WineInk: Time to Sparkle
The bubbles in your glass
“Well, that’s different,” my wife said as she took the first sip of the “mystery” white wine I poured in her glass. “It’s sweet for sure but it’s the fizz that is fun.” She smiled.
I had just poured her a small taste of a $10 bottle of wine, a Moscato from a place called Pavia in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. And she nailed it. A touch of frothiness and a touch of sweetness made the wine a total delight. And it certainly was something different. But more on that later.
The time is right for bubbles. In the springtime, the simple visual of tiny bubbles — cavorting as they rise in their dance from the bottom of a glass or flute to the very top — can bring joy to the heart and a smile to the face.
That is why so many different winemakers in so many different regions endeavor to make wines that emit the little globules of carbon dioxide that make wines that sparkle different from still wines. It is all about experience and the effervescence of the wines to the eye and on the tongue.
Of course, the mother of all sparkling wines are those that hail from the region and carry the name Champagne. Even people who don’t like wine — hell, even people who don’t drink at all — can find themselves under the spell of a fine French Champagne. That’s because it has cultivated an image and expectation of luxury that is revered around the world. Whether it is for a significant toast, celebration or christening of something — think a mighty ocean liner — it is Champagne that provides the bubbles of choice.
Ah, but Champagne is just one of many different types of sparkling wines that are a part of a global obsession for bubbles. In America, California is a hotbed of sparkling wine production. Think Schramsberg from Napa and Sharffenberger from Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Up north, Argyle and Soter in Oregon, and Domaine Ste. Michelle in Washington make beautiful sparklers. And let’s not forget Gruet from New Mexico. And that’s just a few domestic names that you may know, all of whom use the same Méthode Traditionelle as the great Champagne houses in France to make their wines. All also use the traditional grapes, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
But that’s just the beginning. In Spain they produce Cava from a variety of local grapes with names like Macabeo and Xarel-lo. South Africans call their Champagne-like wines Cap Classique. And in Australia, not only is sparkling wine made with the traditional grapes (Domaine Chandon, the French Champagne house, has an outpost in the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne) but they also have a top drop they call Sparkling Shiraz that is very red, very fizzy and very juicy. In Great Britain, along the southern coast, a wine industry is being built around what may one day, thanks to a change of climate, be the sweet spot for sparkling wines. The Brits refer to their sparklers as Fizz. Germany’s sparkling wines often are made from Riesling and are called Sekt, and the Portuguese produce Espumante.
But it is the Italians who have perhaps the largest variety of styles of sparkling wines. Most famous, perhaps, are the Prosecco wines produced from the Glera grape grown on the hillsides and valleys of the mountainous regions not far from Venice in northeastern Italy. But there are also many red sparklers produced, including Lambrusco in Emilia-Romagna, from grapes of the same name, Franciacorta, and Brachetto d’Acqui. And that is to name but a few of the sparkling wine styles enjoyed from the toe to the top of the boot.
And now there are new versions being produced in the old style, called Pét-nats in France and here in America.
HOW DO BUBBLES BUBBLE?
The legend is charming. Three centuries or so ago, an angelic Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon was said to have stumbled upon the birth of Champagne when a bottle self-fermented and produced bubbles. “Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” Brother Dom was said to exclaim when he accidently found himself tasting the bubbles in a glass.
The reality is a bit different. That myth was created for marketing purposes. The truth is fermentation happens and has since the beginning of, well, the beginning. It is a natural occurrence that can be manipulated to produce a wide variety of outcomes.
Webster defines fermentation as “The enzyme-catalyzed anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (such as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid) by the action of microorganisms (such as bacteria or yeast) that occurs naturally and is commonly used in the production of various products (such as food, alcoholic beverages, and pharmaceuticals) especially by controlling microbial enzymatic activity.”
Got It? Basically making bubbles in a wine, or a beer, for that matter, is all about providing the proper environment for producing CO2 that can be released under pressure. The aforementioned Méthode Traditionelle, or “Champagne method” as it was sometimes called, is a time tested way of making wine that involves the use of a “secondary” fermentation which takes place in the bottle after the still wines have been made and blended.
To begin, the grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented separately to make still wines, just like regular non-sparkling wines. The winemaker then makes decisions on blending those wines together for the Champagne style to be produced.
It is here where the magic begins. The blend of wines is bottled and a mixture of yeast and sugars is introduced into each bottle to start the secondary fermentation. The bottles are sealed with a cap and, over time due to the chemical interaction of the yeast, the sugar and the wines, the secondary fermentation produces the carbon dioxide, which releases bubbles.
Yes, it is magic, but it is very much based on nature and science.
There are other ways to make bubbles than introducing yeast and sugars into bottles. The Charmat method, used to make Prosecco, has the secondary fermentation take place in large steel tanks. And the relatively new, everything-is-old-again Pétillant Naturel, or “pét nat” movement, is producing sparkling wines by extending the initial fermentation and forgoing the second stage. It is now being touted as the Méthode Ancestrale.
ABOUT THAT MOSCATO
So what was that slightly frothy wine that I had poured my wife? In the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, south of Turin, they are best known for the production of the mighty Barolo wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. But there is another wine style, one that is sweet, slightly fizzy, or frizzante and made from white grapes called Muscat Blanc, one of the most ancient wine varietals in the world.
The wines, called Moscato di Asti after the city of Asti, can be truly special with sweet hits of lemon, peach and orange. They are perfect companions to spicy Asian foods like Thai and Sichuan-style dishes, as the sugars and low alcohol dance with the spices.
But that was not the wine.
Rather, in a small town of Castiglione Tinella, south of Asti, the women of the Brangero family produce a wine called Centorri Moscato di Pavia. It is in the Moscato style and is made by three generations of women, Eleonora Brangero, along with her mother Emiliana and grandmother Camilla, who are referred to as “the ladies of Moscato.” But Pavia is a city in Lombardy known for its Renaissance architecture and art and it is the source of the Muscat grapes used in this simple but delicious wine. Hence the name. Roses and summer fruits, with that little bit of bubbles.
Yes, bubbles can bring a smile.
2015 Sea Smoke Sea Spray – Sta. Rita Hills
This one may be a little tough to find. You may be familiar with the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines made at the biodynamic Estate Vineyards of Sea Smoke in the Sta. Rita Hills, but this Blanc de Noir (white of black) made exclusively from the estate’s Pinot Noir is truly something special. Honey and figs, Meyer lemons and yes, a touch of spray from the nearby Pacific make this a sparkler to treasure. A treat for all the senses.