I contemplated writing about Port Wine or Natural Sparkling Wine (Champagne). After all, we’re at the end of the year and Porto Wine goes great with Christmas desserts but on the other hand, who doesn't celebrate the beginning of the new year by toasting with a glass of bubbles in their hands?
Both wines originate in unique regions, with a very rich history that you could write a book or two about them.
But for now, let me tell you a little about the origins of Champagne in France and sparkling wines in Portugal and their most noble winemaking process - the Classic Method.
Sparkling wines would have appeared in the hands of French Benedictines during the 16th century. However, it’s customary to consider Don Pérignon (17th century), also a Benedictine monk, as the great innovator of the production of this type of wine - Natural Sparkling.
At the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, Don Pérignon made contact with the Ancestral Method of Limoux, used by his monk brothers for over a century.
Once he returned to his Abbey in Epernay in the Champagne region, Don Pérignon started a "revolution" in wine production in 1670 by improving the recipe and introducing some new features such as the use of the cork stopper.
His ingenuity and the fact that he had a successor (Don Grossard) meant that his legacy carried on, creating a mix of facts and legends around Champagne.
In Portugal, the first instance of producing sparkling wines occurred in the Douro region before 1860. The most successful experiments of producing sparkling wines, led to the creation of the first Bairradina de Espumantes company in 1890, largely because of the “fault” of a wine and fruit school teacher, Tavares da Silva.
Eight years later the production of Natural Sparkling Wine began in Lamego, at the initiative of Commander José Teixeira Rebelo Júnior. Since then, these two regions have come to assert themselves as outstanding producers - Bairrada and Tavora-Varosa (Lamego).
In 1991, Bairrada gained the status of being the first Portuguese Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) for sparkling wines.
Today, sparkling wines are produced in almost all Portuguese wine regions, with more than 250 registered producers. Interestingly though, the Vinhos Verdes region has the leadership in production houses, followed by Bairrada. In third, Ex Aequo, the Douro, and then the Alentejo. However, in regards to the volume produced, Bairrada is the leader.
While in the Vinho Verde region there are excellent examples of Natural Sparkling Wine made with the Alvarinho grape variety, in Bairrada the most common ones are Arinto, Baga, and Chardonnay for whites, then Baga and Touriga Nacional for Reds.
Similar to France, Portugal uses red grape varieties (Baga, Touriga Nacional, Pinot Noir) to create rosé and even sparkling white wines. But unlike the French Portugal also produces red sparkling wines.
There are three ways to create a Natural Sparkling Wine. The largest production in Portugal is done according to the Classic Method formerly called the traditional Champagne Method, where the second fermentation that gives natural gas and the aroma flavor complexity to the wine occurs in the bottle.
The Classic Method is the most expensive because it requires more labor, equipment, and space in the cellar, as well as time in the bottle until it reaches the hands of a consumer.
In the cellar we start from a base wine (white, rosé, or red), often a batch of wines from several years (this is why most natural sparkling wines don’t have a harvest year on the label), or, several varieties of the same harvest, ultimately only one grape/ one year.
In whichever situation, the preparation and choice of the base wine by the Enologist (also known as an oenologist or fermentologist) is a serious matter. It must be of unquestionable quality and have well-defined characteristics (aroma, flavor, alcohol, fixed acidity, pH), to deliver the final product that the producer wants to place on the market.
Before being bottled, the base wine receives the Liqueur de Tirage, a liquid solution of fermentable sugars and yeasts to trigger the second fermentation in the bottle. The bottle is then sealed with a cap.
After “circulation”, the bottles should be placed in a horizontal position, in a cool place with a relatively low and stable temperature of 11ºC and 15ºC (51°F to 59°F).
The period of transformation of all sugar into ethanol, with the production of the desired gas (carbon dioxide), is variable depending on the temperature and can be between 10 to just over 40 days.
After fermentation in the bottle is complete, the yeasts gradually die due to the high overpressure to which they are subjected. This is then followed by a resting period ranging from nine months to over six years where the bottles are not moved or touched.
The phenomenon that will occur in the bottle during this time will enrich the natural sparkling wine contributing to an increase in aromatic complexity, volume in the mouth, and improvement in the quality of the foam.
When the producer decides to place the wine on the market, the remuage process (riddling process) begins, followed by dégorgement and dosage.
Remuage is the operation that aims to direct the lees (deposits of dead yeast) produced during fermentation to the neck of the bottle, in order to make its removal possible, obtaining then a clear natural sparkling wine.
This operation is still done manually by some houses, and by some high-end luxury wines, as it is a time-consuming and costly process. Remueurs (Riddlers) rotate the bottles by hand tilting them using appropriate easels (Pupitres). A professional riddler can turn up to 40,000 bottles in one day!
The most common practice today is to mechanically Remuage on “giropalettes”, with huge gains in cost, speed, and necessary physical space.
Riddling is then followed by the Dégorgement, an operation that consists of removing a bottle cap from the bottles and eliminating the fermentation deposits. This operation can be done manually – Dégorgement à la Volée, however today the practice is that of Dégorgement à la Glace.
The neck of the bottle is submerged into a saline bath cooled to a temperature of minus 25ºC (77ºF) or less, quickly forming a small block of ice that encloses the sludge. The bottles then return to their normal position and enter an automatic ‘decapping’ line. During this operation, the bottles lose some wine and carbon dioxide.
Dosage consists of adding the Expedition Liqueur (Liqueur d’expédition in French) to the wine before final corking. It is at this moment that the desired degree of sweetness (raw, semi-dry, sweet, etc.) is introduced to the wine.
Finally, the bottle is certified with the addition of a small amount of the natural sparkling wine itself.
Interestingly enough, the composition of expedition liqueurs (cane sugar dissolved in wine) that is now widely known, was for centuries one of the best kept secrets of the main Champagne producing houses.
Finally, the natural cork stopper is attached to the neck with the muzzle (Muselet), followed by labeling and packaging.
And it's about to be consumed and enjoyed by you! Cheers!
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Depending on the added sugar content (grams per liter) and according to EC Regulation 607/2009, Portuguese sparkling wines are classified as follows:
BRUT NATURAL - Has no added sugar or must be less than 3g
EXTRA-BRUT - Less than 6g
BRUT - Less than 12g
EXTRA-DRY - 12 to 17g
DRY - 17 to 32g
MEDIUM-DRY - 32 to 50g
SWEET - More than 50g