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Carl Hudson
December 6, 2017 | Wine Varietals | Carl Hudson

Sparkling Wines –Holiday Treats

With Christmas and the New Year just around the corner, this seemed like a good time to highlight sparkling wines.  Sparkling wines can be produced by a number of different methods, from essentially any grape, be white, rosé or red, and range from sweet to totally dry.  And, they usually conjure up visions of celebrations and special occasions. 

French Champagne is probably the first sparkling wine that comes to mind.  The Champagne region in northern France has quite a history that reaches back over 400 years to a time when most wines from the area were simple, slightly sweet and not sparkling.  The discovery of sparkling wine was undoubtedly made by accident, many times over, as early winemakers were surprised when wines produced with residual sugar and yeast continued to ferment, producing bubbles (of carbon dioxide) and pressure inside their containers.  One can certainly imagine lots of broken earthenware and glass containers as pressure increased.  Eventually this process was brought under control, by folks like Dom Perignon and an English cider maker, Christopher Merrett.  Merrett was actually the person who invented a glass bottle sturdy enough and shaped correctly to hold the pressure created by secondary fermentation that generates a sparkling wine or cider.  Soon after, sparkling wine became the primary product of the Champagne region. 

Sparkling wine made by the traditional method of Champagne involves a three step process.  First, grapes are harvested when sugar levels are relatively low (19-20%) and acid levels are still quite high.  An initial fermentation under cool conditions produces a dry wine with about 10-12% alcohol.  For the second step, more yeast and a carefully measured dose of sugar or sweet grape concentrate is added to the dry base wine to initiate a secondary fermentation that occurs in a thick bottle topped with a metal cap similar to a beer or soda bottle. 

This second fermentation creates some additional alcohol, but more importantly, it generates the carbon dioxide that builds pressure in the bottle and makes the bubbles in a sparkling wine.  Leaving the wine in the bottle for a short time maximizes the fruit aromas and flavors, and the acidity from the grapes.  Longer periods of aging can result in strong yeasty, leesy aromas and flavors that are typically associated with top quality sparkling wines, such as Tete de Cuvée or top-level Champagnes. 

The third step in sparkling wine production is to remove the yeast and any fermentation sediment before bottling.  This is traditionally done by working the yeast and sediment to the neck of the bottle by a process called riddling, historically done by hand over a period of several months.  Today, most riddling is done mechanically to dramatically speed up the process.  Once the yeast and sediment settles in the neck of the bottle against the metal cap, the bottle is immersed into a very cold bath that freezes a small portion of the wine around the sediment.  As the bottle cap is removed, pressure inside the bottle pushes out the ice plug and the sediment.  The volume that is lost is replaced with a dosage that can range from just more of the sparkling wine, to a concentrated sweet mixture to raise the residual sugar level in the finished wine.  Once the bottle is refilled, the cork, wire safety cage and capsule are added. 

Sparkling wines are made in most wine regions around the world, but only from a specified region in France can these wines be labeled as Champagne.  Cremant sparkling wines are produced elsewhere in France, Prosecco or Asti is produced in Italy, Cava is the term for Spanish sparkling wine, and most other regions, including the U.S., simply use the term Sparkling wine.  Most sparkling wines adhere to a generally accepted range of 7 sweetness levels from totally dry (Brut Nature with no sugar added) to Brut (typically 6-12 g of sugar per liter) to Dolce (with over 50 g of sugar per liter).  Basically, there is a sparkling wine sweetness level to please almost every palate. 

Sparkling wines can also be made in a bulk process, often called the Charmat process, where the secondary fermentation occurs in a pressurized tank.  This makes it easier to remove the sediment and more rapidly bottle the finished wine.  Sparkling wines are also made with varying levels of pressure (carbon dioxide) ranging from frizzante wines, like Moscato d’Asti at 2 atmospheres (about 30 lbs of pressure) to top-level wines with up to 6 atmospheres (about 80-90 lbs of pressure).  And, as we all know, corks can fly dangerously from all this pressure, so open sparkling wines carefully and safely. 

A type of sparkling wine that is rapidly growing in popularity in Texas, and many other wine regions, is Petillant Naturel, or Pet Nat for short.  These wines are made by the methode ancestrale in which the wine is bottled before the initial fermentation is completed.  This builds up pressure, but also leaves a cloudy yeast deposit in the bottle which is not removed before the wine is marketed.  These Pet Nats are usually very rich in flavor and can accompany many types of cuisine.  They also require less time and expense than classic sparkling wines that are cleared of their sediment before the market.  Pet Nats are typically sealed by a metal cap rather than a cork, and have become an extremely popular offering for many Texas wineries. 

4.0 Cellars is currently offering three different sparkling wines, all produced by the Charmat process, to enhance your holiday celebration. 

Lost Oak Winery Dry Rosé Frizzante 2016 Texas

This sparkler is a blush produced from Muscat Canelli 90% & Merlot 10% sourced from Diamante Doble Vyds. near Tokio, TX (Terry County).  It is not totally dry (hint of sweetness), has 13.5% ABV, with aromas of honeysuckle, citrus & peach and flavors to match.  The finish is clean & lively with just enough sparkle to tingle the palate. 

Lost Oak Winery Gewurztraminer Frizzante 2015 TX High Plains

This is a relatively sweet sparkler produced from 100% Gewurztraminer grapes grown in the Diamante Doble Vyds. near Tokio, TX (Terry County).  It is bright, crisp, 12.7% ABV, and offers spicy aromas of clove, lychee, & citrus with a hint of ginger.  The finish is pleasantly sweet with a light effervescence to tickle the tongue. 

McPherson Cellars Sparkling Wine N.V. Texas

This terrific sparkler from 100% Chenin Blanc is finished with 12.9% ABV, 2.5% RS, and pH 3.25 for tingly acidity.  Made by the McPherson brothers, this reminds one of delicious Cremant wines produced in the Loire Valley of France.  Lively acidity dances on the palate and enlivens crisp apple flavors in this special offering that comes across as almost totally dry.  


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