Have you ever wondered how bubbly gets, well, bubbly? Amanda Barnes takes us through the snap, crackle and pop of sparkling wine and meets a riddler, a monk and a robot along the way.
Popping corks and letting foamy Champagne bubble over glass tops (or necking the premature fizz quickly from the excited bottle top) is a quintessential part of a good party. Sparkling wine is fun, frothy and doesn’t it make you feel fabulous?
No one can resist a bit of bubbly, even those extraterrestrials that don’t drink wine will down a glass of Champagne when the occasion calls. Aside from the hiccups and an instant blood transfusion of happiness, there is a lot more to sparkling wine than meets the blurry eye. Getting the bubbles into the wine is an art form that has taken centuries to master.
As a modern drinker that has grown up in the age of soda stream and panda pop, the most obvious way to make something sparkle would be by carbonating it. It doesn’t take a miracle to turn the sparkle in water to sparkle in wine, and that is how it happens in the cheapest fizzy plonk.
If you imagine the lowest shelf on the supermarket, the one that beggar’s belief at only five dollars – this is the sort of wine that has had carbon (CO2) injected into it. This would be your Baywatch equivalent: fun, bubbly, cheap entertainment that has been artificially inflated.
On the other end of the spectrum we get the most revered and the oldest method for sparkling wine: the traditional ‘champenoise’ method. The most expensive, the longest lasting and the one that was, like many good things in life, discovered completely by accident.
The legend goes that in 1697 an old monk was busy in his monastery attending to his fine bottles of monk-made wine and swigging a few along the way (monks may lead a solitary life, but it was certainly a merry one!) The monk opened one of his bottles, and to his amazement it came out fizzy! He drank the miraculous nectar and allegedly cried out to his monastery colleagues ‘Come quick, I am drinking stars!’ And so the fairytale of the discovery of Champagne began.
The science behind the discovery is that when active yeast is left in a wine bottle with sugar it produces CO2 (aka. lovely bubbly). The simple chemical reaction is sugar + yeast = alcohol + CO2. It is the same process you use for making still wine, although when done in a closed environment (like a bottle) all the CO2 gas is captured.
The trapped CO2 bubbles can be released in a delightful pop of a cork, a sizzle in the glass and a fizzle on the tongue. Or they can be released when the pressure becomes too much, and the bottle – or top – explodes. This simple bubble science is how Formula One winners have so much post-race fun.
The truth behind the star-studded story of the monk’s discovery is actually that he was hopping mad with all these exploding bottles in his cellar, ruining his wine and destroying the peace of the monastery. The fact that this monk’s name was Dom Perignon made this slightly problematic for a certain Champagne brand later down the line… After the work of a talented spin-doctor in the 19th century, the truth got a bit of fairy dust and became all about sparkle and enchanted discovery. Dom Perignon was now the pioneer and poster boy of Champagne and the multi-billion dollar Champagne industry was born.
The fact that the English had been making sparkling wine since 1662 (some 30 years before Dom P got frustrated with his popping bottles) still remains a thorn in the side for the French legend, completely au contraire to the story Champagne houses like to give you. Even other parts of France (outside the Champagne boundary) will negate the famed region’s claim to the discovery. Carcassonne in Southern France proclaim that they were the very first to discover sparkling wine in the 1530s, over a century before the English. All these claims to the invention of bubbly are rather comme ci comme ça. The important bit is that this was the first method for sparkling wine and is still being made today, in a very traditional and pain staking process.
The champenoise method, with the second fermentation in the bottle, requires a lot of manual labour and at least a few months in the winery (or sometimes over 5 years) to make it. This is where the role of The Riddler comes in. One of the most under-appreciated figures in sparkling history, the riddler is the person that has to spend months in a dank, cold cellar turning each bottle 90 degrees once a day to steadily collect and settle the dead yeast at the bottom of the bottle to be later popped out.
The riddler – as if he wasn’t lacking acknowledgement enough – has been replaced to some extent by machine now, but many producers prefer the hand-turned technique and machines are often more expensive than hiring a person.
All the attention to meticulous details is why ‘champenoise’ is the most expensive method, but also renowned as the best for its fine bubbles and special tertiary aromas like baked bread, brioche, truffle and hazelnuts. This is the James Bond of sparkling wine.
Somewhere in-between champenoise and carbonation are the tank (charmat) method and transfer method: modern ways of getting a traditional-style second fermentation in greater quantity, with less hard work. Let’s call them Robocop 1 & 2.
The tank method (aka charmat) is – as expected from the name – where the second fermentation is not done in a bottle, but rather in a pressurized tank. This is the method for many mid-priced sparkling and fruity wines like Prosecco and Lambrusco in Italy.
Finally, the transfer method involves making a sparkling wine in the bottle the traditional way, then transferring it into a tank and re-bottling it. This method seems like a lot of work… and it is! But the advantages are making a more consistent wine (without variation between bottles) and giving the complexity of a traditional champenoise method wine that has benefited from lees aging.
Once the bubbles are created though, the work isn’t done. You need to add a dosage (a sugar mixture) to sweeten it to your final taste. All of this meddling must to be taken into mind by the winemaker from the beginning, as he has to make the base wine in the first place imagining what it will taste like after second fermentation and the added dosage. Another superhero of the sparkling wine world.
Making fizz is not as easy as it first seems. So while popping a cork on a bottle of bubbly is fantastically simple, next time you are spritzing it in the air and all over the frenzied crowd (or disdainful girlfriend) remember all the people, history and effort that goes into that lovely jubbly bottle of bubbly.