Of all the traditional wines which have come out of the Old World, the only one which was sparkling is the Champagne. The rest of the wines produced using traditional methods do not have bubbles of air, and are known as still. Sparkling wines are perhaps the least understood and therefore least drunk of all the varieties of wine, but they can add a different edge to your glass of wine with dinner, and can also be an interesting alternative to the basic bottle of wine that you take along to a party.
The effervescence of Champagne has a long history, but the British continue to consider themselves as the inventors of the sparkling wine (although EU legislation and South African trade agreements mean that no-one outside France is allowed to call their sparkling wines Champagne). The English first developed sparkling wine in 1662, thanks to the experiments of Christopher Merret. Despite the fact that the English could make and export ‘sparkling Champagne’ before the French, France has continued to claim the title of Champagne maker, and now has secured agreements and treaties that establish it as the originator of the sparkling wine.
In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, there are two methods to produce sparkling wine. The first method is similar to that of Champagne making. This method uses two fermentation processes, the first in the cask, as usual, and the second in the bottle, creating carbon dioxide which cannot escape. This leads to air bubbles being formed in the wine. This double fermentation is caused by adding yeasts to the bottle, plus a certain amount of sugar. The bottle is then capped, and then aged. Before the bottle is finished, it must be riddled, or placed on a 45º degree rack which forces the yeast into the neck of the bottle, removing the remnants of the yeast.
A second method, known as the Charmat process, has begun to be used in South Africa. This method was invented in Italy, and is still very popular there as a method of creating the bubbles in sparkling wine. In this process, the wine is brought into stainless steel tanks, and the fermentation is performed there, rather than in separate bottles. This type of sparkling wine is best suited to Italian grapes, but it is favoured by some makers due to the fact that it is cheaper than the Champagne method.
Making a sparkling wine is always a difficult process, not least because the wine has to be fermented twice. Some of the methods which have been tried in the past, including injecting carbon dioxide into the wine, have resulted in large bubbles which easily burst. The wine can also be affected through exposure to direct sunlight, which gives the wine a rather oily texture and a slight taste of bacon, due to the action of the yeast in sunlight. Being exposed to bacteria can cause even more problems, giving the wine a cloudy colour and a ‘corked’ taste.
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