Sparkling wine has long been associated with several things: wealth, celebration, and, perhaps… a little bit of bad behavior. But when it comes to learning how to taste wine like a true bubbly connoisseur, you’ll want to brush up on the basics, thereby ensuring that any bad behavior only comes out after a few glasses – and never at the tasting table.
Tasting a wine requires that you first know what you’re up against, in this case – it means knowing that champagne and sparkling wine are not one and the same, no matter how much the bartender insists otherwise. Champagne refers to sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. Anything else touting the same name is nothing more than a doppelgänger.
Secondly, any grape variety can be made into sparkling wine – the reds, the whites, and the in-betweens. However, certain grapes stand out for their freshness, fruit, and floral aromas such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin, and Semillon.
It’s also important to remember that sparkling wines differ from still wines on a few key points. Grapes intended for sparkling wine are picked early in the season (with high acidity and low sugar content) and in the winery they will go through two fermentations: the first to produce alcohol, and the second to produce tiny bubbles.
When it comes to tasting sparkling wines, all your senses are put to the test. In the glass, the colors will span the spectrum – pale yellow, bright pink, tawny coral – each hinting at the grape varieties, winemaking technique, and aging processes that were used. But in general, color doesn’t offer up too many important clues.
After all, most of the attention goes straight to the wine’s bubbles. The tinier, more organized the bubbles, and more persistent the effervescence, the more finesse the wine has. High quality sparkling wines will exhibit bubbles that slink up towards the surface in tiny chains known as rosaries, and unlike a gulp of carbonated soda, they should not explode on your palate.
As the bubbles travel upwards and break into the open air, they volatize the wine’s aromas, so there’s no need to swirl the glass. In general, sparkling wines tend to be slightly more aromatically muted than still wines, yet still they exhibit young fruit aromas, citric notes, floral perfumes and in some cases yeastiness.
Yeast aromas include scents of bread dough or freshly baked cake. They develop when the wine stays in contact with dead yeast cells after the fermentation process has finished. Hanging around fungus corpses sounds a bit morbid, but in the case of wine, exposure to dead yeast cells (a process known as autolysis) imparts new layers of complexity to the wine: yeasty aromas and flavors, along with a creamy mouthfeel.
While the aromas can be lovely, sparkling wine really comes alive when it hits the palate. On the tip of the tongue, the wine will reveal its level of sweetness, from dry (meaning it has no sugar) to very sweet. To help steer consumers to their favorite products, the industry categorizes sparkling wines according to sugar content: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Demi Sec, all the way to Dulce. Let your sweet tooth and menu lead you to the perfect place on the spectrum.
However, wines higher in sugar content rely on effervescence and acidity to cut through the sweetness and leave a refreshing lightness at the finish. Acidity will give the wine a sense of vertical structure, and is usually felt on the back sides of the tongue.
Because sparkling wines have little tannic content, they generally have subtle finishes. You may find that a wine leaves behind a trace of creamy texture, particularly in wines with autolysis (aging with yeast corpses). Or you may sense an echo of the floral, fruity aromas that you first identified on the nose. Once you’ve sifted through the steps and found the bottle of sparkling wine that speaks to you, the challenge simply becomes finding the perfect occasion to pop the cork. Just aim the bottle away from the table…remember what you’ve learned about bad behavior.
Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant currently working for Etching Expressions as Official Wine Commentator & Reviewer. She has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.