What is Sparkling Wine?
Champers. Bubbly. Fizz. Sparkling Wine… Whatever you call it, the tradition of drinking champagne to mark celebrations originated in the royal courts of Europe around 1789, where the expensive drink was viewed as a status symbol.
The most famous sparkling wines are those from the Champagne Regions of Reims and Epernay. As most of us know, only sparkling wines from Champagne can be called ‘Champagne’. That’s because the AOC designation links the wine with its geographical origin and makes it subject to rules of production and manufacturing.
Because fermentation produces CO2, wines with bubbles have been around since antiquity, but for a long time were considered a faulty wine. In August 1693, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon, having cracked the secret to producing sparkling wine, shouted excitedly to his brothers, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”. Or so the story goes. Unfortunately, this delightful anecdote is a myth and the ‘Come quickly!” line is from an advertisement from the same period. In truth, Dom Pérignon worked tirelessly to rid wine of bubbles because they would make the poor-quality French glass bottles explode.
The English were among the first to view the tendency of Champagne to sparkle as a desirable trait. They tried to understand why it did bubble. In 1662, the English scientist Christopher Merret presented a paper detailing how the presence of sugar in a wine led to it eventually sparkle, and that nearly any wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar to it before bottling. Before long, the English developed a taste for fizzy wine, importing barrels of green, flat wine from Champagne, then adding sugar and molasses. They also developed the strong, coal-fired bottles and corks to contain it. This is one of the first known accounts of understanding the process of sparkling wine and even suggests that British merchants were producing "Sparkling Champagne" before the French Champenois were deliberately making it.
Sparkling wine is usually made from one, two or three of the traditional French varieties - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
Sparkling Rose, where some of the black-skinned grapes remain in contact with the juice to add colour and flavour, is also popular.
Sparkling wine is made in several ways. The Champagne method of making sparkling is called Méthode Champenoise. Under EU laws, if this method is used outside of Champagne controls, it’s called méthode traditionnelle or ‘traditional method’.
Sparkling wines range from dry to sweet, and include Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux. Sparkling can be can be dry, crisp, creamy, delicate, elegant, fruity, display minerality, and be full or medium bodied. Descriptors include ripe pear, apple, biscuit, brioche, citrus, mushrooms, strawberry, straw, herbs and almonds
Pairing with food
Sparkling wine is often served as an aperitif (an alcoholic beverage usually served before a meal to stimulate the appetite). Food matches for this ritual could include smoked salmon canapé, topped crostini, savoury croissants, olives, prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella. And of course, Champagne and oysters are a favourite. For your Champagne breakfast try scrambled eggs, jam danishes and fresh fruit. Sparkling pairs well with fish, crab, crayfish and delicate shellfish. Duck and salmon can work well, as can the sweet, salty, spicy qualities of Thai food. With cheeses, go for hard aged varieties like aged Gouda, Parmesan and Cheddar. Choose a dessert that isn't very sweet, such as berries, shortbread, angel food cake or tart, lemony desserts.
Notable regions for Sparkling Wine
France - Reims and Epernay are two regions that are world-renowned for their Champagne. Only bottles produced here can legally carry the region’s name.
New Zealand - New Zealand produces many sparkling wines in the méthode traditionnelle. They are generally high quality yet affordable. Characters include fruit flavours and fresh acidity with nutty, biscuity notes.
Marlborough - Marlborough produces the bulk of New Zealand sparkling. The cool climate produces wines of elegance and structure with crisp acidity. The suitability of the Marlborough terroir and success of the wines produced has attracted investment from large Champagne producers, particularly Deutz and Moet & Chandon.
Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne - The area’s temperature climate and high sunshine hours results in richer, weightier examples of quality sparkling wine.
Australia - Australian sparkling wine has come a long way in a short time, with several notable French Champagne houses showing interest. Note - sparkling shiraz is a uniquely Australian style. It’s a full-bodied wine with berry, cherry and spice characters and some sweetness. It’s served slightly chilled, and for many Aussies, Christmas isn’t Christmas without it.
Tasmania, Australia - Tasmania is a centre of Australian sparkling wine production, viewed as Australia’s sparkling capital. Wine commentator James Halliday explains: "the clear majority of the best sparkling wines are now solely sourced from Tasmania”.
Victoria, Australia - In 1986, Moet & Chandon set up production of Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley, just outside Melbourne. Altitude and a cool climate make Adelaide Hills the perfect environment for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for crafting top quality Sparkling.
International - Cava comes from Spain. Asti is from the Piedmont area of Italy and is crafted from Muscat fruit. Prosecco comes from Italy’s Veneto region. Lambrusco is Italy’s sparkling red. Sekt is Germany’s bubbly of choice.