I’m forever making Bubbles
A popular Wine Alchemy event is called Making Bubbles; how different ways create sparkling wines. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Wine comes from the alcoholic fermentation of freshly picked grape juice. We regard this chemistry is straightforward, but for centuries, it was not understood. We know now that yeast digests the sugar in the grapes, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. In still wines, the gas usually escapes. For sparkling wine, retaining the gas in the wine makes the bubbly we love so much.
The origin of bubbles in the wine
Bubbles have probably been around for as long as there has been winemaking. For most of this time, they were either unwelcome or hard to control, even in Champagne.
Years ago, harvests were later in the year, stretching into late October and early November. The fermentation would start spontaneously in the vat. When activity ceased, it looked like the fermentation had finished. However, in unheated cellars, the onset of autumn low temperatures would stop the fermentation. It was simply too cold for the yeast to work. It looked like the fermentation was complete. But unfermented sugar was left, and the yeast was only dormant.
The winemaker would then draw off the still wine into cask or bottle. The following spring, temperatures would rise, the yeast would revive, and the fermentation would restart. Under pressure from newly made gas, bottles and casks would randomly explode. Disaster!
Who invented bubbles?
There are various claims on who “invented” making bubbles deliberately. Records at Limoux in Southern France show Benedictine Monks creating sparkling wines in 1531. Their method is still used today, called Méthode Ancestrale.
In England, Christopher Merrett was the first person to try to document a sparkling process, made from his observations in 1662. That is the basis of the English claim.
However, in Champagne, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine Monk, is usually and erroneously credited with its invention in 1697. In fact, he was trying to eliminate bubbles, seen as an irritating wine fault in the still wines of Champagne.
As scientific understanding gradually advanced, so different ways of deliberately creating sparkling wine emerged. With fizz, you need three things. Get the gas into the still wine, keep it stable under pressure and remove cloudy sediment.
Back to the Benedictines at the Sainte-Hilaire monastery in Limoux. They had conscious control over bubbles with the Méthode Ancestrale, which is the oldest method. The wines would ferment to 6.5% alcohol and become dormant in winter. In Spring, they resumed fermentation in bottle to around 8%. Winemaking needs to be highly skilled. The result is naturally sparkling, of low pressure and semi-sweet. The remaining problem was that these wines were cloudy from the yeast sediment.
Still used today, Méthode Ancestrale is also found traditionally in Bugey and Savoie, and in the Loire at Montlouis. Diois in the Rhône Valley uses a similar technique. Artificial refrigeration replicates the cold winter and after bottling the wine is allowed to warm up, and fermentation restarts. While some examples are deliberately cloudy, decanting the bottles and filtering using a pressure tank clarifies them. When the lees settle at the bottom, the wine is filtered off and rebottled. As selected yeast strains can now ferment sugar to higher levels of alcohol, dry wines are also possible.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of this ancient style all over the world, referred to by Natural Wine hipsters as Pét’Nat, an abbreviation of pétillant-naturel.
But in Champagne, this wasn’t the winemaking tradition. At the time, they were making still wines for markets in Paris and London where bubbles were a fault. In the Eighteenth century, developments created the fizzy Champagne as we know it today. Firstly, the London fashion encouraged Champagne to be sparkling! Far stronger glass bottles were now needed to withstand a gas pressure of four to six atmospheres. Glassmakers in England perfected those and exported them to use for Champagne.
Transportation to Paris was becoming easier, quicker and cheaper via new railway and canal networks. So non-fizzy Champagne couldn’t compete with the stronger still wines from France’s warmer South. It’s highly likely that making Champagne with bubbles saved the region from eventual economic ruin.
In 1729, Ruinart was the first Champagne House to commercialise bubbles. A dose of sugar and yeast was added to the bottled dry wine to induce a new second fermentation. Leaving the wine on its lees in the bottle also imparted additional flavours and changed the nature of the wine. But there remained the problem of expelling the spent yeast while retaining the wine in the original bottle. Complicated labour-intensive riddling and disgorgement methods gradually developed to perfect this.
The process above was understandably once known as the Champagne Method. However, This phrase is now banned. Champagne can only come from the Champagne region and meanwhile, the technique had spread to many other wine regions. German Sekt, Spanish Cava, French Crémant, Italian Franciacorta and many other sparkling wines use it. Now it’s now known as Traditional Method, a.k.a. Méthode Traditionelle, Método Classico, and Mètode Tradicional.
Despite the complexity and expense, it remains state-of-the-art. So it’s best for highest quality base wines. The process transforms how the wine tastes and such wines are capable of further ageing. While each step has seen technological development, it remains time-consuming and costly.
Some wineries use a hybrid form of the traditional method. It’s called the transfer process, or bottle fermentation. The wine undergoes the second fermentation in the bottle, as before. However, removing the spent yeast is by decanting the wine into a pressure vessel. The wine then returns to a different bottle.
In the 20th Century, there were new ways to lower the cost and time involved. Enter Frenchman Eugéne Charmat. He developed a process patented some years earlier in Italy. He replaced fermentation in the bottle with a closed pressure tank called an autoclave. Because an autoclave has a large volume of wine sitting on the yeast lees, yeast flavours are minimal. However, many grape varieties are more suitable for fruit flavours, so this isn’t an issue. It’s about matching grape variety to the sparkling method employed.
This Charmat (aka Cuve close, aka Martinotti) method is ideal where the aim is to make light, fruity fizz for early drinking. For example, Spain uses it to make some forms of Cava. In Italy, grape varieties such as Muscat (for Asti Spumante), the various Lambrusco’s ( for, err, Lambrusco) and Glera (for Prosecco) are suitable for this method.
There are two other ways to make fizz. Avoid both if you enjoy wine!
The Continuous Process was a Soviet invention. Pump base wines in massive volume through a series of five huge industrial pressure tanks. Add sugar and yeast on the way. The whole process takes three to four weeks, is cheap and tastes ghastly. Some German and Portuguese bulk wineries employ this method to make large quantities of basic cheap fizz. That has tarnished their sparkling wine reputations even though they also make excellent fizz by using the Traditional Method.
Finally, why not just use carbonation in the same way as Coke, Pepsi or Fanta? Referred to in France as “Le Pump Bicyclette,” this, as anyone that has ever owned a SodaStream knows, is cheap. However it but produces froth rather than bubble streams and goes flat quickly. Carbonation is usually for the poorest base wines, so beware of such cheap and miserable fare.
Horses for courses
The method used has a huge influence on the quality, style and price of the sparkling wine. The history and techniques of sparkling wine are fascinating too. What is important is which method best suits the grape variety and the quality of the base wines used.
Regardless, bubbles make a great way to celebrate, after all, Friday Night Fizz Night.