Last issue I mentioned that the key to good sparkling wine is for it to taste creamy yet dry at the same time – quite a tricky concept! So how is this achieved?
Sparkling wine actually starts off as a still “base wine” – a non-fizzy wine. It is made from a first fermentation much the same as normal table wine. In Champagne and in better quality wines around the world the grapes for the base wine consist of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The latter two are black skinned grapes, the juice is clear coloured and full flavoured, and care is needed so that the juice and wine does not pick up colour from the skins.
Various base wines are blended, the blended wine is bottled with a little sugar and yeast, and a second fermentation occurs inside the bottle. The gas produced then cannot escape and it makes the wine fizzy. The yeasts run out of sugar and die off. They create sediment at the bottom of the bottle called lees.
If the sparkling wine is then aged for a long period with the lees present, the wine takes on richness and complexity. Champagne laws require a minimum of two years of such ageing. Many producers take longer. In Australia premium wines may have two to four years of ageing on lees.
Eventually the bottles are tipped up and shaken so that the lees rests against the cork – a process called riddling. The neck of the bottle is then dunked into a freezing liquid causing the wine in the neck of the bottle to freeze. If the seal is then removed, the internal pressure causes the frozen plug of wine to fly out, taking with it the trapped sediment, leaving a clear fizzy wine behind. The bottle can then be topped up, using more of the same wine though with a little flavour additive, called liqueur, incorporated. This process of adding liqueur is called dosage. The bottle is then finally sealed using a wire clip to hold the cork in place.
Australia is an excellent producer of sparkling wines and there is some great value to be found. Lower priced examples are Brown Brothers Pinot Chardonnay ($22), Hardy Sir James Vintage ($27), Logan Weemala Brut ($24), Chandon Brut ($20), Jansz Premium Cuvee ($19), Blue Pyrenees Midnight Cuvee ($28) and Grant Burge Pinot Noir Chardonnay ($22). Higher priced examples that are quite comparable to Champagne include Stefano Lubiana Reserve ($37), Arras Grand Vintage ($60), Delamere Cuvee ($39), Hanging Rock Macedon ($32), Brown Brothers Patricia ($40) Chandon Vintage Brut ($33), Jansz Vintage ($35) and Yarrabank ($33).