There are a lot of elements that combine to make a good sparkling wine, but it’s the secondary fermentation method that decides the value of a sparkling wine.
And, please, don’t confuse sparkling wine with champagne, unless you want to make the French people unhappy.
Sparkling wine is any bubbly wine made anywhere around the world. Champagne is special. And, here is where the fermentation method comes into play.
To make it simple, sparkling wines are the result of the secondary fermentation of still wines (that, in their turn, are the result of the primary fermentation). Vintners add yeast and sugar to wine and let it ferment in a closed environment thus making still wine effervescent (aka bubbly).
What makes a superior quality sparkling wine is:
- how long did the secondary fermentation last
- where did it take place
Based on the criteria above, we can differentiate between 6 fermentation methods:
1. Champagne Method or Traditional Method
Also known as Méthode Champenoise is the classic process of sparkling wine making. For sparkling wines made outside of Champagne region in France, the method is known as the Traditional Method (or Cap Classique in the South African Cape region).
To make it simple, the Champagne Method the second fermentation happens in the bottle in which the wine will be sold.
Even though it sounds so simple, this is the most expensive method of making sparkling wines. But the result, in terms of the quality of the wine is well worth the price.
After the secondary fermentation, when the yeast died and the lees formed, they need to remain in contact with the wine for a certain period of time to add richness and texture to the wine. Depending on the region, there is a minimum lees-aging requirement.
After this period is over, a complex process of removing the lees takes place and the final corking happens.
Outside Champagne, some of the well known sparkling wines made with the traditional method are Cava, Franciacorta, and Crémant.
2. Charmat Method or Tank Method
The Charmat method was invented in 1907 by a Frenchman, Eugène Charmat.
While for the traditional method the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle, for the Charmat method the fermentation happens in pressurized stainless steel tanks, hence the name – Tank method.
Other than the costs (lower than for the traditional method), the resulting sparkling wine is also different: instead of the texture and richness given by the aging of the lees, the sparkling wine made with the tank method is fruity and aromatic. This is the reason why this method is most adapted to aromatic grapes as it doesn’t mask their fruity nature.
The sparkling wines made with the tank method are a youthful wines, easy to drink.
Some of the most known sparkling wines made with the Charmat method are Proseco and Lambrusco (a red sparkling wine).
In Italy, the Charmat method is known as Metodo Martinotti (Martinotti Method) or Italian method.
3. Transfer Method
This method is halfway between the traditional method and the tank method. The secondary fermentation happens inside the bottle. When the fermentation is over and the lees are formed, the content of the bottles is transferred to stainless steel tanks (hence the name of the method), filtered, and transferred to the final bottles.
This method keeps the benefits of the traditional method while eliminating its costs (the filtering of the wine is not done bottle by bottle but all at once).
Australian and New Zealand sparkling wines are made using this method.
4. Continuous Method
Continuous method is similar to the tank method (whereas the secondary fermentation happens inside pressurized stainless steel tanks) though it’s more complicated.
Oak shavings and chips are added to the pressurized tanks allowing the lees to accumulate around the wood and giving the final wine a toasty flavor.
This method, of Russian origins, is used to produce the German sekt.
5. Ancestral Method
This method, very similar to the traditional method, is the costliest of the methods as there is no control over the result.
The second fermentation happens in the bottle, as is the case with the Champenoise method. The difference comes from the fact that no sugar or yeast is added, the secondary fermentation happens naturally with no control, making it hard to predict the quality of the resulting wine.
Another difference consists in the fact that the lees are not removed resulting in a wine that is cloudy and beautifully textured.
In France, you will find wines made with this method in Gaillac, Limoux and Bugey Cerdon.
In Italy, you will find some Prosecco made with the ancestral method and called Prosecco col fondo.
6. Carbonation Method
This is the cheapest way of making sparkling wine and it consists in injecting carbon dioxide into still wine (a similar process to soda making). As you could guess, the quality of the resulting wine is not exactly the best.