In this series, I’ll dissect the intricacies of the labels used to describe bubbly wine, how they are made, the different sweetness levels and where they come from. It’s important to know what you’re talking about— whether you’re having a conversation with a friend, co-worker, restaurant wait staff or someone at a wine shop or tasting room. With more knowledge, you have a much better chance of finding a bottle you’ll love!
In this first part, I’ll explain the different types of bubbly wine, why they go by their specific names and where they are produced. But, before I do that, here’s a brief history of how Champagne (pronounced sham-PAIN) may have been discovered and what causes the bubbles in the first place.
Champagne, a region in France, has long been labeled as the birthplace of wine with bubbles. The story goes that Champagne resident Monk Dom Perignon (of the now-famous Champagne house) accidentally invented bubbly wine when a second fermentation occurred in bottles of wine he thought had finished fermenting.
Wine grapes have lots of sugar and need yeast to convert from grape juice into alcohol. Much like people with a sweet tooth, yeast has a real appetite for sugar. As those yeast cells consume sugar, alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) are created and the yeast expires. Simply put, once all the yeast has consumed all the sugar, the initial process of making wine is complete. But, if the temperature drops too low at any time during this initial phase, any remaining live yeast may go dormant and stop actively eating the sugars.
In Dom Perignon’s case, the yeast stopped eating so he assumed there was no more sugar left in his wine. He mistakenly bottled his wine before all the sugar was consumed and, once the temperature rose, the yeast awoke hungry and began consuming what was left of the sugar. When this happens, it’s referred to as secondary fermentation in the bottle and CO2 pressure builds and builds within the walls of the glass. When bottles began exploding in Dom Perignon’s cellar, he popped one open that hadn’t yet blown, famously exclaiming “I see stars” as he admired his sparkling wine.
Don’t worry, I’ll go into more detail later in this series about the different ways bubbles are made in wine. But let’s get the basics down first!
After the Champagne region began making wine with bubbles, others around the world began doing it too. Then, a few decades ago, the French region of Champagne wised up to the fact that Champagne was their brand and proclaimed that no one else could use the term. The rest of the world might have groused about it but most politely follow France’s proclamation. And for those who fought the French, eventually, laws were passed in some countries making it illegal to use the word Champagne on their labels. And rules are rules buddy– any bubbly wine made outside of the Champagne region can’t be labeled Champagne, even if it’s made in other parts of France.
You should also know that the French government has strict rules for Champagne makers… and if they don’t comply, they can’t call their bubbles “Champagne” either. One rule is that they must use only three grape varietals; Chardonnay (pronounced shar-dah-nay), Pinot noir (pronounced PEE-no nwar) and Pinot meunier (pronounced PEE-no moon-yay), all grown within the borders of Champagne. Another important rule is that it must go through a second fermentation in the bottle, just as the Monk Dom’s did.
Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne. The bubbles are created in the bottle— the same manner as Champagne— using specific grapes grown in a specific region. Spanish laws require that Cava be from the Catalonia region of the country and made using only these grape varietals: Macabeo (pronounced mah-cah-BEY-oh)/Viura (pronounced vi-OO-rah), Parellada (pronounced pah-rehl-YAH-dah), Xarel.lo (pronounced cha-rel-low), Chardonnay, Trepat (pronounced treh-PAHT), Garnacha Tinta (pronounced gahr-NAH-cah TEEN-ta), Monestrell (pronounced mohn-ah-STREHL), Pinot noir and Subirat parent (pronounced soo-be-RAT peh-ruhnt).
Any wine labeled Cava must also spend at least nine months “on the lees” before final bottling occurs. On the lees means that the expired yeast cells are left in the bottle to hang out with the wine, ensuring that more subtle and nuanced flavors develop before the lees were removed. Like Champagne, winemakers can leave the wine on the lees longer than the law requires if they want to further influence the character of the wine. The Spanish add different reserva labels to their Cava, depending on how long the wine spent on the lees.
Prosecco (pronounced pruh-seh-kow) is made in Italy using a grape varietal called Prosecco or Glera (pronounced GLEH-rah) or Serprina, depending on who you’re talking to… just know that it’s all the same grape. Similar to the laws around Champagne, Prosecco must come from the northeastern region of Italy and be made solely with the Prosecco/Glera/Serprina grape.
However, unlike Champagne, Prosecco bubbles are not made in the bottle but rather in a tank. Since I’ve already explained how secondary fermentation works in a bottle, now imagine a giant bottle… that’s the tank! The tank is pressurized so that as the yeast consumes the remaining sugars, the CO2 bubbles forming in the Prosecco can’t escape. Once the Prosecco is finished fermenting, the wine is carefully bottled, preserving the bubbles that were created. Bubbles made in this manner have less pressure than those made using the secondary fermentation in the bottle process.
Believe it or not, bubbles were created in French wine long before Monk Dom discovered them. A wine-growing region in Southern France has been experimenting with this process for centuries. Pétillant naturel (pronounced petty-OWN na-chur-EL) or just Pét-nat for short, occurs when the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is finished. The remaining sugars in the wine are consumed by the yeast, creating CO2 and a lower alcoholic beverage in the process. Those CO2 bubbles give the wine a slightly effervescent quality.
Pét-nats are a little cloudy since they contain those lees that Champagne and Cava producers remove from their wine before selling to the consumer. They are a bit wild and raw but also a great expression of the place the grapes were grown.
Pét-nat wines have exploded (pun very much intended) on the market! It seems that lots of domestic winemakers are very recently trying their hand at producing Pét-nat. These wines don’t cost as much to make so you’ll pay less than you would for a wine that went through fermentation in the bottle. Only time will tell whether American Pét-nat wines are just a trend or will stick around for the long haul.
In case you haven’t already guessed, sparkling wine is the generic label that isn’t any of the above types of bubbles. It just means there’s something bubbly happening in the wine. However, sparkling wines can be created using any of the previously mentioned methods with any grape varietals available to the winemaker.
One more thing you need to know about sparkling wine… there are even more ways to add bubbles than those listed in this post!
So stay on the bubble train and catch the second and final articles in this series where I explain all the ways winemakers get bubbles into wine and the different levels of sweetness!
Michele Francisco, a founder and regular contributor to Winerabble, a blog primarily about Pacific Northwest wines, is living the dream in Portland, Oregon. Her passion leads some to believe she's got wine running through her veins. Contact Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org & be sure to visit her online portfolio at www.michelefrancisco.com.