There are a couple ways to make sparkling wine sparkle, but the traditional method involves something called secondary fermentation.
But let’s back up: grapes are fruit, which means they naturally contain sugar. When yeast (naturally found in vineyards, or intentionally added by a winemaker) begins to interact with freshly crushed grapes, it eats the sugars in the grape juice and converts them into alcohol. The other byproduct of this reaction is Carbon Dioxide, i.e. bubbles.
In the Traditional Method for making Champagne, wine is created in the normal way, blended to get the right sweetness/style, then bottled with a metal cap, like a beer bottle. Before sealing the bottle, winemakers add more sugar and/or more yeast to the wine, which reactivates fermentation for a second time. This is called (you guessed it) secondary fermentation. Since the bottle is sealed, the CO2 has nowhere to go until opened.
The yeast from the secondary fermentation has to be removed before the wine is sold, which is done through a process called disgorgement. Winemakers will slowly turn the bottles upside down so that the yeast (and other sediment) sinks to the neck of the bottle. Then they will flash freeze the wine inside the neck, and remove the cap. Built up pressure pushes the frozen plug out, and the cork is quickly inserted before any liquid wine can escape. Nowadays this process is done by machine, but it used to be the job of a guy called the “riddler”.
Fun fact: In the old days, riddling was no joke. Before they were redesigned to be wider and heavier than a normal wine bottle, Champagne bottles had a tendency to explode during disgorgement. This could trigger a chain reaction in a cellar, sending broken glass flying and riddlers running for their lives.
By the way, when we talk about Champagne, we’re talking about a winemaking region in France, famous for making the very best sparkling wines in the world. There are some very specific rules about how winemakers have to produce, blend and age their wines in order to put “Champagne” on the label. These rules are called “Méthode Champenoise” or “Traditional Method”.
If you’re not in Champagne, there are 2 cheaper, faster ways to make sparkling wine:
Tank Method- secondary fermentation is done in a pressurized, sealed tank instead of within each individual bottle. The sparkling wine is then bottled through tubes and never exposed to air, so the resulting wine retains its bubbles.
Injection Method- Carbon Dioxide is injected through the cork into each bottle, the same way Coca-Cola is made.
The wine that results from these short cuts often doesn’t retain its bubbles very well; sparkling wine made by the Injection Method can go flat in a matter of minutes, which is why expensive sparkling wine like Champagne is always made in the Traditional Method.
So, What is the Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?
As we know, Champagne is a winemaking region in France. Only wine made in Champagne can actually be labeled “Champagne” and it is always made in the Traditional Method. The grapes used in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier, in varying ratios.
The three other most famous types of sparkling wine are:
Crémant- sparkling wine made in other parts of France, named for the region it comes from, i.e Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Alsace- all other winemaking regions in France. These wines can be made from a number of different grapes local to each region, and are always made in the Traditional Method.
Prosecco- sparkling wine from Italy. ‘Prosecco’ actually refers to a winemaking region, and they do produce still wine there as well. Prosecco is usually made via the Tank Method, and is made from a grape called Glera.
Cava is the name for Spanish sparkling wine made in Catalonia and produced from a blend of grapes; most commonly Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel Lo. Cava is always made in the Traditional Method and is almost always bone dry.
So there you have it. Pop some bottles and sound like a pro. Cheers!