5 Things you should know about Sparkling Wines

The words ‘sparking wine’ – be it Champagne, Franciacorta or Prosecco – are synonym with happiness. But if we don’t want our sparkling choice to turn into a bubbling disaster, then it might be useful to bear a few, simple things in mind. We have selected the Top 5 for you – followed by some curiosity on the subject.

A wine of method… of course, but which?

There are several ways of producing a sparkling wine. Getting to know them will allow you to form an idea of what you are going to drink:

  • The Traditional Method
    Also known as “Champenoise method” – although only French producers can use this expression for their wines – it generally gives a finer perlage (bubbles dimension), more intense and complex flavours, and aromas reminiscent of bread crust or freshly baked croissants (owing to the yeasts) to the wine. Some examples are Champagne, Franciacorta, Trentodoc, Alta Langa, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico and Cava.

  • The Charmat-Martinotti Method
    It allows to obtain a sparkling wine quicker that the traditional method while preserving the fresh, floral and fruity notes. Some examples are Asti, Prosecco (not all) and the vast majority of the sparkling wines available on the market.

  • The Ancestral Method
    The long forgotten ancestral method is getting a revival. The procedure is very similar to the traditional method, but neither the wine is disgorged (the yeasts deposit is not expelled from the bottle) nor a dosage is added (additional sugars). The bottle have a deposit on its bottom, so it’s better not to move it too much and to pour the wine in all the glasses in one go: once you put the bottle straight up again, the deposit will make the remaining wine a bit hazy. A good example is Prosecco Colfondo.

A spoonful of sugar!

How can you know whether you will enjoy a bottle of sparkling wine or not before buying/tasting it? Well, you can’t be 100% sure – unless you ask the cards or trust some wine app, blog or review website (which might have different tastes) – but there’s one thing you can deduct from reading the label: whether the wine you’re taking home with you will taste more sweet or dry. Every sparkling wine must show on its label its sugar content (grams per litre) by words like “Brut” or “Dry”. These are the “magic words” you should look out for:

  • Brut Nature (Zéro Dosage, Pas Dosè or Dosaggio Zero) less than 3 g/l
  • Extra Brut between 0 and 6 g/l
  • Brut less than 12 g/l
  • Extra Dry (Extra Sec or Extra Secco) between 12 and 17 g/l
  • Dry (Sec or Secco) between 17 and 32 g/l
  • Demi Sec (or Semi Secco)  between 32 and 50 g/l
  • Dolce (Doux or Sweet) more than 5o g/l

Glass is an easy word…

Sparkling wines are better drunk in the right glass: all right then, but which is the best?
This is still an open debate (your opinion in the comment box below is welcomed!), but there are a few general rules: take the vintage, saucer-shaped glass once largely used for Champagne, for example. In reality, it should be used for sweet wines only, like Asti. The flute glass, with its lovely way of enhancing the effect of the bubbles, seems to be on its wane. Wider glasses allowing the wine to express itself more intensely at the nose are preferred. Some times even classic medium-size glasses for white wines are used instead. Some of the consortiums promoting the most famous Italian sparkling wines have even 
designed their own glassware:

I bicchieri dei consorzi

Size does matter!

Talking about wine, size does matter. Did you know that the bigger the bottle, the better the wine? This is because the more wine you have in the bottle, the slower it will evolve. Here are all the sparkling bottle sizes ever conceived:

  • Demi-Bouteille 0,375 l (half a bottle)
  • Bottiglia 0,75 l
  • Litre 1 l
  • Magnum 1,5 l (2 bottles)
  • Jéroboam 3 l (4 bottles)
  • Réhoboram 4,5 l (6 bottles)
  • Mathusalem 6 l (8 bottles)
  • Salmanazar 9 l (12 bottles)
  • Balthazar 12 l (16 bottles)
  • Nabuchodonosor 15 l (20 bottles)
  • Salomon 18 l (24 bottles)
  • Primat 27 l (36 bottles)
  • Melchizedec 30 l (40 bottles)

It’s just a matter of time…

Sparkling wines are not immortal (you wish!) Don’t keep your bottles aside hoping that they will improve dramatically, because they probably won’t. Sparkling wines should be drunk within 6 to 12 months (24 max.) from the bottling – or disgorging – date. Pay attention to the vintage! If it appears on the label of a single-vintage traditional method sparkling wine, it may be misleading. If the label says “2010” and we are in 2015, it doesn’t mean your bottle has passed away. The back label will probably include one of the following terms: Degorgiato, Dégorgement, Dégorgé, Sboccato or Sboccatura followed by a date. This is the date on which the 6-to-12-months “second life” of our sparkling wine actually started, that is when the bottle have been disgorged (the yeasts deposit has been removed, sugars added and the bottle finally corked). If a sparkling wine’s life is relatively short after the final corking has taken place, you can guest what will happen once you open the bottle to drink it! You might be asking how you can preserve your wine… That’s foolish! Just drink it! Some say putting a teaspoon in the bottle neck will help preventing the bubbles from rushing outside, but this is just not true. If you can’t help leaving some of your sparkling wine unpoured, then you can easily find a suitable stopper at your local supermarket. Nevertheless, don’t keep a sparkling wine bottle open for more than one day.

The Curiosity Corner

Single-Vintage: many people believe this is a sign of excellence or careful selection. But it’s not, at least not always. In French, the word millésime means ‘vintage’, and as a labeling term for sparkling wines it indicates that a particular wine has been produced – usually following the traditional method – from grapes of a same, single vintage, while for non single-vintage wines the base wine is made up of a blend of different vintage wines. For Champagne, the indication of the vintage on the label generally means that on that particular year the quality was so high there was no need to blend base wines from different vintages to obtain a great product, but this is not the rule in Italy. Many Italian sparkling wines on the market will have the vintage reported on the label in any case, without this having anything to do with an outstanding vintage quality. Just keep in mind that, with a few exceptions, it is not compulsory to have the vintage stated on the label for sparkling wines.

The temperature: what’s worse than a sparkling wine not properly chilled? So many things, probably, but why not to enjoy your bottle at the proper serving temperature? In case of unexpected guests, if the bottle you want to serve is not in the fridge yet, use a glacette or an ice bucket with ice, water and some kitchen salt: this is the best and quickest way to cool down a wine’s temperature.

The Cork:  perhaps not everyone knows that the “mushroom” cork normally used for sparkling wines and so called for its typical shape is just as cylindrical as any other cork before it is put in the bottle neck. A practical way to know whether a wine has been bottled (or disgorged) recently is too look at the cork: the more it tends to return to its original shape, the less time it has spent on the bottle.

The popping: popping a sparkling wine – and scaring anyone on the cork path – is funny and so wrong. Let it go on New Year’s Eve or at an informal party, but at the restaurant or with important guests it’s totally forbidden.


Photo credits: Phil Wood Photo

Avatar photo

Elisa Pesce

Esperto assaggiatore ONAV, assaggiatore ONAF, WSET Advanced in Wines & Spirits nonché tecnico di marketing per l'enoturismo. Dato che la vita è una sola, preferisco sia il più incasinata possibile: il vino è l'unico modo per mantenere l'equilibrio. Vistita il mio Blog o scrivimi una mail