.    

We have virtually reached the end of the road and having taken sparkling wine/Champagne apart we now need to put it back together again.  What does a great blended wine taste like? – and not just a blend of grape varieties but of many different wines which go in to a top blend.  Because in many ways Champagne is above all about the blender’s art.  In a cool and unreliable climate, non vintage wines are improved and made consistent by blending within and across years; for vintage wines, the blend can only be strictly from that year’s fruit – putting huge pressure on the quality of the various components. Our final wine is Bollinger La Grande Année 2002.  In the Bollinger hierarchy it is in the middle of a fairly stratospheric range – lower than the RD bottles but still only made in great years. With a vintage wine, not only do the grapes all have to come from the same year, but the maturation in bottle period has to be a minimum of three years, with four to five years being more typical. So part of the reason for the big price tag is the money tied up in stock – plus about 10% for a Grand Marques’ spectacular advertising budget.

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The wine itself is 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay from 71% Grand Cru and 29% Premier Cru fruit.  Note that the fact that it is not all Grand Cru fails to matter if the wine is good enough and famous enough. This wine is fermented in small French oak barrels, with the second fermentation under natural cork and was hand-disgorged in July 2010. Fermenting in oak gives the best integration of wood notes with the fruit, but also costs more.  The wine itself has wonderfully warm pastry notes (all that time on the lees), fruit which manages to be both luscious and fine, and great length. When it comes to Champagne, a glass like this makes it clear what all the fuss is about.  This a superb wine and makes the price of £70 a bottle seem like good value, such is the quality, complexity and balance of the wine. We have come a long way from a delicious glass of Asti …

 

Many thanks to Martin Hudson for an evening in which we all learnt a lot – and tasted 10 excellent and highly instructive wines. It is a shame that not all learning is this enjoyable! 

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