All that fizzes is not Champagne

The British have a huge appetite for fizz – not only are we the number one export market for Champagne, but we also lap up a host of other sparkling wines.

Prosecco

This has been a huge success story and has kick-started our renewed love of “everyday” fizz in recent years. From a niche product 20 years ago, it has now become ubiquitous.

Why do we love it so? It’s a Martini type of drink – any time, any place, anywhere. It’s easy going, fresh and fruity, usually a little sweet, but, importantly, doesn’t overtly say so on the label. The most commonly encountered version of Prosecco is “Extra Dry”, which in effect means off dry – Brut is sparkling winespeak for dry. It’s very easy to enjoy on its own, which suits the UK way of drinking.

Prosecco now exists in two quality levels. Prosecco DOCG is, at least in theory, top of the Italian wine pyramid of quality and applies to Prosecco produced in the heartland around the villages of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. The larger Prosecco DOC area covers a large area of the Veneto in north eastern Italy and tends to produce simpler, less intense styles.

What accounts for its style?

  • The grape variety – Glera is fairly neutral with naturally high acidity, which usually requires some sweetness to balance it.
  • The region of production – this part of the Veneto, especially the DOCG area, is made up of green, hilly sites and is relatively cool.
  • Production method – Prosecco uses the prosaic-sounding tank method, which helps to preserve the freshness of the fruit and cool fermentation aromas of pear, apple and elderflower.

What is tank method?

All sparkling wine starts its life as a still wine and a second fermentation is needed to make it sparkle. Any alcoholic fermentation will naturally produce carbon dioxide (CO₂) which, if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, will be forced into the wine, making it fizzy.

For Prosecco and many other types of sparkling wine, this second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank.

Cava

Before the arrival of Prosecco, Cava was our go-to bargain fizz. Cava refers to the method of production rather than a specific area – Cava can be made in many parts of Spain – but the vast majority (85%) and pretty much all we see here is from Penedès in Catalonia.

Cava is made using the same method as Champagne, which we are duty bound to call traditional method, or “méthode traditionelle”, but is often aged for less time.

Traditional method is distinguished from tank method in that the second fermentation takes place in bottle and that there is a certain amount of time ageing “on the lees” in the bottle. In this way a relatively small amount of wine is gently interacting with the lees (predominantly dead yeast cells post fermentation) so over time there is the opportunity for a process known as autolysis to take place.

Autolytic characters can be hard to pin down and indeed there is some debate about how long a wine needs to be on its lees before this has any effect. It is generally associated with the richer mouthfeel and biscuit and bready notes that can be found in long lees-aged sparkling wines.

Separating the wine from its lees involves some processing – riddling is undertaken to bring the sediment into the neck of the bottle, now mostly done automatically in robotic machines known as “gyropalettes”. The necks of the bottles are then immersed in a freezing solution to freeze the sediment solid. The bottle is uncorked and the plug of frozen sediment shoots out under pressure from the CO₂ in the wine. The bottle is topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar known as “liqueur d’expédition”, which determines the final sweetness level, and re-corked.  The whole process is known as disgorgement.

Chardonnay has started to creep in to some Cavas, giving it a more international style but the three traditional Catalan varieties of Macabeu, Xarel.lo and Parellada help to give Cava its own distinct style. For my money Cava tends to have a very fresh character, slightly earthy and, sometimes, a less welcome hint of burnt rubber.

Champagne

Legally, non vintage Champagne must spend 15 months maturing in bottle, though in practice most spend longer than this on their lees, resulting in those biscuity autolytic aromas which are such a hallmark of Champagne.

The big Champagne names, often called houses, each have their own style, exemplified in their non vintage blend, on which they labour to maintain consistency from year to year and bottle to bottle.

Most non vintage Champagnes draw on the classic trio of grape varieties in differing proportions: Chardonnay, which gives elegance and finesse; Pinot Noir, for backbone, power and longevity; and Pinot Meunier, which has lovely expressive fruit, especially in youth. It is often Pinot Meunier which provides much of the interest in young Champagnes, taking centre stage before the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir get into their stride as time goes on.

Although Non Vintage, most of these Champagnes will be based predominantly on the harvest of a single year, with the addition of a proportion of reserve wines from previous vintages to give depth and to preserve consistency. Another element in the blend is the availability of vineyard holdings in the different villages (or Crus) which make up the region. The houses tend to own some vines, but never enough to cater for their total requirements, so they will buy in grapes (or juice) from some of the region’s hundreds of individual growers.

Thus a “standard” non vintage blend will often be the made up from fruit grown in many sites from across Champagne. Taittinger’s Brut Réserve Non Vintage contains fruit from a total of 35 villages. The mosaic of sites with different soils, aspects, varieties – terroir in short – provides a rich source on which to draw.

That mixture of art and science which constitutes the blending process to combine young, raw – and still – wines from each parcel of vines into a finished non vintage cuvée is, I think, what really helps to set Champagne apart. Things like experience of past harvest conditions, how different parcels perform in a blend over time, how the different varieties interact and so on, build up over years and rely on knowledge passing from generation to generation. And this is what we are tasting when we pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne.

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