The Traditional Method features on process that sets it apart from almost all other styles of wine: extended contact with yeast lees, or autolysis
Taking The Time
For a wine with such a detailed, careful genesis, the final consumption of fine quality sparkling wines can sometimes feel a bit hasty – a prequel, perhaps, to a fine meal or an accompaniment to a celebration. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with knocking back a fine glass of fizz, it can be rewarding to treat it as you would a still wine of equivalent value. When not served too cold, and with a little time to breathe in a tulip-shaped wine glass (rather than a traditional flute), the flavours can be complex and engaging.
Unpicking the flavour profile of fine fizz can resemble looking at a geological cross-section, with deposits created over three main time periods: base wine production, lees ageing and post-disgorgement ageing. The interaction and harmony between these layers is key to a great flavour experience.
The perfect moment
Winemakers are looking for a perfect balance between the primary character of the base wine and the effects of autolysis. The very finest sparkling wines are of a build that can integrate well with the effects of extended lees-ageing. Most Prestige Cuvée Champagnes fall into this category. More youthful, fruit-led styles might be swamped by so much lees ageing, so are released younger, with perhaps two years on lees, whereas good non-vintage wines from the classic varieties usually benefit from at least three.
Disgorgement is usually carried out on a rolling basis, meaning that later releases of the same wine can show a more pronounced autolytic character if they were also riddled at a later date.
Texture and sensation
Texture is about the way the wine feels on a palate. The wine itself may be light, elegant and delicate or bold and rich. It will probably not feel too intense, bitter or ‘grippy’ – these can be signs of over-extraction or oxidation, although some regional styles such as Cava can work with these characters.
You can only judge the bubbles on the palate, not visually. This is because the appearance of the bubbles is largely dependent on the glass itself, rather than any inherent properties of the wine. The wine will form a mousse that can feel anything from coarse and brisk to fine and silky. Some wines, such as crémants , satén from Franciacorta and certain champagnes, are made at lower pressure levels than the standard six atmospheres. This technique, used especially with Chardonnay, can make the mousse feel especially gentle and creamy.
Traditional Method Sparkling Wines are often some of the most acidic in the world of wine. Despite this, the softening effects of age and autolysis, combined with the correct dosage, should lead to that the wine is lively, bright and refreshing rather than tart. Conversely, too little acidity combined with big, ripe flavours or bitterness will mean the wine may feel heavy and unrefined.
Balance also exists between elements of flavour. Fruit, floral/spice flavours, savoury or mineral complexity, dairy and creamy flavours, oak flavours, bakery flavours, caramelisation flavours, oxidative or reductive flavours….if any of these strongly dominate, the wine will not seem balanced.
Unbalanced wines are tiring to drink, so the best test is often a very instinctive one – does the wine make you go back in for the next sip?
Hand-riddling on pupitres, Champagne