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Sparkling wines by definition are simply fizzy wines that--like sparkling water and soda--have carbon dioxide in them.  How they’re produced though, however, varies quite a bit.  Some very inexpensive sparkling wines are injected with carbon dioxide, much like soda. While this method saves a lot of money, it doesn’t make for a good wine.  Carbon dioxide injection creates large, aggressive bubbles that quickly disappear, making the wine go flat quickly.  Instead, most producers make their sparkling wine in one of two types of ways--both involving fermenting the wine twice instead of once:

Traditional (Methode Champenoise):
Methode Champenoise is the oldest technique used to produce sparkling wines.  This technique was born in Champagne, France (hence the name), but is now also used throughout the world.

Winemakers begin first by picking their grapes before they’ve fully ripened and making a still wine from them.  Because the grapes are picked early, this initial wine is extremely acidic and isn’t suitable for consumption.  The winery then places the initial wine in bottles, adds a mixture of yeast and sugar (called liqueur de tirage), and waits for the wine to re-ferment and develop.  As the wine undergoes fermentation again, carbon dioxide, which is a normal by-product of fermentation is trapped in the bottle, resulting in adding fizziness to the wine.  

Finally, to get rid of the dead yeast in the bottles and make the wine appropriate for sale, the bottles go through a process called “riddling.”  Riddling involves slowly rotating the bottles while racked (either by machine or by hand) to trap all the dead yeast (called lees) in the cap.  Once this has been completed, the cap and lees are removed.  Lastly, the winery adds a small amount of sugar to replace any lost liquid and to balance the high acidity of the wine. 
Sparkling wines made with this technique tend to show a wider range of flavor components than those made with the Charmat technique.  Also, one last major difference is that wines made in this style often have the potential for developing with age.

Charmat Method
The Charmat Method was invented in the early 20th century and has revolutionized sparkling wine production by providing a cheaper and quicker means of producing sparkling wine.

This method begins similarly to the Traditional (Methode Champenoise) process where the winery makes a highly acidic base wine from grapes that are picked early.  However, instead of placing this wine into individual bottles, the base wine is moved into large, sealed stainless steel tanks.  Here, yeast and sugar are added and the wine undergoes a second round of fermentation.  When ready, the sparkling wine is then bottled under pressure directly from the tank.

This process tends to make for crisp, fruity and refreshing sparkling wines.  However, the wines almost invariably need to be consumed while young and are not meant for aging.  

Categories of Dryness
Many sparkling wines are required by the laws of their region to indicate their dryness level.  These are regulated by the sugar content (grams per liter) in the wine.  The designations from driest to sweetest are

  • Brut Natural/Brut Zero  (zero sugar)
  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra Dry
  • Dry/Sec
  • Demi-Sec
  • Doux/Sweet
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