In the world of wine, the sparkling category is sometimes viewed as a strange appendage to a bulbous body. Many of us acknowledge we enjoy bubbles in wine, but very few of us understand how it’s made. Luckily, I was recently a participant in the inaugural class of Sparkling Wine Camp in northern Italy. For five days, I was hosted by Cantine Ferrari, the flagship winery of the Lunelli Group, and led through an epic journey of sparkling wine from grape to glass. During the camp, I was exposed to the inner-workings of one of the premier sparkling wine companies in the world. Like a great glass of sparkling wine, the memories will never dissipate, yet only appreciate.
The best sparkling wines are produced on a bottle-by-bottle basis, a process known as the Classic Method, Traditional Method, or Champagne Method. It involves blending base wines to achieve a desired blend, and then bottling each wine individually. A small dose of sugar and yeast is added before a crown cap is placed on the bottle. A secondary fermentation occurs inside the bottle creating carbon dioxide. Since the gas can’t escape, the carbonation is imbued in the wine while the dead yeast cells coagulate on the bottom of the bottle. As the yeast cells expire, the slow decomposition yields complex aromas and flavors in the wine. The longer the wines are exposed to the lees, dead yeast cells, the more elegant and interesting the wine becomes. During this slow aging period, the bottles are slowly rotated until they’re upside down, a process called riddling. This ensures that the sediment and dead yeast cells fall to the bottom and gather underneath the crown cap. When it’s time to disgorge, the neck of the bottle is exposed to extremely cold temperatures to freeze the sediment. T hen the bottle is turned back upright and the crown cap is removed. The pressure inside the bottle expels the sediment out, leaving behind the impeccable sparkling wine. A final dose of residual wine is added to determine the level of sweetness, ranging from ultra dry to sweet. Most of what we drink is dry, or Brut, in wine speak. Lastly, the cork and wire cage are added and the process is finished.
During the seminar, we were offered the chance to make our own sparkling wine and had to taste through five base wines and build a final blend. The majority of the base wines were from the current year, but one wine from the previous vintage was available as well. It’s common for the final blend to incorporate small percentages of older vintages to add finesse and elegance. Since the other wines were extremely young and had not been treated nor stabilized (common following the volatile process of fermentation) they were cloudy and searing with acidity. Showing their youth, they were clumsy and difficult to decipher. We were asked to determine the subtle differences between them, and forecast what they’ll contribute to the blend after years of bottle aging. When asked how one knows which wines to blend together, Cantine Ferrari enologist, Ruben Larentis, humbly replies, “You simply don’t – it’s part of the mystery of sparkling wine.”
Most sparkling wines are labeled, “NV” or “Non-Vintage”, referring to the variety of vintages and wines that go into the finished blend. Vintage wines, on the other hand, are another breed. They contain grapes from only one year, and are designed to age gracefully for years and gain in complexity over time. Vintage sparkling wines are made only in years when conditions provide ideal grapes. They are usually aged much longer on the lees during the secondary fermentation than are non-vintage wines. After purchase, vintage sparkling wines are intended for cellaring, whereas non-vintage bottlings are more every-day drinking wines. As vintage wines increase in age, the carbonation subsides and the flavors and aromas grow stronger, more complex, and more ethereal. In the video below, Marcello Lunelli, Vice President and chief enologist of Cantine Ferrari, discusses the beauty of vintage sparkling wines. These wines are saved for celebrating special occasions, but enthusiasts will posit, they are the special occasions.