Comparing sparkling wine & Champagne flavours

A 'quick and general' guide to different sparkling wine and Champagne flavour profiles - with an explanation of some of the terms you will find on sparkling wine labels.

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I was asked by one of my newsletter subscribers to write about the differences between various types of sparkling wine including champagne - you may have seen my initial blog on the different ways in which various sparkling wines and champagne are produced. This second part focuses on the flavour profiles of sparkling wines and champagne.

The reason I wrote about the differences in production first is that the techniques used in the winery can have perhaps the biggest influence on the flavour profile of sparkling wine and champagne. Other things of course affect the taste of each sparkling wine not least the grape variety, the terroir and weather variations, the level of sweetness and alcohol so there are many contributing factors that lead to such a wide range of sparkling wine types.

 

The flavours of Champagne & sparkling wines made by the Champagne method

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Wines produced by the Champagne method

We all know and love Champagne but did you know that there are a number of other sparkling wines made in the same way (known as the Champagne method)? These include:

English Sparkling Wines like the lovely Lyme Bay Classic Cuvée 2013 make a great alternative to Champagne and their quality is improving year on year such that even some French sommeliers now mistake some English Sparkling Wine for Champagne.

Cava and Penedès wines; you may be surprised to see Cava in the list as there are far too many commercial style Cavas on the UK supermarket shelves so you do need to take care in your choices. As mentioned in my Cava blog, this has led to several producers moving their wines to the Penedès appellation and getting back to the classic, more Champagne like style of Cava as in Colet's Tradición

Franciacorta from Italy tends to be a little lighter and less rich in style but not as light or sweet or fruity as Prosecco

South African Cap Classique wines labelled Méthode Cap Classique

Saumur & Vouvray from the Loire Valley; often made form Chenin Blanc and usually lighter than Champagne with more smoky characteristics

Crémants like Domaine Thibert's Crémant de Bourgogne. Crémants are French sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region by the Champagne method. They come from regions such as Burgundy (Crémant de Bourgogne), Bordeaux, the Loire and Alsace. Strict regulations dictate that only wines made in Champagne by the Champagne method can be called Champagne however.

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What creates the flavour profile of Champagne method wines?

Grapes of course are a major factor in the taste of any wine. English Sparkling Wine tends to be made from the three main grapes used in Champagne,  Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir but Cava, Franciacorta, Saumur, Vouvray and the Crémants allow more latitude.

What all these wines do have in common is the Champagne method of production and this probably has the most influence on the flavour profile. The Champagne method in a nutshell means that the second fermentation takes place in the bottle (as opposed to in a vat or tank). This means that after the yeasts and sugars that are added to the base wine interact to create bubbles and alcohol, a process known as yeast autolysis occurs. This is essentially where the dead yeast cells or lees break down and release compounds into the wine.

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Autolysis is responsible for the biscuity, brioche type of aromas associated with Champagne and other Champagne method wines. It also helps create the rich, rounded texture.  The source of these toasty flavours is often assumed to be from oak but in most Champagne method wines it is from the lees. A wine left on the lees for longer will show more intense bready aromas and flavours so ageing is also a factor.

Conclusion? The Champagne method leads to richer, more rounded wines with bread and biscuit characteristics (in addition to fruit) and usually finer, more persistent bubbles.

 

Terms you may see on champagne labels and what they say about the style of the wine:

Non-vintage or NV: the grapes used do not all come from one harvest, i.e. they come from different vintages. Most Champagne is NV and every Champagne house has its own house style of NV Champagne. They use mainly the grapes from one vintage but they add some reserve wine from past years to blend with it and to create a consistent style year on year. This is why you can rely on non-vintage Champagne from a particular Champagne house e.g. de Castellane (my favourite) tasting the same each time you buy it. Of course one Champagne house's style can vary greatly from another house's style.

Vintage: for Champagne (though not necessarily for other sparkling wines) this means that the grapes used are all from one vintage and so the wine will reflect the vintage and vary year to year. In fact a vintage is only declared in the best years so you won't find a vintage Champagne from every year.

Prestige Cuvée is a term used by some wineries and Champagne houses to indicate their best wine, usually available in limited quantities and at a higher price.

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Blanc de Blancs - which essentially means that a white Champagne is made only from white grapes (so no Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier added and this style is a little crisper with more citrus fruit flavours.

Blanc de Noirs therefore means a white Champagne made solely from black grapes, Pinot Noir and/ or Pinot Meunier, the juice by the way being clear or 'white'. These black grapes give Champagnes a little more structure and richness often making these wines more weighty in terms of body.

In recent years English wine producers have begun to expand their product ranges to include some of these styles.

If you want to know more about specific types of sparkling wines, read my blogs on vintage Champagne, Cava and English Sparkling Wine.

The flavours of Prosecco & sparkling wines made by the charmat or tank method

Wines produced by the tank method

Prosecco: light, Italian sparkling wine still much loved in the UK - rumours of its demise seem to be hugely exaggerated

Sekt: mostly white and mostly consumed domestically in Germany

Lambrusco: a light red sparkling wine with a very poor reputation. It is rumoured to be improving in quality but I have not put it to the test for many years.

Many generic 'varietal' sparkling wines e.g.  sparkling Shiraz

 

What creates the flavour profile of tank method wines?

 In the tank method the second fermentation happens in a sealed tank rather than in the bottle in order to retain fruit flavours and although there will be lees in the tank, the wine is not often kept on the lees for long enough to develop the yeasty, bread-type flavours. 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.

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Glera, the grape used for Prosecco (the grape is increasingly being called Prosecco) is actually fairly neutral. And 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, 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. It's also known as Moscate Bianco or Muscat à Petits Grains.

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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

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I ought to mention sparkling wines produced by the bicycle pump method, 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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© Wines With Attitude Limited, www.wineswithattitude.co.uk

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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.

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