Sparkling Wines: Bubbles 101 & Tasting Notes

Pop, pop, fizz, fizz
Regardless of where it comes from or what it is called, all sparkling wines share a common trait: carbonation. But how do winemakers get all those bubbles in the bottle?

The most traditional process for creating sparkling wine is called methode champenoise. Although some sparklers are produced more quickly in bulk, the best wines still follow the ages-old practice. Chae Durbin of AZ Wine Company in Scottsdale, explains the process in more detail.

“The bubbles in Champagne or sparkling wine are pure carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of winemaking. Yeasts, either from the grape skins or in most cases added by the winemaker, convert grape sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When a winemaker produces still wine, he or she lets the carbon dioxide escape into the air. In the second part of fermentation – that’s what turns a still wine into a sparkling wine – the carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle and is not released until you pour it into a glass to drink.”

Sound scientific? The first sparkling wines were produced largely by accident! It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 17th century that French monasteries began to document and implement the methodical production process that is still used today.


Taste test
The process for tasting sparkling wine is very similar to the process for tasting other varietals, and can be broken down into five easy steps:  Look. Smell. Swirl. Smell again. Taste.

“As I taste, I always appreciate the bubbles – the carbonation, or the 'mousse', if you’re being French,” Stonehouse says. Lighter, delicate bubbles usually indicate a higher quality sparkling wine. If the bubbles resemble the carbonation found in soda pop, then the wine was not aged very long, if at all, and is more than likely batch or bulk processed. “Bottle processing indicates care and quality, whereas batch processing indicates mass production, which is not usually associated with high quality.”

The first sniff should give some indication of the style of wine, according to Stonehouse. “For example, if it is a ‘brut’ style sparkling wine, you should smell some toasty notes, much like toast with no butter; the aroma is created by the yeast and aging process of the wine.” Though novice tasters will most likely not be able to identify a wine style from its aroma, be aware that different styles yield varying aromas. Swirling the glass before smelling again allows some of the alcohol to be vaporized and releases more of the wine’s natural aroma. Some scents to look for include crisp fruits, like apple and pear, pitted fruits, like peach and apricot, hints of smokiness, berries, citrus, and honey.

When it’s time to taste, take it slow. Sip the wine through pursed lips and let it roll around the mouth and tongue before swallowing. Note which flavors hit different points in the mouth and take a moment to let the aftertaste, or finish, develop. Tasting wine is highly personal; there are no right or wrong impressions, so don’t be afraid to voice an opinion. After all, sharing and comparing notes is a large part of the experience.

“The most important factors to consider when selecting a bottle of bubbles are to enjoy the wine’s flavor on the palate and, of course, to stay in your budget,” Stonehouse says. “There are as many bubbles and varieties as there people with different palates to appreciate them.”


Read More: Serving Sparkly & Talking Bubbly