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Counting the bubbles

CHEERS: Barton on Wine

By WARREN BARTON - The Southland Times
Last updated 05:00 03/10/2009

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This week I came across across a couple of bargain basement wines, one of them a prosecco in an awful bright blue bottle, the other a brash French bubbly trying to look smarter than it probably is, and I wondered how many people would be suckered into buying one, the other, or both of them.

They were certainly cheap enough — the prosecco around $7, the French wine not much more, which is pretty attractive when you've got a taste for bubbles and the budget's tight.

For me it was also a reminder of just how little many people know or understand about sparkling wine in its many forms, prosecco for a start. But more about that later.

What needs first to be understood is that all sparkling wines are not created equal, but most of them by one of four different methods, which can produce wines of widely varying quality and character.

The Champagne method, or methode traditionelle, involves the wine undergoing a secondary fermentation which is induced by the addition of yeast and sugar when it is bottled. The crown-capped bottle is then laid and turned regularly (riddled) so the dead yeast (the lees) collects in the neck. Eventually the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap removed and the gunk (the lees) forced out by the pressure in the bottle. A dose of syrup and wine is quickly added to adjust the sweetness of the wine and the bottle is corked before the dissolved carbon dioxide gas can escape.

The slightly cheaper Charmat process also involves the wine undergoing a secondary fermentation but in stainless steel tanks. The finished wine is then bottled under pressure.

The transfer method is a variation on the same theme. In this case the blended wine (the cuvee) is bottled, undergoes a secondary fermentation to add complexity but is then transferred into tanks and re-bottled.

The fourth and simplest method off adding carbonation to the wines is by the simple injection of CO2, the process used in the manufacture of soft drinks.

Apart from the quality and the character of the various base wines the major variation in sparklers is provided by the size, the number and the persistence of the bubbles, which sparkle when the wine is poured. This is determined largely by the pressure of the gas in the bottle – more than three atmospheres in sparkling wines such as Italian spumante, French Cremant or Mousseux and German sekt; up to five or six atmospheres (nearly three times that in a car tyre) in Champagne and fully sparkling taste-alikes.

At the lower end of the scale (under 2.5 atmospheres ) are the spritzigs, frizzantes and wines the French call pettilant.

And just in case you were wondering, one expert estimates there could be up to 250 million tiny bubbles in a champagne or a quality methode traditionelle.

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While there might not be quite so many in some of the wines produced by the Charmat process, they are still small and long lasting, compared to the bubbles produced with a blast of CO2 which are bigger but fewer and dissipate quickly.

Now. Getting back to prosecco. It's made of a grape with the same name, often in a lighter sparkling style, using the Charmat method. For a full-blown version try Carpene Malvolte (about $29).

But if it's a taste of fully sparkling methode traditionelle you want, then go for Rudi Bauer's Quartz Reef non-vintage, from Central Otago, good value at roughly the same price. And to sample wines made by the transfer method the ever-expanding Lindauer range (some often available for less than $10 on special ) provides a number of good examples.

Brown Brothers' delightful Moscato (about $15) offers a clue to the lightly aerated frizzante style and for something simple — bubbles courtesy a blast of CO2 – go for Villa Maria's St Aubyns ($9, but often cheaper).

What better excuse for popping a cork or two.

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