Comparing sparkling wine flavours
I have previously written about the differences between various types of sparkling wine including champagne - you may have seen my blogposts on ways in which various sparkling wines and champagne are produced and on the flavour profile of Champagne and other wines made by the Champagne method such as English Sparkling Wine, Cava, Penedès Classico, Franciacorta, South African Cap Classique, Saumur, Vouvray and Crémants like Manoir du Carra's Crémant de Bourgogne.
In this blogpost I'm focusing on the flavours of other sparkling wines, those that are not made by the champagne method. Obviously things like differences in grape variety, terroir and weather variations can have a part to play but the differences in production techniques of the different types of sparkling wine also have a big effect on the flavour profiles.
Different sparkling wines made by the charmat or tank method
Prosecco: light, Italian sparkling wine produced from the fairly neutral Glera or Prosecco grape and still much loved in the UK - rumours of its demise seem finally to be proving true with export volumes decreasing in the last year or so.
Sekt: mostly white and mostly consumed domestically in Germany these wines can be made from grapes like Riesling and Pinot Grigio (a small percentage is produced by the champagne method however so check the label). The wines aim to taste very much as you would expect for the varietal in question so sparkling Riesling should taste like a still Riesling with bubbles.
Lambrusco: a light fruity red sparkling wine made in Italy from Lambrusco grapes. It has suffered from a poor reputation but is rumoured to be improving in quality although I have not put it to the test for many years.
The many generic 'varietal' sparkling wines e.g. sparkling Shiraz.
What creates the flavour profile of tank method wines?
Grapes of course are a major factor in the taste of any wine and for these generally lighter sparkling wines the aim is usually for the taste of the grape varietal to dominate rather than the more complex and developed flavours of wines made by the champagne method.
In the tank method the second fermentation of the wine happens in a sealed tank rather than in the bottle in order to retain fruit flavours. With Champagne and wines made by the champagne method the fermentation in bottle means that the wine interacts with the dead yeasts or lees to acquire their biscuity and bready flavours. For wines made by the tank method there will also be lees in the tank but the wine is not often kept on the lees for long enough to develop those yeasty, bread-type flavours from the autolysis.
The tank method is often used therefore to emphasise the particular flavours of the grape and that is certainly the case where a distinctively-tasting grape such as Shiraz is used.
Prosecco is a little different in that Glera, the grape used for Prosecco (the grape is increasingly being called Prosecco) is actually fairly neutral. It would therefore seem odd to aim to make the wine taste of the grape variety. Sadly with too many Proseccos this neutrality is often masked by the addition of sugar to what is already usually a wine sweeter than champagne method wines.
For tank method sparkling wines fermentation is often stopped early leaving lower pressure therefore fewer bubbles, lower alcohol and more residual sugar than in many Champagne style wines.
So the tank method is also used for a generally light, fruity, floral, often off-dry style of sparkling wines. With good wine-making, these can be high quality wines like the Guerrieri Extra Dry Prosecco but the tank method is also used at the more "value" end of the market because it is a cheaper, more cost-effective of producing bubbly than the Champagne method.
Conclusion? Tank method sparkling wines tend to be light in body, low alcohol, with fruity & floral characteristics; often off-dry, their sweetness can be offset with crisp acidity and if these are in balance the wine won't taste too sweet. They are wines intended to be consumed young.
Sweeter sparkling wines made by the Asti method
I should mention the sweeter sparkling wines of the Asti region in Italy, Moscato D'Asti DOCG being the best; for most of the wines made in this style, as with the tank method, it is the grape that influences the flavour profile more than the production level. The wines are produced from the Moscato grape, the only grape considered to smell and taste of grapes. yes, really! It's also known as Moscate Bianco or Muscat à Petits Grains.
The single and short fermentation does play some part in determining their character; fermentation takes place in tanks and only halfway through the process the tank is sealed to stop the carbon dioxide escaping. This means that the wines are light in alcohol and body, sweet as some residual sugar remains, fruity - think peach and grapes - and with delicate floral notes.
Other sparkling wines
I ought to mention sparkling wines produced by the bicycle pump method (I kid you not), where the bubbles come from pumping carbon dioxide into a still wine but there is no specific flavour profile as this method can be used with any wine. It is quite honestly a cheap and quick method used for entry level wines - you will notice a difference in the bubbles which will be larger and will fade away quickly.
There are other methods and of course many other sparkling wines available that I have not mentioned e.g. from Australia, New Zealand and the USA. This is not because they do not produce quality sparkling wines but more because their sparkling wines come in a wide range of styles so it is difficult to be specific. Perhaps the subject of another blogpost?
Armed with the knowledge above though, you can ask how a sparkling wine was produced and have some idea of whether it will match your taste.
Whichever is your preferred style...
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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.