I remember well when the market for sparkling wine was quite polarized. On one side there was Champagne, which symbolized a splurge, expensive and high quality. On the other side was everything else – way cheaper and much less defined and collectively way less lauded. Additionally, these wines were often considered inferior – implicitly, if not exactly explicitly.
Back then even within Champagne, the big names, the big houses reigned. Thanks to strong marketing and communications, Champagne became as much a concept as a product inferring luxury, celebration and a sense of aspiration. In many ways top Champagne was less about being a wine than what it symbolized.
As such, Champagne and sparkling wines lived in the world of cocktails and pre-dinner drinks or clinked as a toast – but rarely savored with food.
Fast forward to today when the world of sparkling wine has never been so good or so exciting – with an incredible diversity of great wines being produced all over the wine growing world.
How, when and why did this all happen? What were the catalysts?
Since 2014 the United States has been the largest wine market in the world by volume. Today it is also the largest by value and has enjoyed positive growth for the past consecutive 22 years. So, more people are drinking more wine. Secondly the millennial generation has come fully on-stream. While millennials may not have delivered the utopian spend predicted, they have brought curiosity, adventure and an interest in trying more diverse wines to the table.
The phenomenal growth of Prosecco has been another important catalyst. Prosecco is now the largest sparkling wine category in the US. According to Nielsen data in 2018 sales grew 10.5% in volume and 14.2% in value. Prosecco, thanks to its affordability and flavor appeal became a drink to be enjoyed more regularly, as an everyday choice both with and without food. With younger wine drinkers more willing to drink sparkling wine throughout the year it was inevitable that the market would grow.
One more key catalyst – especially in the US market, has been the rise of the celebrated and influential sommelier community – always striving to find something new, something different to offer their increasingly wine savvy and wine curious customers.
With growth came the unavoidable (and most welcome) pull of differentiation and segmentation within the sparkling wine market. With so many more moments to consume sparkling wine, especially at the table (expanded usability), and so many more consumers drinking sparkling wine, diverse offerings become a necessity.
One of the most important consequence of all is that sparkling wine is now more considered by more people as a wine, and not only a ‘celebratory thing’ – witness the number of times we are served sparkling wine in a regular wine glass. A second and probably more important consequence has been the rise in top quality sparkling wines from almost everywhere. I could write a tome but I will settle for sharing some of my favorite evolutions in sparkling wines.
- The rise and growth of the Champagne Grower – this is nothing new but look at any reputable wine program and there are pages and pages dedicated to the various cuvees of grower-Champagnes. An important upside of this is that it has reinforced Champagne as a wine and also brought renown to areas such as the Aube and Cotes de Sezanne, previously the stomping ground for houses sourcing base wines. Add in the expansion of the Brut Nature, Zero Dosage, RD (recently disgorged) and single vineyard wines and the Champagne category has reignited itself with more exciting wines.
- Crémant wines – as most Champagne has become too expensive for many people, the crémant category has expanded to offer wine drinkers a high-quality traditional method French wine with evident autolytic character. While Alsace remains the largest producer region, and along with Crémant de Bourgogne helped build the familiarity, appreciation and reputation of the category, today we can quite easily find delicious crémant wines form Jura, Die, Loire, Limoux and even Bordeaux. Crémant de Bourgogne and Crémant d’Alsace have now each even created a hierarchy. Alsace has its Prestige Cuvée level ‘EMOTION and Bourgogne has its Eminent and Grand Eminent levels aged longer on the lees.
- Cava – poor old cava has long had bad rap for being boring and soft. While the category is still evolving, there have been a significant number of developments that have contributed to the huge shift upward in quality including certain producers exiting the DO, and the formation of CORPINNAT. However, within the DO, the release of Ultra Premium Cava wines and the recent creation of the single vineyard category—Cava del Paraje Calificado—has also done a lot to focus interest and appreciation on individual terroirs and high quality wines.
- Prosecco – it is impossible to write a piece on sparkling wine without reference to one of its most important growth catalysts. While Prosecco seems to symbolize an easy drinking fruity inexpensive wine – it is important to draw attention to the top-quality wines being produced under the DOCG denomination, Cartizze and Rive. First came the creation in 2009 of the designation DOCG Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, referring to the hilly heartland area and the source of the finest, purest expressions of the region, particularly those baring the extra designation Cartizze – the ‘grand cru’ of prosecco – the hallowed 107 ha steep within Valdobbiadene and Rive – a collection of 43 prized single vineyards spread across the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene communes.
- Still in Italy, it would be remiss not to mention the emergence of Franciacorta DOCG and Trento DOC as top class traditional method sparkling wines.
- PetNat – this is another category of sparkling wine that has shot to the forefront of popularity. Made everywhere by anybody who wants to make the style, and from any which grape/s you choose, it sort of belongs to everyone and to no one in particular. What is new and trendy was once old and traditional. Perhaps it is the most ancient style of sparkling wine. Called Method Ancestrale, the style’s origins go back to Limoux in the south of France. It consists of a single continuous fermentation, rather than a distinct second fermentation – i.e the wine is bottled before the first fermentation has finished (so partly fermented) and then continues in the bottle – leaving a slightly cloudy, spritzy wine. We might also call it an uncontrolled method. Today some producers elect to disgorge before sale while others prefer to leave the wine in its more natural, cloudy state.
- English sparkling – The developments in English sparkling wine have been substantive over the past decade. Improved viticultural know-how, a need to find new terroirs and a generous helping hand from climate change are transforming the South East of England from an unknown producer of hybrid grapes to a much sought after location for very fine sparkling wines.
There is so much more to write on the topic. In fact, each style and region deserves its own dedicated article. There is so much to learn and know about sparkling wines.
At International Wine Center, sparkling wine is an important component of all our wine courses. At Level 1, our students build a foundation, learning about the different categories and methods of producing sparkling wines. Through Level 2 and Level 3, they build on these blocks, with a more fleshed out curriculum and tasting of a diverse range of wines. It culminates at Level 4 (WSET Diploma) in a dedicated unit on sparkling wines. A key component of all our WSET classes on sparkling wines is learning to accurately taste these wines – how to understand the bubbles, how to get behind the bubbles to the core flavors of the wine, and most importantly how to taste for quality.