Wine can have a certain snobbery surrounding it, but it’s important to realise that it’s grounded in science. Anyone can be ‘good at wine’ if they simply put in the practice – by drinking lots of it! The way bubbles look in the glass and feel in the mouth can tell you a lot about the wine you’re drinking…
It’s handy to understand a little about the process of making a sparkling wine, as different winemaking methods will have different effects on both aroma and flavour, and how the bubbles feel in your mouth.
Most sparkling wines go through two stages of fermentation. The first sees the sugar in grape juice converted to alcohol by adding live yeast: this process creates carbon dioxide. If left to ferment for a second time, the CO2 by-product makes the wine fizzy.
Martinotti or tank?
Prosecco and many other wallet-friendly sparkling wines are made using the Martinotti or tank method, with the wine being aged in a large tank and then bottled when already sparkling. Typically, these wines are made to be drunk young, so they are sold quite soon after they are bottled. As a result, the bubbles are larger and more noticeable – or aggressive, as we wine buffs call them – in the mouth, which feels celebratory.
Traditional method sparkling wines
Champagne, Crémant and Cava go through their second fermentation in the bottle in which they are sold and are subject to stricter ageing requirements. They can spend months or years in the bottle to develop their flavours, which is why they tend to be more expensive. This extra time spent in the bottle also has the effect of taming the bubbles. They become smaller and feel softer and more mousse-like in the mouth.
What’s yeast got to do with it?
Winemaking methods also affect the taste and smell of the wine. If a wine has yeasty aromas of bread or pastry, it probably means that it’s spent more time in contact with its spent yeast cells (lees) – the ones that were used to convert the grape sugars into alcohol. Traditional method wines typically fall into this category, and as a rule of thumb the longer a wine is aged, the more you’ll notice those delicious pastry notes along with the characteristic citrus and stone fruit notes.
All champagne must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before it’s released to market. For non-vintage champagnes, 12 of those months must be spent in contact with the lees and for vintage champagnes (those made using grapes from a single year), the minimum time spent in bottle is three years. The world’s most expensive champagnes are much older.
So when someone pours you a glass of fizz at the work Christmas do, ask yourself about the bubbles. Are they large or small, creamy or excitable? Does the wine smell like a fruity brioche bun or more like citrus and stone fruit?
Remember, it’s all about the science when it comes to bubbles.