Where do Sparkling Wine Grapes Grow?
Sparkling wine requires grapes with slightly different characteristics to still wine. Their flavours need to ripen fully without accumulating too much sugar (which would make the wines over-alcoholic and heavy) or losing too much acidity (which would make the wines dull and lifeless).
Different regions achieve this in different ways. Some, such as England, Patagonia and Nova Scotia, rest at the latitudinal limits of where it possible to ripen traditional sparkling wine varieties. Champagne itself is warming up, but still counts amongst the coolest winegrowing regions in the world. At warmer latitudes, sparkling wine regions rely on the cooling effects of features such as mountain ranges, coastal influence or altitude to slow down ripening and achieve a good balance between flavour, texture, potential alcohol level and acidity.
The Traditional Method is an interactive, involved process where a number of steps are taken by the winemaker that can radically alter flavour. Great sparkling wines, though, always carry an imprint of a place, whether that is a whole region such as Champagne, a sub-region such as the Cembra Valley in Trentino, or a single vineyard such as Nyetimber’s ‘Tillington’ in Sussex, England.
Zooming in – Vineyard Sites for Sparkling Wine
A good site for sparkling wine in Nova Scotia might look very different from one in Franciacorta. If we think of a region as having a natural bias – perhaps towards high acidity (England) or high alcohol levels (California) – then the vineyard site, with its myriad variables in aspect, altitude and vineyard design, offers a way to interpret and optimise fruit for sparkling wine production. In ultra-cool England, for example, practically all sites are on south-facing slopes (to maximise sun interception) at altitudes under 150m above sea level (to maximise warmth). In warmer Piedmont, however, these sort of sites would accumulate sugar and lose acidity too quickly, so grapes for Alta Langa sparkling wines must come from sites higher than 250 metres above sea level. In general, the sort of intense, ripe and low-yielding vineyards that are prized for still wine are not always the best for sparkling.
Champagne is famous for its chalk soils, yet even this picture is more complex than the headline suggests. The region actually plays host to a number of different soil types, including sands and clays (as well as many different versions of ‘chalk’ itself). These interact with both choices of grape variety and small-scale climatic effects to produce the sort of variation in flavour profile that makes traditional blending of champagne wines such an art. Regions with different climatic dynamics will have their own relationships with soil that may be quite different.