Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Part VII -- Wine styles: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

In Part VI of this series, I examined the fermentation and aging processes of the considered spartkling wines. In this post I examine the styles of wine that result from the application of those processes, beginning with the termination of the aging process.

As described previously, practitioners of the methode champenoise age their wine on the lees (the dead yeast that falls to the bottom of the bottle after all the sugar has been used up in the in-bottle fermentation process). When the producer deems that the sparkling wine has spent enough time on the lees, steps are taken to remove said lees from the bottle.  This is a two-step process with the first step (remuage) designed to move the sediment from the body of the bottle into the neck and the second step (dégorgement) designed to expel the sediment from the bottle.  In the first step, the bottle is moved slowly from a horizontal to a vertical, neck-down position, while simultaneously turning it a few degrees at a time to dislodge the sediment from the walls.  This process had historically been done by hand but is now done by a machine (gyropalette), a change that has yielded dramatic reductions in transit time and a marked increase in throughput. Large format bottles are stilled "riddled" by hand.

In the disgorgement phase the bottle is passed neck-down through a cold brine solution which freezes the sediment-containing liquid in the neck of the bottle.  Removal of the crown cork seal will cause the pressure in the bottle (6 atmospheres) to forcefully expel the frozen material from the neck.

There is no such remuage and disgorgement process for Prosecco. Secondary fermentation occurs under pressure in large vats and when the desired sweetness level is attained, fermentation is arrested and the wine drawn off the lees and placed into bottles under pressure.

Once the lees have been expelled, a mixture of base wine and sugar (liqueur de dosage) is added to the bottle in order to top it up and to attain the desired sweetness level. The bottle is then plugged with a standard Champagne cork and a steel cage placed around the neck and over the cork to hold it in place.  The bottle is shaken vigorously and left to sit for 6 months to ensure full integration of the liqueur de dosage into the wine.

There is no dosage process for Prosecco. When the desired sweetness level is attained, fermentation is arrested and the wine is drawn off the lees and placed into bottles under pressure.

The range of styles utilized in sparkling wines made using the traditional method is shown below.

The in-bottle fermentation process, with its associated autolysis, strips out aspects of the varietal flavors and replaces them with signature yeasty, sourdough flavors.  The longer the wine remains on the lees, the more pronounced these flavors become. Also the longer the residence on the lees, the richer the wine. Champagne is heralded for its elegance and complexity but the greater ripeness of its fruit, and the longer residence on the lees, renders Franciacorta a little richer and fuller and possessing a "softer, more generous mouthfeel" than does Chamapagne.

The attractiveness of Cava is tied to its perception as a "crisp, fruity, well-balanced" sparkling wine with straightforward flavors which can be acquired at prices well below the cost of Champagne. For example, I have called upon the services of the NV Segura Viudas Cava Aria Brut on many an occasion and have been impressed by the pineapple, honey, pear, and bread aromas and flavors which have been delivered at the pocket-pleasing price of $12/bottle

The range of Prosecco styles are shown below. Once the fermentation has been

arrested, the Prosecco is filtered off the lees thus preventing significant erosion of the variety flavor profile. Gambero Rosso characterizes the Prosecco profile as being "fresh and light" with a fruity, floral fragrance and a slim, graceful structure.  Ben Cooper (Prosecco leads the sparkling wine charge, justdrinks.com, 9/13/12) sees Prosecco as being less acidic, having softer bubbles, and having lower alcohol levels than Champagne.  Ben O'Donnell (The Italian (Sparkling) Renaissance, winespectator.com, April 4, 2011) sees Prosecco as being lighter and less yeasty than Champagne.

In the next installment of the series I will be examining the heretics -- those who have strayed from the accepted path. For a look back at previous posts in the series, please click on the appropriate link below.

Part I -- Origins
Part II -- Regulatory histories
Part III -- Macro-Level characteristics
Part IV -- Production zones
Part V -- The vineyards
Part VI -- Fermentation and aging

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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