Spotlight on Sparkling Wine

Spotlight on Sparkling Wine

FRIDAY, JUL 6 2018

About sparkling wine:

Sparkling wine has been produced for hundreds of years. Often associated with royalty and celebrations, it’s also terrific as a cocktail or accompaniment to food.  It is the bubbles in sparkling wine that distinguish it from still wine.  

What is the origin of sparkling wine?

Sparkling wine was discovered long before it was appreciated. A slight effervescence can develop whenever wine is bottled before fermentation is complete or before the wine is fully stabilized.  When these tiny bubbles are unintentional, they are considered a flaw.

The first true sparkling wine was created in the Champagne region of France late in the 17th century, after Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, discovered a way to retain sugar in the new wine until Spring, when he could start a secondary fermentation, and then capture the bubbles by carefully timing his bottling, thus creating the first pleasing effervescent wine. 

Elsewhere in the world wine with bubbles is known as Sparkling Wine, Cava, Cremant, Prosecco, Mousseux, Spumante, or Sekt depending on the place and process used to produce it. There are several ways to make a wine with bubbles. Champagne, Cremant and Cava are legally produced by the traditional Champenoise method where the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. This is a lengthy process, taking several years before the wine is available, but the extra time helps develop complex and elegant wines with fine bubbles and yeasty aromas.  

Prosecco, Mousseux and Spumante are mass-produced in pressurized tanks – using the Charmat process--which produces fresh, fruity wines at low cost within a few months. Wines labelled “Sparkling Wine” and “Sekt” may be produced by either method, so it’s important to look at the label carefully to determine which method was used, and which kind of wine to expect.  In this article, we will discuss sparkling wine made in the traditional Champenoise method, which is legally called “methode traditionelle” outside of France.     

Where are the most popular regions today for sparkling wine?

The Champagne region in France is the only place where sparkling wine may be called Champagne.[1] The wine is typically made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.  Elsewhere in France Crémant can be made from a wide variety of grapes, depending on rules in each of the seven authorized regions.  Crémant d’Alsace, which accounts for half of all Crémant produced, uses Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.  Spain’s leading sparkling wine, known as Cava, is produced in the Catalonia (Penedès) region, using Spanish grapes (Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo). Prosecco is a very popular Italian sparkling wine made from Glera grapes that undergoes the secondary fermentation in a steel tank, known as the Charmat method.  Mousseux is the equivalent wine made in France using any grape varieties. 

California is the largest producer of sparkling wine In the United States, with individual wineries producing many different styles and price points of wines, from large Charmat method wines, like Gallo (André and Barefoot) and Weibel, to large traditional method wineries like Korbel, to premium producers like Schramsberg, plus many French champagne houses with local wineries (Taittinger – Domaine Carneros; Roederer – Roederer Estate; Mumm – Mumm Napa; and Moët & Chandon– Domaine Chandon. You can also find sparkling wine in Oregon and New Mexico, as well as Argentina, and Chile in South America.  

[1] Except in the Unites States, sparkling wine that was marketed as “Champagne” before the Madrid System treaty of 1891, may continue to use the name for wine sold exclusively in the United States.

How is “methode traditionelle” sparkling wine made?

The grapes for sparkling wine are picked very early, often starting in mid-August in California, with a low Brix level of 18-22 (Brix is a measurement of the percent natural sugar in the fruit).  That produces a starting wine [known as the base wine] with lots of crisp acidity and a low alcohol content of 10-12%, which is low enough to allow for later increases in alcohol during a secondary fermentation.

The primary fermentation is managed the same as it would be for a still white wine:  The grapes are immediately pressed, and the juice is clarified by settling for several days, yeast is added, and the must is fermented at low temperatures for about two weeks.

After the wine finishes primary fermentation, the winemaker adds about 2% sugar to the base wine, along with yeast, to start a secondary fermentation.   This secondary fermentation produces the characteristic bubbles.  Once the wine, yeast and sugar are thoroughly mixed, the wine is bottled, and sealed with a temporary metal cap.  The bottles are placed in racks and stored in a cool cellar, where they will rest for the next 12-16 months as the yeast ferments the remaining sugar.  It’s this fermentation in the bottle that separates “methode traditionelle” sparkling wine from Charmat or tank fermentation wines. 

The wine stays “sur lie” (on the lees) for an extended period of aging, where it picks up the nutty and toasty flavors from the yeast that are so characteristic of methode traditionelle sparkling wines.

After the aging period, the lees need to be removed from the bottle to ensure the wine is perfectly clear, which is considered “brilliant.”.  This is done by “riddling” the wine.  The bins are mounted into riddling machines that hold the bottles with the neck down, and gently shake the wine.  Over a two-week period, the yeast settles to the bottom, just next to the metal cap.  To remove the yeast, the wine is chilled, and the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the plug with the yeast in it is removed in a process called “disgorging.”  

At this point, the space previously occupied by the disgorged yeast plug must be replaced.  To do that, the winemaker prepares a neutral wine with some added sugar (“the dosage”), adds that to the sparkling wine in the bottle and immediately corks and labels the chilled wine.     It’s a lot of work – but well worth the effort!  

What are the characteristics of sparkling wine?

Sparkling wine has bubbles which give it a festive and celebratory nature.  As these bubbles rise and break the surface of the wine, they release small bursts of wine aroma – enhancing the experience of drinking the wine. Consequently, the finer the bubbles and the longer they persist, the better the wine. In addition to the bubbles, sparkling wine is characterized by the level of sugar it contains.  Sugar is added during the dosage to balance the natural acidity created by the secondary fermentation process.    
  • Brut Natur          < 0.5 g/L
  • Brut                     < 2 g/L
  • Extra Dry            < 2.8 g/L
  • Sec or Dry           < 5.3 g/L
  • Demi-Sec            < 8.3 g/L
  • Doux or Sweet   > 50 g/L
By far the most popular sparkling wine is “Brut,” and most Brut wine has a dosage of around 1 g/L, a level which is not perceived as sweet.   By comparison, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola have 11 – 11.5 g/L respectively. Sparkling wine can also be characterized by the type of grapes it contains:  A Blanc de Blanc is made from Chardonnay or other white grapes, and its color ranges from pale golden, to yellow to golden.   Blanc de Noir is made from Pinot Noir or other red grapes that are pressed before fermentation, often giving the wine a pinkish tint. It’s color ranges from barely pink, to pale pink, or even coral. The longer sparkling wine ages, the smoother it tastes – highlighting more of the yeasty bread or biscuit flavors. When younger, the wines feature fruity flavors of citrus, apple, raspberry, or strawberry.   

Why did you choose to produce sparkling wine?

When I was 15, I spent an unforgettable summer living with a family in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne district of France.  My family operated a large farm, and gathered for meals at lunch and dinner, when they always served Champagne, treating it just like any other wine – as an accompaniment to food.  I was amazed that it wasn’t just for special occasions, and consequently I developed a lifelong love of traditional sparkling wine, served as a cocktail or accompanying food.

When I began to develop the vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, I knew I would produce sparkling wine in the traditional method and serve it at meals just like my French family had years earlier.  I was excited (and a little nervous) to see how the Rhone and Italian varieties would lend themselves to sparkling wine. 

These grapes typically have more character and aroma than Chardonnay, which is the most common white grape used for traditional sparkling wine.  I need not have worried.  Our first blend, a Blanc de Blancs, consists entirely of estate grapes: 60% Marsanne, 20% Fiano and 20% Muscat Blanc, has developed into a lovely sparkling wine with very delicate raspberry and apple aromas, along with the toasty notes from the sur lie aging.   I’m thrilled to share it with you!  

When is it available?

We have recently disgorged and finished the 2016 vintage, and plan to make it available in the Fall of 2018.  

Tips for consuming sparkling wine

Sparkling wine doesn’t have to be saved for special occasions. It is wonderful served before a meal or by itself. It is also delicious with food. Cheese, fruit, seafood, shellfish, pasta, cream sauces, smoked salmon, caviar, salty foods, Asian cuisine, potato chips, popcorn, the list is endless. It is best served chilled, very cold. To cool it down quickly place the bottle in an ice bucket filled with a combination of ice and water for about 20 minutes, or longer if you desire it colder. To open the bottle, remove the foil cover, un-twist the metal cage and remove while keeping your hand firmly over the cork and point it away from people. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle and slowly remove the cork. Pour, sip, and enjoy!

Starfield Vineyards is an artisanal producer of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot  from the cooler hillsides of Napa Valley and Bordeaux, France.  Inspired by the “star fields” that make extraordinary wines possible in these world-renowned regions, Starfield celebrates the truly great vineyard sites that allow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to develop the optimal balance of aroma, flavor and texture.  Father and son team, Tom and Rob Sinton, bring to Starfield four generations of winegrowing experience and an intense desire to reach beyond traditional boundaries to pursue the ultimate quality in cool climate winemaking. Buy our wine online and sign up for your allocation by joining our wine club, which assures your access to these limited production Bordeaux blends for home, special occasions or as gifts for wine connoisseurs.