Ah, champagne. The magic in these tiny bubbles captivated our hearts long before the incomparable Don Ho sang those words. We saw champagne as decadent in the 1920s, with flappers and prohibition, and it has marked our celebrations and milestone moments for decades. They’ve been reserved for special occasions and have become almost mandatory to properly welcome a new year. For me, bubbles are part of a typical Tuesday. Research? Yes. And preference.
Technological advancements in the cellar have helped to reduce labor costs in sparkling wine production and introduced new ways to get those bubbles in the bottle, removing barriers and bringing the party to the people without as hefty a price. These developments have also provided some confusion as to what sparkling wine is – and could or should be. But before we dive into new world sparkling wine we need to take a brief look at the French benchmark.
The Sparkling Wine Titans
As a region, Champagne has a cool continental climate that provides grapes with higher acidity and lower sugars (leading to lower alcohol). The only vinifera permitted under the champagne label are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier – individually or combined. So when we talk about traditional method sparkling wines, we actually mean champagne-style wines made outside of Champagne but without using the word champagne itself because we can’t. And that’s not even the confusing part. Enter new world winemaking.
Champagne is heavily regulated and fiercely protects its industry but that doesn’t stop other areas from exploring bubbles. Sparkling wines are all over most every wine region, and with few or no regulations the nomenclature can be a hodgepodge. In Spain there’s Cava, an affordable option for seekers of European bubbles that aren’t champagne. Germany makes Sekt, Italy does Asti (usually a sweeter Moscato) with full sparkling as Spumante and a lightly sparkling Frizzante. It’s enough to make your head spin and feel anxious when facing a bank of bottles on a store shelf.
In marketing for new world sparkling wines, language varies. Aside from one rare and rather contentious exception the term champagne cannot be used on other sparkling wines so this is where creativity helps to get the message across. Still, the larger new world wine industry tends to police itself to some degree. Regions form standards around label language and quality producers frown on those playing fast and loose with terminology.
The bubble world can get confusing. One blind pick off the shelf that doesn’t meet your expectations can result in someone writing off the world of bubbles as being one way or another. Please persevere, because it’s a beautiful place to explore. In the spirit of helping your adventures, these are some common descriptors of methods for new world sparkling wine production – and what you might expect in the bottle.
Sparkling Wine Production Methodology
Traditional or Classic Method: Beginning with a still base wine, a secondary fermentation is induced in the bottle; it can be vintage (one particular year) or non-vintage (a blend of years); most often made as ‘brut’/dry; riddling (slow daily turns of the bottle) helps bring yeast to the bottle’s neck for disgorging/ yeast removal and a dosage or the finished wine is used to “top up” before the bottle is closed with cork; often has finer bubbles with a softer and more elegant mousse. Most often these wines are as champagne-y as possible.
Tank or Charmat Method: The secondary fermentation happens in the tank, not the bottle, so the whole tank is under pressure; when ready, the wine is filtered and dosed (wine and sugar) then bottled; they’ll use cork or crown closures; can result in larger bubbles, might have smaller bubbles, but not oodles of staying power.
Ancestral Method (Méthod Ancestrale, Pétillant Naturel): From the Loire and Jura and now adopted in the new world with variations; cooler temperatures slow fermentation in the original base wine, so before ferment is done it’s bottled at a CO2 level that will produce the desired atmospheres (bubbles); has fine, sometimes fewer, bubbles and soft mousse.
Carbonation / Injection Method: Simplest and also made from a still base wine, carbonation is introduced directly through injection at time of bottling; often found in sweeter or off-dry wines with lower alcohol; usually has a crown closure; more larger bubbles with a more brisk mouthfeel.
New World Sparkling Wines To Try
Australia – traditional method, tank method
Look for wines from Tasmania, Yarra Valley, or Adelaide Hills where good acidity lingers. This is also the home of sparkling Shiraz, because Australians are like that.
Classic: Josef Chromy NV Tasmanian Cuvee
Adventurous: Majella Wines Sparkling Shiraz (when/where available)
New Zealand – traditional method
Seek out wines from Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, or Gisbourne. While they have typical bubble grapes, look for something non-traditional like a bubbly Sauvignon Blanc. Because it’s New Zealand, of course.
Classic: Kim Crawford Small Parcels Fizz
South Africa – traditional method (Cap Classique)
Since this is Chenin Blanc country, it’s fair to say there’s good acidity for making traditional method sparkling wines and Chardonnay can shine. If you find a sparkling Chenin try it, because that’s a beauty.
Classic: Klein Constantia Estate Brut (vintage)
United States – traditional method, injection, charmat (tank method)
Some of the most interesting wines are coming from the cooler climate growing regions of Washington and Oregon, and California remains a steady producer.
Classic: Mumm Napa, California
Adventurous: Argyle Winery, Oregon (they have a sparkling collection, yes they do)
Canada – traditional method, injection, Charmat (tank method)
Putting the cool in cool climate growing and pushing all kinds of boundaries. In previous articles we’ve explored what’s happening in British Columbia and Nova Scotia wine country, and bubbly is one of their more interesting offers.
Classic: Summerhill Pyramid Winery 2012 Cipes Blanc de Blanc, British Columbia
Adventurous: L’Acadie Vineyards Vintage Cuvée (vintage), Nova Scotia
Exploratory: Bella Wines NV Traditional Method Natural (aka “tradnat”), British Columbia
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