Sparkling Wine History & Best Practices

Intro to the Historic Bubbly

Despite the time and effort it takes to make a bottle of good sparkling wine, sparkling wines have been prevalent throughout the world since the late 1600s or early 1700s. Wherever there was wine, there was probably sparkling wine—intentional or not. Bubbles in sparkling wine occur naturally when the yeast cultures become active (ferment) in a pressurized environment. While there are many variations and plays on sparkling wine, there are three classic types: Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco. Although possibly similar to the new sparkling wine drinker, the three types of sparkling wine are categorically different. We’ll get you up to speed on the world of sparkling wine below.

 

Champagne and Beyond

The conversation begins with the most popular name for sparkling wine, champagne. The wine is named after the region Champagne in Northern France and is often identified as the standard for sparkling wine, due to both its rich history and the history’s mythological nature. Champagne (the region) is unique in its wine-making abilities as the limestone/chalk soils and chilly average temperatures produce grapes like no other. The three grape varieties used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, to produce both white and rosé versions.

But France wasn’t the one developing effervescent wine. Both Spain and Italy have had their versions of sparkling wine since the 1700 and 1800s, in the forms of Cava and Prosecco. Since the 1700s, the Italian specialty, Prosecco, has been made in Veneto (Northern Italy). In the early days, Prosecco was likely produced in the traditional method, however, technology evolved and offered a new, less expensive way: the Charmat or ‘tank’ method. This method allows the second fermentation of yeast to happen in a large, pressurized tank before it is put into bottles, and produces sharper flavors and larger bubbles.

The Spaniards’ Cava sparkling wine was first recorded in 1872. This sparkling wine follows the same ‘traditional method’ as Champagne does in producing bubbles by allowing the second ferment to occur within the bottle. The region that is most prominent for Cava production is the Penedès, in Northeast Spain.

 

Dom’s Tradition

Now, for the little history lesson on nearly every sparkling wine drinker’s favorite monk. In the 1700s, the infamous monk Dom Pierre Perignon planted grapevines in Champagne that would go down in history. He also championed big improvements in vineyard techniques and was the first to create a pale Champagne using red-skinned grapes. Back in Dom’s day, these wines would be bottled for the full wine fermentation process and then would be sent to the cellar for storage. The chilly climate of Champagne, France, boasts a cool average of 55ºF throughout the year, so in the winter the cold temperature of the wine cellars would halt the yeast fermentation and would resume once it warmed in the spring. This second fermentation would happen in a sealed bottle, producing carbon dioxide and, when opened, the carbon dioxide would erupt as bubbles throughout the wine, making it “sparkle”. Believe it or not, this wasn’t originally a desirable trait. For years the winemakers of Champagne (including Dom Perignon) were frustrated with these bubbles because the early champagnes were often considered to be murky, discolored, and full of sediments and yeast particles. They weren’t quite the luxurious frothy delights we enjoy nowadays.

As decades passed and the process was refined, the magic of Champagne was sprinkled across the globe, albeit not inexpensively. Due to the complex winemaking process and precarious nature of transporting pressurized glass bottles, it soon became a sought-after luxury item throughout the world. 

Like many Old World wines, using the correct name for a wine that came from a particular region is of the utmost importance, Champagne is no exception. While people often refer to many sparkling wines as Champagne, as of 2005, only the wines made in the “traditional method” or méthode champenoise, and in Champagne, France, can be legally called as such. There are a few exceptions, however, with some historical vineyards in California that have been producing their ‘Champagne’ since the early 1800’s using the traditional method and, thus, were deemed allowed to continue referring to it as ‘California Champagne’.

 

Méthode traditionnelle (champenoise)

During the méthode traditionnelle (traditional method), when the second fermentation occurs in the bottle (as mentioned above), the yeasts become more active and leaves behind particles that can be unsightly as well as alter the flavor of the wine. Over time, they figured out this alteration could be positive, and that leaving the wine ‘on the lees’ (lees meaning ‘residual yeast particles’) for some time brought a toasty or nutty flavor to the wine. Nowadays, Champagne producers leave their wine on the lees anywhere from a minimum of 15 months up to 8 years to develop more complex flavors and aromas. Once these are developed, the yeast particles must be removed. This process is called riddling: ie. concentrating the old yeast particles/sediments by resting and moving the bottle at different angles. Then, the bottle is uncorked in a process called disgorgement in order to remove the sediment. 

The traditional method of Champagne is best known for producing crisp acidity, small tight bubbles, and toasty, nutty undertones.

 

Dough Tip

The best glassware to enjoy your sparkling wine is the tall, skinny “Champagne flute.” While there were many years that coupe glasses (the short, rounded stem glasses) were the champagne choice, drinking from Champagne flutes allows fewer bubbles to escape due to the narrow rim.

 

Sweet, Brut, and Everything In Between 

Once the wine has undergone riddling and disgorgement, the winemakers add a particular amount of sugar, called dosage, which often informs where the wine falls on the residual sugar scale… essentially, how sweet it is! The brut scale ranges from doux (50g or more of residual sugar) all the way to brut nature (with 0-3g of residual sugar). In between, there is demi-sec (32-50g), sec (17-32g), extra-sec (12-17g), and brut (0-12g). Nowadays, 90% of Champagnes are made in the brut style.

 

Dough Sparklers and the Willamette Valley

Dough Wines’ sparkling options are also made in the brut style—the Sparkling Brut and the Sparkling Brut Rosé, each with a dosage of 6g and 8g, respectively, and are produced using the méthode traditionnelle. Similar to the classic Champagne, Dough sparkling wines are made using the same three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. These grapes are grown in the burgeoning wine region in Northwest Oregon, Willamette Valley. The sparkling wine movement began in Oregon early, with Argyle Winery, a member of our Distinguished Vineyards & Wine Partners family, launching its bubble program during the inaugural 1987 vintage. The cool climate of Willamette Valley makes it perfect for sparkling wine, just like the region in France that produces Champagne. Due to its proximity to the ocean and favorable soils, the Willamette Valley is adding its fair share of prominence and glitter to the world of sparkling wine. 

 

Should sparkling wine be chilled? 

Short answer: yes! Like most bubbly drinks (although sparkling wine is truly unlike most bubbly drinks) carbon dioxide bubbles are most easily formed when they are between the temperatures 43 and 48ºF. Chilling the sparkling wine also promotes a less ‘explosive’ uncorking, as all the molecules in the wine are slowed down by cooler temperatures. 

However, while you want to enjoy the straight-from-the-refrigerator chill, the fridge can dry out the cork, which allows oxidation that can change the flavor of your wine. So, if you aren’t planning on drinking it within a few days, it’s best to store it in a cool, dark area until you are only a few hours from enjoying it. 

 

Dough Tip

When the time comes to chill, either pop it in the fridge for 3 to 4 hours, or, simply fill an ice bucket halfway with ice, water, and a few spoonfuls of salt, and place your bottle in to chill for approximately 20 minutes. The salt will decrease the freezing temperature of the water and ice mixture, helping to chill the wine quicker!

 

Conclusion

In essence (or maybe, effervescence) sparkling wine has been around for over 300 years, enjoyed by wine-lovers all over the world. Due to the extra time and technique to capture the fizz and balance the flavor, it has claimed the title of special occasion drink. Whatever the style, region, or method of production, the frothy, tingles of sparkling wine are best enjoyed at a chilly temperature, in the company of warmhearted pals. From its fateful inception in cold cellars to the slim glasses of our celebrations, sparkling wine can dazzle even the non-wine drinker. But why wait for the next special occasion? Find the perfect excuse to try one of our Sparkling Bruts. Our bubbles will certainly inspire you to rise to the occasion.

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