SPARKLING WINE AROUND THE WORLD
Paper presented at the Cigar & Wine Appreciation Workshop, Institute of Hotel Management , New Delhi , on October 30, 2004
Copyright: Sourish Bhattacharyya
There’s a world of sparkling wines bubbling over far beyond cold, forbidding avenues of Champagne , which produces less than 10 per cent of fizz. The fizz superpowers, though, are France’s three wine-producing neighbours and fellow European Union members – Italy , Germany and Spain .
In Italy , Prosecco, the grape that has lent its name to a bubbly, is the name that comes to one’s mind when one thinks of a sparkler. It is the bubbly that goes into a Bellini, which was invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice and guaranteed its worldwide fame by the writer Ernest Hemingway. But there are more sparklers in Italy than you would imagine.
Lombardy , the industrial heart of Italy famous for its metropolis Milan , is also where that country’s most admired dry sparkling wine is produced by 80 wineries using the methode champenoise in the Franciacorte denomination. The area, with an almost Mediterranean climate, is located on the slopes around the Lake Iseo sheltered by the Alps . Elevated to the coveted DOCG status in 1995, Franciacorte owes its fame to the pioneering Guido Berlucchi, who first produced the ‘Champagne of Italy’ in 1961.
The success of this sparkling wine – about four million bottles are produced today – got many Milanese industrialists to invest in Franciacorte. Besides Chardonnay, three Pinot grapes go into this acclaimed bubbly – they’re Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and a maximum of 15 per cent Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio, as the Italians would call this grape). If you’re in Milan, look out for the region’s rosé sparkling wines and the Saten, aged for longer than a regular sparkling wine and based on grapes originating from vineyards whose maximum official yield is around 20 per cent lower than what’s allowed for standard wines.
Among Italy ’s best-known sparkling wines is those come from the Trento DOC (a DOC, by the way, follows DOCG in the pecking order of Italian wine regions) from Trentino, located in the valley of the Adige river and its tributaries framed by high mountains that protect it from inclement weather. The reputation of the Trento sparkling wines has been powered almost entirely by the marketing muscle of the Ferrari winery.
Prosecco, however, is the name that rings many bells. Like Champagne , Prosecco (which is the name of the grape as well as the fizz), which comes from an area that’s famous for its Soave, Valpolicella and Amarone still wines, is the child of a quirk of nature. A frosty winter interrupts the fermentation process, which, in turn, ensures that the carbon dioxide bubbles and residual sugar survive until spring.
Important producers of Prosecco, like Zonin, use the tank fermentation process (or the charmat method) to trap the carbon dioxide bubbles at a designated air pressure in the fermentation tanks itself, thereby avoiding the process of second fermentation in bottles. The process ensures the inexpensiveness of Prosecco, but the wine, which is released whenever a producer feels it’s ready, doesn’t benefit from the body an extended contact with yeast provides to sparklers made with the help of the Champagne method. If the product of the tank fermentation process is bottled after one month of storage under a pressure of at least three atmospheres, it becomes eligible for the Spumante (sparkling) label; if it doesn’t reach the designated pressure level, it can only be known as Frizzante (semi-sparkling).
From Emilia Romagna, Italy’s stomach and home to 150,000 farms producing wheat and corn, as well as the famed Parma ham and balsamic vinegar, comes the Lambrusco, a grape variety with 40 variants that is synonymous with a fizz, which is essentially a humble summer cooler that get about as much respect as Coca-Cola in the wine world. Not surprisingly, smaller, artisanal producers are now reinventing their offerings under the Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco di Castelvetro and Lambrusco di Salamino di Santa Croce appellations. These sparkling wines are relatively dry with a bitter-fruity taste.
The chart-topper among these sparklers, without doubt, is Asti Spumante Italy ’s second most extensively produced quality wine (70 million litres a year) from Alto Montferreto. Made from Moscato Bianco grapes (these are descendants of Muscat ), this bubbly was awarded the prized DOCG status in 1994. Interestingly, unlike Champagne , where the yields are controlled with a preacher’s zeal, Asti Spumante’s DOCG regulations allow a maximum yield of 7,500 litres per hectare (at Champagne , the cap is 2,550). To ensure survival against international competition, quantity is the sole priority.
That Germans can make sparkling wines shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Enterprising young Germans, after all, founded the Champagne houses of Krug, Bollinger, Mumm, Deutz and Geldermann. The earliest allusion to the word ‘Sekt’, which is what German sparkling wine is called, dates back to 1825, and it’s the invention is ascribed to an actor called Ludwig Devrient who lived in Berlin . The word is derived from either the French sec (dry) , or ‘sack’, a kind of sherry popular in England .
The major German Sekt-making wineries (Henkell is one company we are familiar with, thanks to its sweetish Trocken, which was once the reigning alternative to Champagne with its 17-35 gms of residual sugar per litre) are situated with a few exceptions on the banks of the Rhine and Mosel, and they were founded in the second half of the 19 th century, much after the word was born.
The Germans, too, follow the tank fermentation or charmat method, introducing second fermentation in large pressurised containers from which the finished wine is filtered and then bottled. Second fermentation in the bottle takes long, which explains why German wineries, which thrive on massive production levels, shy away from the obvious benefits of prolonged contact with yeast. The humongous volumes, in fact, are responsible for up to 90 per cent of the base wines that go into the making of Sekt being shipped in from Italy , Spain and other member-states of the EU.
Big wineries reserve the bottle fermentation process for their top-end products, which are made either from Riesling or from the classic Chardonnay. A new category that has made its mark in the last decade is Winzersekt, or wine grower’s Sekt. It may be regarded as estate-bottled wine, although the wineries farm out the second fermentation contracts to other estates. The best-known producers of this boutique bubbly are mainly situation in the Sprendlingen area of Rheinhessen.
Germany ’s big Sekt brands are Sohnlein Brillant, the familiar Henkell Trocken, Ruttgers Club, and the prestige cuvees Chardonnay Sekt Adam Henkell, Furst Metternich Riesling Sekt and Kupferberg Gold. But Henkell Sohnlein behemoth, born after a merger in 1987 and then strengthened further with the addition of Deinhard of Koblenz in 1997, is the undisputed leader of the pack producing over 100 million bottles of Sekt. The sparkler named Rotkappchen (Little Red Riding Hood), from former East Germany , achieved phenomenal success after reunification. At 30 million bottles, it’s one of the most extensively drunk German sparkling wine.
Antoni Gili bottled the first Catalan sparkling wine as early as 1862, but it was Josep Raventos who studied the classical production process in Champagne and put his knowledge into practice on the 100-year-old Can Codorniu estate in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, south of Barcelona , using indigenous grape varieties.
Raventos, in whose honour Codorniu has named one of its top bubblies, presented his first sparkling wine, made from the Catalan varietal triumvirate Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada, in Barcelona in 1872. Since then, the industry has looked back, although it doesn’t any longer calls its product champan or Spanish Champagne.
This change took place in 1970, when the generic name Cava was suggested for Spanish sparkling wine, in deference to French sentiments. Showing admirable political foresight, Madrid agreed to it in anticipation of a later application to join what was then known as the European Common Market. Officially established in 1972 and confirmed 20 years later, this non-geographical denomination covers 292 wineries spread across 32,904 hectares in different parts of the country and producing 200 million litres.
The denomination may not be geography-specific, 95 per cent of Cava production takes place in Catalonia ; with Sant Sadurni D’Anoia in Barcelona , which, incidentally, is in the area demarcated by the denomination Penedes. Geography, however, isn’t the bone of contention; it’s the way the Cava producers go about their business. They get the first choice of grapes, because they want them picked earlier, so they often get the best, and many think this is why Penedes has been held back as a still wine region.
Codorniu and Freixenet are the two Cava majors – the latter with its Cordon Negro has started appearing on more and more wine lists in Delhi – and today, they control 65 per cent of the national market and 90 per cent of exports. There’s a serious problem, though. And it’s evident in the decision of Chandon Estates, a subsidiary of Moet et Chandon that acquired 120 hectares of vineyards in 1987 in the Vilafranca del Penedes area, to discard the Cava banner because it was turning out to be an impediment whenever the company would try to sell its more expensive sparkling wines abroad. Chandon wants to repeat the successes it has had with its Californian and other international sparkling wines, but, as wine writer Jeremy Watson out, maybe justifiably, they think they have more chances if they are free of the generic label.
Raimat, a Coroniu company, also markets a traditional method sparkling wine produced from both Chardonnay and Pinot varieties without the denominational tag. As Watson writes, “The success of Cava has revolved around … incredibly low prices … . Some of the wines are quite drinkable, when one considers the prices at which they are sold, but many are flabby rubbish no really worthy of the name wine, let alone sparkling wine, and absolutely not Cava. At the same time … there are some very good, not to say excellent ones in the higher levels … . Maybe Chandon (set up by Moet et Chandon in 1987) and Raimat (a subsidiary of Codorniu) have found a solution, and do not be surprised if other Cava producers also launch wines outside the denomination. It is a great shame that it has come to this, and it is not the fault of the grape varieties, though some commentators dismiss Parellada (it can spoil easily and bring down the quality of the wine with it) and Xarel.lo out of hand.”
Sparkling wines outside Champagne , as we have seen, are riddled with systemic flaws. Till these get resolved, the reign of the emperor of wines will continue unchallenged.
Andre Domine, Wine ( Cologne : Konemann, 2000; English edition, 2001)
Jeremy Watson, The New & Classical Wines of Spain ( Barcelona : Montagud Editore, 2002)
MADE IN FRANCE : SPARKLING WINES OUTSIDE CHAMPAGNE
(This section paraphrases content from Robert Joseph's authoritative book, French Wines: The Essential Guide to the Wines and Wine-Growing Regions of France. This is only for restricted circulation, not for publication.)
Champagne rules the world of sparkling wine, but elsewhere in France , there are places that are bubbling over with fizz.
SAUMUR: The cool climate and chalky soils of Saumur in the Loire Valley , also known as the ‘pearl of Anjou ’, make this ideal sparkling-wine territory. Saumur’s white and rosé sparkling wines are far better known than the region’s reds, and they’ve emerged in France as a popular alternative to the more expensive champagne.
The wines of the two appellations controlee – San Mousseaux and San Petillant – are made largely from Chenin Blanc, giving them the aromatic flavour of apples and nuts. It sets them apart from the yeasty flavours of Champagne ’s Chardonnay-dominated wines, though the recent addition of Chardonnay grapes to Saumur’s sparkling wines has given them a more Chardonnay-like flavour. The popularity of both appellations is diminishing, however, as producers turn to making wines sold under the generic but more prestigious Cremant de Loire label.
Label to look for: Gratien & Meyer Cuvee Flamme.
CLAIRETTE DE DIE: Hugging the slopes of the Drone Valley , about 40 kms to the east of the Rhone river, the area covered by the sparkling white-wine appellation of Clairette de Die produces two contrasting styles of fizz.
The first is a dry, neutral-tasting wine made entirely from the Clairette grape and known, since a recent name change, as Cremant de Die. And the second is a deliciously ripe and peachy Clairette de Die Methode Dioise Ancestrale. Made from a mixture of Clairette and Muscat grapes, this unusual wine is bottled during its initial fermentation, which ensures that the trapped carbon dioxide gives the wine its bubbles.
Label to look for: Vincent Achard.
ST PERAY: Situated on the west bank of the Rhone, opposite and now almost within the sprawling outskirts of Valence, most of the grape harvest in this appellation goes to make rustic methode traditionelle sparkling wines, jointly produced by the caves cooperatives of Tain L’Hermitage and St Peray, and mostly sold within the region itself. The Rhone Valley , you must remember, is the home of such great appellations as Chateauneuf du Pape, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone.
Labels to look for: For a taste of what this appellation can produce when given more individual care and attention, try the wines of Jean Lionnet and Marcel Juge. Jean Louis et Francoise Thiers offers a singly rare example of gently floral, dry sparkling wine made from traditional Rhone grape varieties.
LINOUX: The Linouxians in the Languedoc-Roussillon region insist that they have been making sparkling wine since 1531, much before the folks of Champagne came anywhere close to producing bubbly. More recently, however, this medieval city has become the focus for another innovation.
Until the early 1990s, the cooperative here concentrated on turning the Mauzac grape into the sparkling Blanquette de Linoux. That often less than aromatic variety is now blended with Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The locals still enjoy their Cremant de Linoux, made from the stipulated minimum of 90 per cent Mauzac, though the modern Blanquette de Linoux may contain just 15 per cent of the grape.
Label to look for: This methode champenoise sparkling wine benefits from the use of a wide range of grape varieties.
SEYSSEL: Sparkling Seyssel from Jura and Savoie, bordering Switzerland , is far better known than the region’s still wines. The grape variety that mainly goes into it is the local Molette, with support from the Chasselas and Roussette. These contribute to the biscuity elegance of the Royal Seyssel Cuvee Privee, which is like fine Champagne with more flowers but less fruit. The locals regard this sparkler as an excellent accompaniment to region’s speciality, the Raclette.
The Cremant du Jura is a potentially delicious combination of the Savagnin, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This bubbly can be good value for money if you pick a producer such as Grand Freres. It’s rarely seen outside the region, but is worth buying nonetheless.Contact us