Festive Sparkling Wine

It’s that time of year when sparkling wines are lining the store shelves and liquor store bubbly displays abound. Bubbles are a popular choice for holiday festivities and the honorary drink of New Year’s Eve, but all sparkling wines are not created the same. Here’s a brief rundown of four different methods for sparkling wine and the flavors you can typically expect (although each wine will present its own unique expression) – and you can find each of these types in the Finger Lakes. And yes, we have a few options for you too!

Traditional (or Champagne) Method Sparkling Wines

The traditional method for making sparkling wine is the process by which wine undergoes a second fermentation in bottle to achieve the bubbly sensation. During the first fermentation, the yeast converted all the sugar to alcohol. So, in order for a secondary fermentation to commence, a small amount of wine, sugar, yeast and yeast nutrients are added to the wine as it is bottled. Each bottle is then capped with a crown cap and stacked horizontally in a cellar. As the yeast convert the new sugar to alcohol, pressure results in the bottle from the carbon dioxide generated by the dissolving yeast, and you guessed it, the bubbles are born.

Once the yeast dies during the secondary fermentation, they form a sediment at the bottom of the bottle known as the lees. The chemical compounds that release from these decaying lees, create a process known as yeast autolysis, which contributes to the bready, biscuit, and toasty notes associated with traditional method sparkling wines. After a period of maturation with the lees, the sediment is then removed. First, the bottle is moved into an upside-down vertical position, degree by degree, so that the lees settle in the neck. The neck of the bottle is then frozen, and the crown cap is removed. The pressure created in the bottle releases the frozen sediment and the sparkling wine is then topped with a wine and sugar mixture, or just wine, depending on the style, and sealed with a cork and wire cage. The resulting sparkling wines are then either released or aged further in the bottle.

Tank Method (or Charmat Method) and Carbonation Sparkling Wines

Tank method, or Charmat method, is the production of sparkling wine in which the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank and not in the bottle. The tank method helps to preserve the fresh fruit aromas and flavors of the original base wine. This is often used for making wines from grapes with strong flavors like Riesling, Muscat or Gewürztraminer, and it’s most commonly used to make Prosecco. Tank method is more cost-effective and less labor intensive than traditional method and prices typically reflect the difference. But while tank method is often perceived as a lesser quality than traditional method, it’s more of a case of apples and oranges. Tank method can produce high-quality sparkling wines and they are meant to be express more fruit flavors. And like other methods of sparkling wine, tank method can winemakers can produce a range of styles from dry to sweet.

As with tank method wines, wines produced using the carbonation method will retain the flavors of the original base wine and often present more fruity flavors. In the carbonation method, carbon dioxide is pumped into the still wine which is then bottled under pressure. This is both a cost-effective method and again, useful for wines with strong aromatic and flavor profiles.

Pétillant-Naturel (Pét-Nat or Ancestral Method) Sparkling Wines

Pét-Nat sparkling wines are sparkling wines that only undergo one, partial, fermentation. Pét-Nats are crown-capped (think beer bottle cap style) in the bottle before the first fermentation is complete and remains untouched until it’s opened for consumption. You won’t be popping any corks with these. The primary fermentation begins as it would with both traditional and tank methods, but the process is deliberately paused before it’s completed leaving some yeast and sugars in the wine. How the winemaker chooses to stop the primary fermentation varies and depends on the level of sugars they want to retain. Clarity is also a consideration. As is the case with the secondary fermentation of traditional method, as the Pét-Nat finishes fermenting in the bottle, it will produce sediment and there’s no requirement to remove that sediment by disgorging.

Pét-Nat methodology is like the Wild West of sparkling wine production and the results can vary from cloudy and fully carbonated to softer carbonation and more sweetness. It’s often a guessing game as the wines are bottle unfinished, but typically you’ll find a lighter mousse and softer effervescence that’s more rustic and truly representative of the terroir. Most Pét-Nats also have a hint of sweetness, which is often offset by the lively acidity and dry styles can be found as well – but again it’s often a guessing game.

Our Finger Lakes Wine Country Sparkling Wine Recommendations

Below is a small sampling of some sparkling wines in the Finger Lakes reflecting the range of methods discussed above, but there are plenty more to add to this list from our member wineries, so head on out and discover! (To list them all here could take until the New Year!)

Traditional Method Sparkling Wine Options

  1. Glenora Wine Cellars – $29.99 – The 2014 Blanc de Blanc from Glenora Winery is the first released since 2000 and features 100% Chardonnay. Known for their sparkling wines since their first release in 1981, this Blanc de Blanc will offer a lively bubble with crisp fruit flavors and a light toastiness.
  2. Ravines Wine Cellars – $34.95 – Ravines Wine Cellars 2012 Sparkling Brut Rosé is 100% Pinot Noir and spent five years resting on the lees. Here you’ll find a floral nose with delicate flavors of strawberries and cream.
  3. Lucas Vineyards - $23.99 – Lucas Vineyards’ Extra Dry Sparkling wine is a light and fruity sparkling wine derived from the Cayuga White grape. Here you’ll find notes of citrus and apple with a crisp, clean finish.

Tank and Carbonation Method Sparkling Wine Options

  1. Lakewood Vineyards - $13.00 – Lakewood Vineyards Bubbly Candeo is a Prosecco-style sparkling wine produced from Cayuga White grapes. This wine presents off-dry and is fresh and fruity. (It’s also available in cans.)
  2. Boundary Breaks - $19.95 - 2018 Boundary Breaks #356 Bubbly Dry Riesling is produced using dry Riesling and the carbonation method. This wine is crisp and refreshing with classic Riesling notes of lime and green apple.
  3. Heron Hill Winery - $15.99 – The Heron Hill Bubbly Moscato is produced using the tank method and from 100% Valvin Muscat. It’s a lightly sweet wine with 6.5 grams of residual sugar and noted floral aromas. On the palate you’ll find honey, orange blossom and spice.

Pét-Nat Sparkling Wine Options

  1. Atwater Vineyards - $25.00 – Atwater Vineyards’ Pét-Nat is a blend of Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Riesling and a lower alcohol option for the table. This lightly fizzy sparkling wine will present flavors of apple, pear and lemon.
  2. Barry Family Cellars - $19.99 – Although currently sold out, keep your eyes on Barry Family Cellars. They produce a variety of Pét-Nats including one called “pet-gnat” from Cayuga grapes.