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Sparkling Wine: That Quizzical Fizz

Curious facts about sparkling wine to deepen your delight and dazzle your friends

Meg Maker By December 28, 2021
sparkling wine bottles
Photo illustration by Pix

Sparkling wine demands an exclamation point. Fizz inflates all occasions, from Taco Tuesday to royal coronations.

Sparkling wine also demands a question mark! Just check Google Trends, where searches peak in December with queries like “what is Prosecco Champagne,” “what color is Champagne,” “what is sparkling wine made of,” and “does sparkling wine expire.” 

For the record:

  1. There’s no such thing.
  2. White or pink.
  3. How much time have you got?
  4. It’s complicated.

Below are a handful of fun facts to nibble on with holiday sips.

1. Some (excellent) sparklers are red

Sparkling reds have a lot going on: fruit, tannin, acid, and sometimes a pile of sugar. Many don’t go through the softening step of malolactic fermentation, so taste more like biting green apple than red. Fizz plus cold amplify these effects, while a touch of sweetness tames them. 

Red bubbly is popular in Australia, where it’s often based on Shiraz/Syrah or a blend of black grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. It tends to be dense and sweet, and is known locally as “spurgle,” a contraction of its older moniker, sparkling Burgundy.

But there are also dry red sparkling options, notably Lambrusco. This classic red sparkler is made around Modena, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna. The best are dry, nothing like the sweet stuff popularized during the Nixon administration (sorry, Boomers). It is concentrated but balanced, delivering crackly refreshment with charcuterie or pizza.

2. Corks are optional

Ethan Joseph, winemaker for Iapetus, uses crown caps for his natural fizz, crediting other pét-nat producers for helping remove the closure’s stigma. Because although there are some delicious pét-nats priced around $15, it’s not hard to find examples that cost as much as Brut Champagne.

“Pét-nat came into the market as an easy-drinking, non-pretentious, drink-it-young,” kind of beverage, Joseph says. The simple packaging, often in clear glass, suggested transparency, and the cost savings of a crown cap fit that aesthetic.

Winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard has used crown caps almost exclusively for his sparkling wine and cider, mostly for cost savings. A crown cap costs about 13 cents per bottle versus three or four times that for a quality cork, wire hood, and foil capsule.

“It is almost impossible to offer anything that is perceived as real value for the customer and still maintain a reasonable margin,” he says. “For me, going the cork and hood route has always seemed to be the straw that broke the riddler’s rack.”

3. Dry isn't the driest

After disgorgement, Champagne gets topped with liquid, called the dosage or liqueur d’expédition. This is often sweetened to bring the finished wine anywhere from 3 g/L of sugar to 50 g/L or more.

The dosage tiers, defined by the Comité Champagne, range from Brut Zéro, or no sugar, through Brut, Sec, and Doux.

Wines at the lowest sugar addition don’t actually taste sweet. The sugar simply acts to polish the piquant acidity and pull the elements into balance.

Counterintuitively, Sec wines are sweeter than Brut, even though “sec” is French for dry. This tidbit trips up even seasoned wine professionals.

To keep it straight, it can be helpful to know that “brut” literally translates as raw, in the sense of being unadorned, or in a native or natural state. Brut, in other words, is where it all begins.

4. Germany loves bubbles

According to the 2020 sparkling wine report from the International Organization of Vine and Wine, Germany consumes the most sparkling wine in the world, a whopping 17% of global production and about twice as much as the U.S. Much of it is imported, particularly from Italy and France.

But Germans also love their home-team sparkler, Sekt. Germany is actually the third-largest sparkling wine-producing country, behind Italy and France. The U.S. is a distant fifth.

Ursula Heinzelmann, a German wine and cheese expert and author, postulates the popularity has roots in older beverages. “There might be something in the fact that historically large parts of Germany depended on beer, and sparkling wine has the same mouthfeel,” she says.

Recently, a group of 34 Sekt makers formed to reinvigorate the production of high-quality Sekt made in the traditional method. “In the last decade we’ve been seeing so much excellent grower Sekt coming up,” says Heinzelmann, adopting the term from grower Champagne. “It’s a delight.”

5. Champagne browns like meat

The Maillard reaction is a browning step that gives steak its savory crust and adds toasty notes to brioche, biscuits, and buns.

The reaction also happens in traditional method sparkling wines after disgorgement. Proteins and amino acids in the wine react with reducing sugars, glucose, effectively browning it and adding toasty flavors.

These are distinct from the savory notes the wine earns during lees contact before disgorgement, and also from the nutty, oxidative notes it picks up later with bottle age.

But don’t look for the toasty notes in Brut Nature. “Undosed sparkling wines don’t evolve to have MR character in the same way as those with sugar,” says Brad Greatrix, winemaker at Nyetimber, a sparkling wine house in southern England. The sugar in the dosage “puts some forward pressure on the equilibrium of the reaction.” 

A little sugar is a good thing.

6. It might need decanting

Just after the pop!, some sparkling wines smell lightly sulfurous. This reductive note is especially common in well-aged wines.

Time in the glass, or even a decanter, can help. Air helps make the wine feel more expansive and rich, says Laura Clay, a wine educator, judge, and former U.K. Champagne Ambassador. She likes to decant vintage Champagnes or those that contain copious reserve wine.

“I find a quality Blanc de Blancs can offer more with a little decanting,” she says. Ditto for “special cuvées, Krug, bolder styles, and Champagnes made with oak.” The decanter doesn’t flatten the bubbles as much as one might expect. She also recommends the technique for other well-made traditional method wines, like Cava and Crémant. 

But skip it for the less complex wines made in a fresh style. “I wouldn’t decant Prosecco,” she says, “even DOCG Prosecco. They just don’t need it.”

Fine wine facts like these are fodder for chitchat, but the wine’s never the most important thing. That’s the lift we get from sharing a toast — in person or virtually — to our collective good fortune and health.

3 sparkling wines to try:

bottle of Medici Ermete Concerto Reggiano Lambrusco DOC 2020

Medici Ermete Concerto Reggiano Lambrusco DOC 2020 ($22)

This vintage, single-vineyard, organic Lambrusco gets its fizz from the Charmat method. Its robe is a rich blackberry color crowned with purple foam, and the prickly mousse carries a medley of fresh and dark flavors: fennel bulb, orange peel, black currant. The acidity is direct, and the carbonation accents the wine’s smooth tannins. It’s bone dry and supremely refreshing with salumi, fennel focaccia, Pecorino, or all three.

bottle of Ca’ dei Zago Prosecco Col Fondo Valdobbiadene DOCG 2018

Ca’ dei Zago Prosecco Col Fondo Valdobbiadene DOCG 2018 ($27)

Ca’ dei Zago practices biodynamics in the vineyard and uses moon phases to guide winemaking and bottling decisions. Their Prosecco earns its fizz from a second fermentation in bottle, the ancestral method, rather than in large tanks common for modern Prosecco. The lees from the second fermentation settle to the bottom (col fondo), and render this lightly sparkling wine slightly cloudy. The flavors are autumnal, offering a sense of green olive, almond, quince, and russet apple. The leesy-savory midpalate finishes with a sense of brine and bread. It’s both refreshing and far more interesting than the average Prosecco.

bottle of Ferrari Perlé Trento DOC 2014

Ferrari Perlé Trento DOC 2014 ($44)

This vintage traditional method wine shows the toasty notes possible with a little bottle age — and at a fraction of the price of vintage Champagne. It’s made from 100% Chardonnay, and the wine spends a whopping 50 months en tirage prior to disgorgement. It’s slightly reductive at first — give it some air! — then enjoy the savory, saline mid-palate burnished by notes of toast, nuts, and brioche.