Discovering Bubbles!

Prosecco, Cavas, Champagne & More

Bubbles are always a great way to start dinner, an afternoon, or simply great conversation. However, as we all know, there is a grand spectrum of quality, from the lowest grade to the finest. Most elegant and delicate bubbles will lift your spirits and at times allow you to remember that moment forever.

An Accident Creates a New Product

First we need to understand the different ways bubbles are created. As with other things in life, it might be through mistakes that we realize that the end product is better than the original design. Bubbles in wine, which we love today, were originally considered a fault in early winemaking.

Wine, as we know it, goes through an alcoholic fermentation (the action of yeast on sugar) thus creating alcohol and CO² with other smaller by-products. This CO² (our bubbles) needs a natural escape in order to create a still wine or the end product will contain some effervescence.

Climatic conditions are a prime factor for completing fermentation. In warmer countries or regions, it is rather easy for the alcoholic fermentation to complete itself, but in cooler or colder climates, this can be a major concern.

Let’s take the champagne region as an example. Before the time of Dom Perignon, grapes were harvested, crushed and pressed, in matter of speaking, and fermentation began. However, with the cold weather quickly approaching and without natural heating options available, some yeasts that were still in barrels would simply become inactive (fall asleep), and fermentation would stop until spring when the warmth outside would reactivate the remaining yeasts. These in turn would start to eat the remaining sugars, thereby creating alcohol and our CO². The final product would be effervescent and when tasted, the monks would be totally disappointed and usually dump this “low grade wine”. One of the first monks who saw the potential of this “original” product was Dom Perignon, and today, because of his efforts and the efforts of others, Champagne is regarded as the most prestigious example of the sparkling category.

While wine geeks, sommeliers, Master Sommeliers, and Masters of Wines all know about the official seven methods recognized by the sparkling industry (Traditional, Transfer, Ancestral, Dioise or Asti Spumante, Charmat or Closed Tank, Continuous or Russian, and Carbonation) the two most recognized are the Traditional and the Charmat. These create familiar sparklers such as Spanish Cavas, Italian Proseccos, and of course French Champagnes.

Traditional Method

The most refined, elaborate, and prestigious method is known as Méthode Traditionelle or Traditional Method (previously known as Méthode Champenoise).

This method is designated by the term “Cava” in Spain, by “Metodo Classico” in Italy, “Cap Classique” in South Africa, and of course “Champagne” in France.

To begin, you need to make the base wines. At this point local regulations police all the type of grapes permitted, harvesting techniques, and pressing methods. The different press fractions (the different grapes allowed and the different plots used) are individually separated as a function of quality.

Once alcoholic fermentation (either in stainless steel tanks, in wood barrels or both) is completed, then “assemblage” takes place. This is a very complicated process in which the cellar master will create the “house style” of his sparkling wine(s). This blending process can be a combination of over 100 separate batches consisting of different grapes and plots.

Transforming Base Wines into Bubbles

The magic now enters the stage: transforming the still base wines into beautiful, delicious bubbles. This complete transformation occurs “in this bottle” (a term specific to the Traditional Method), meaning that the entire process is done in the same bottle, from “tirage”, “prise de mousse”, “sur lattes”, “remuage”, “degorgement” and finally “dosage”, a process that can last several years before the finished product reaches our shelves.

To choose only some examples would be an offence to all those wondrous examples from around the globe that abound our shelves in Alberta. Just make sure you see the term “Méthode Traditionelle”. I am always excited to see new versions arriving in Alberta, from traditional regions such as California and Canada to new countries such as Luxembourg and hopefully in the near future, England.

Charmat Method

The other very popular method is the Charmat or Closed Tank Method. The basic difference is that this process replaces the bottle with a pressure-resistant steel tank. This tank is—in effect—one gigantic bottle containing several thousand litres of wine, creating bubbles much faster and cheaper.

But let’s be honest. Even as a professional sommelier with over 40 years of experience, I cannot always afford to buy French Champagne, so this category easily fills a good section of my ever-expanding wine cellar. And as a Venetian, you can certainly understand my love for Prosecco, which has now easily become Italy’s most favourite sparkler.

One thing to always keep in mind: Choose wisely and then enjoy!