What is the Real Price of Bubbly?

February 6, 2017

     You’re still wondering why Prosecco is cheap and cheerful while Champagne or Cava are just cheerful? In this article, we’ll take a look at the reasons why some bubbles cost more than others…

 

 

 

What is Sparkling Wine?

 

     Whether you are into your wine or not, you know that unlike beer it can come either still or sparkling. So, what’s the difference? Well, during the fermentation, which is the period when the yeasts in the grape juice turn the natural sugar into alcohol, a little bit of CO2 is also produced. To make it easy to understand, we can consider that 1 gram of sugar, once fed to the yeast, should give you around 0.5 gram of alcohol and 0.5 gram of CO2. Don’t run away, all scared, that was the only boring bit in this article, the rest is pretty cool…

 

     Sparkling wine can be made in a lot of different ways but the same idea is behind all of them: we want CO2 to stay into the liquid and not go away. To get that result, different techniques can be used, at different costs.

 

 

Champagne & the “Méthode Traditionnelle”

 

Probably the most famous of all sparkling wines, Champagne isn’t the one that sells the most. Its price, often from mid-range to top range, is probably the main reason why it doesn’t sell volumes. And it’s not because the winemakers in the Champagne region of France are greedier than the others, it’s the techniques they use that are more expensive:

 

  • Making a Normal Wine: It all starts pretty much in the same way as any other wine. Grapes are grown throughout the year, always trying to be kept as healthy as possible. They are harvested by hand (mandatory in Champagne, no machines…) and pressed to extract their lovely juice. The fermentation is carried out and at that stage, where most regions would get ready to bottle and sell, in Champagne, the magic happens…

 

  • Blending the Vintages: More than 80% of the Champagne that is released on the market is produced as a Non-Vintage wine (NV), which means that it does not carry the year of production on the label. Why, you ask? Because a part of the reason why your NV Champagne always tastes more or less the same is down to the master blender that mixes various years in order to recreate the consistent taste of each “House” of Champagne. The origin of this method can easily be understood if you look at the map below. Champagne is the most Northerly located wine region of France, sitting on the 49th parallel, next door to the part of the world where you cannot grow grapes (too cold, very harsh weather conditions…). In fact, we consider that wine can be produced between the 30th and the 50th parallels, both in the Northern or Southern Hemispheres. So, if you are right on the border, Mother Nature isn’t always too good to you, and the best way to guarantee that you’ll stay in business and produce quality wine every year, is to balance the hazardous weather conditions by adding some good wines from good years…

 

 

 

  • The Re-Fermentation: Also known as “Secondary Fermentation”, it is the moment when winemakers bottle the blended wine and add a little bit of sugar – that’s right, just basic caster sugar. The yeast which was starving by then goes back to feast on it and create a little bit more CO2 and a little bit more alcohol. But this time, since the container is closed (the bottle), that CO2 has no other choice than to divide itself into smaller and smaller bubbles to fit in that space, like sand and stones do in a bucket to fill the space.

 

  • The “Remuage” & “Disgorgement”: I can already see you, hipster craft beer lovers, thinking it’s the exact same method as your cheap local brew… and up to this point, you are right! But if finding a bit of sediments at the bottom of your beer bottle is as acceptable as it is for a nice red wine, we couldn’t stand any in Champagne. So, they had to find a way of removing these dead yeast from the bottle. Any idea how they did it? During the minimum of 12 months when that bottle is left to age and develop complex aromas (we’ll get to that soon…), it is one person’s job to gently turn the bottles one quarter at a time every so often, that it eventually ends up upside down. This guy (the “remueur” or “riddler”) forces the solid bits to precipitate to the bottle neck, under the effect of gravity. And once they’re all in there, the neck of the bottle is dipped into a frozen brine (water with lots of salt that can freeze but remain liquid), it instantly freezes, the bottle is opened and the natural build-up of pressure throws that ice cube of dirt out. That’s called the disgorgement.

 

  • “Hey, hold on, there’s some wine missing then?” Yes, there is, and the bottle is then topped up with something called the “liqueur d’expédition” that’s a mix of reserve wines from the same house and more or less sugar (defining the sweetness level of your Champagne, but that’s for another post).

 

   So, if we summarize this, every single bottle of Champagne becomes naturally sparkling over an ageing of at least 12 months, with someone (or sometimes a strange machine called a gyropalette), twisting the bottles around. They are then individually open to be cleared from their sediments, topped up and sealed…That’s why every bottle is unique and that’s why it costs a bit more.

 

     Is Champagne the only bubbly made this way? No, it’s not! In fact, all of the bottles that say “Méthode Traditionnelle” (or in their respective languages Traditional Method or Metodo Tradicional for Spain…) are made that way. That’s the case of Cava (Spain) Franciacorta (Italy), most Crémant (France) and others…

 

 

Prosecco & The Charmat Method (or “Cuve Close”)

 

       Yes, Prosecco is cheap and it does taste nice, so what’s the difference? It does come from a specific delimited area in the Northeast of Italy, it is also controlled by strict regulations from its own DOC/DOCG laws, but the method for making it, known as “Charmat method” after the name of its creator, is slightly different…

 

  • Making a Normal Wine: For Prosecco, the grape is called Glera & it all starts like a normal wine.

 

  • The Secondary Fermentation: Instead of bottling the wine on its lees, with added sugar, to trigger the secondary fermentation, this time, it happens in a big pressurized tank. The wine is ready faster, without mandatory bottle ageing. Main consequence: less contact with the lees (dead yeast), less autolytic aromas (boohoo…scary word… “autolytic” stands for these aromas generated by lees ageing, often compared to biscuit, toasted brioche, pastry or dough).

 

 

  • Filtering/Bottling the Wine Under Pressure: Once made sparkling, the wine is filtered (forget the expensive & time-consuming “disgorgement” method, it’s put through a series of filters) & bottled under pressure to keep the bubbles in.

 

    The result of that method isn’t necessarily a lesser quality wine, it preserves the lighter aromas from the Glera grape better without adding complex notes of toasted brioche or biscuits. It is probably a better method for more delicate aromatic grapes, like Glera or Moscato, and that’s why most wines you’ll find made like this are Moscato d’Asti or Prosecco…

 

    Over all, this method is a great way of saving money for the producers without lowering the quality of the finished wine too much, just by offering a slightly simpler version for everyday drinking. And because their control of the secondary fermentation is much more efficient in a pressurised tank than individual bottles, it offers more consistency & allows them to put on the market semi-sparkling (Frizzante) & fully sparkling wines (Spumante)

 

 

 

Forced Carbonation & Filthy Hangovers

 

     At the lower end of the line, on that low shelf that even your back doesn’t want to reach in the shop, you can find the cheap bubbly stuff. Most of them are made in bulk and CO2 is forced into them. Not even near the quality of the above wines, I would recommend avoiding them, bubbles are good for special occasions, no need to half-celebrate with these…

 

 

     I hope this little tutorial helped you, stay tuned for more posts!

 

 

Max

Certified Sommelier (CMS)

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