Sparkling wine industry fizzing with promise

While associated with fun and frivolity, sparkling wine is a complex wine of many moving parts that requires serious skill to make. We catch up with some of the leading lights in the fizz industry, from Champagne, Spain and England, to find out the secrets of their craft and the challenges surrounding creating a consistent sparkling wine style in an ever-changing climate.


Synonymous with celebration, sparkling wines are easy to enjoy but challenging to create. Crafting quality fizz requires a skilled hand, well-trained nose, razor-sharp intuition and nerves of steel come harvest time, when deciding on the perfect moment to pick feels like a game of Russian roulette. Cellar masters are the wizards of the wine world, able to create a consistent style of wine each year from hundreds of elements amid increasingly erratic weather conditions. They have to be time travellers too, projecting themselves into the future when tasting aggressively acidic base wines, working out how they will harmonise with one another and evolve over time in order to replicate a house style upon which reputations are hung.


The cornerstone of quality sparkling wine is its backbone of acidity, which, as temperatures rise and sustained heatwaves become more commonplace in Europe, is no longer something sparkling winemakers can take for granted. While fizz hubs like Champagne and the south of England remain marginal climates, this year’s sizzling summer is a stark warning of the kind of conditions we can expect to see going forward. On the one hand it’s a blessing, as English sparkling wines are becoming easier to craft by the year, and their signature racy acids are being balanced out by beautifully ripe fruit. While this is something to be celebrated, Gusbourne’s chief winemaker, Charlie Holland, is keen for English fizz not to lose its racy edge. “A lot of fine wines exist on a knife-edge of something, be it reduction or oxidation, and acid is our knife-edge; it’s our calling card when it’s done well,” he says. “Bright, vibrant sparkling wines are what we should be proud of in England. They can be austere in the wrong hands, so we need to harness the acidity rather than let it dominate the conversation. Winemakers are acid freaks in general; vibrancy is what makes wine exciting.”



Cyril Brun: "It’s all about finding the sweet spot of balance.”



Sam Lindo, chief winemaker for Camel Valley in Cornwall, says acidity levels in English fizz are where Champagne levels were 30 years ago. “This gives us an opportunity to have the dosage levels that were common in Champagne back then of around 12g/l, and this sweet-acid balance is one of the most appealing aspects of drinking sparkling wine,” he says. For now, climate change has been a boon for English sparkling winemakers, helping them to achieve greater ripeness and better balance in their bubbles. “I did my first English vintage 17 years ago and got really high acid, which was hard work. Now the wines are much more balanced. We’re pretty into the sweet spot and have come away from the bleeding edge. Years like 2022 prove that, and they’re a joy to pick as the parameters are easy to reach,” says Holland.


Blending power
In Champagne, hotter summers are bringing picking dates forward, forcing winemakers to make difficult decisions about their grapes. The CIVC described 2022 as a “solar” vintage, which is abundant in size and healthy in character, as the prolonged heat and lack of rain kept diseases at bay. While the growing season was a breeze compared to the frost-ravaged 2021 harvest, the lack of rain shrunk berries and hardened the skins, which slowed down the ripening process. Winemakers keen to lock in freshness harvested at around 10 degrees potential alcohol to prevent malic acid levels from falling off a cliff. But those that did risked finding green notes in their pressings due to a lack of juice in the smaller-than-average berries. Winemakers that were willing to risk sacrificing acid by waiting to obtain full ripeness were rewarded when early September rains helped to fatten up their grapes, concentrating the flavours and upping the yields in the process. Charles Philipponnat, managing director of Philipponnat Champagne, sits in the latter camp. “Picking, in my opinion, should take place at the height of physiological ripeness, i.e. just before the sugars start rising from evaporation rather than vegetation,” says Philipponnat, who pursues freshness and purity in his wines through slightly higher yields and preserves acidity through protective canopy management.


For Julie Cavil, cellar master at Krug, the greatest challenge of her job is recreating the house’s signature blend, Grande Cuvée, each year, which is made from up to 200 wines from as many as 15 different vintages. To help her in her quest, she works from a well-stocked reserve wine library, in addition to “auditioning” 250 wines from the current vintage. “Taking a plot-by-plot approach, I’m able to blend a new Édition of Krug Grande Cuvée every year, achieving complexity by cultivating the differences wherever possible, from vineyard to blending, to amplify each wine’s uniqueness and contrasts, so we can craft the most generous expression of Champagne possible,” says Cavil, who reveals that the 2022 harvest was the longest of her 16-year career at Krug. Despite the intense heat, Cavil is optimistic about the quality achievable this year. “All the grapes across the region revealed themselves beautifully, regardless the cru or variety. It was like the planets were aligned. That being said, we can’t forget that it has been a year of extremes, including heat and drought, which left their mark on the fruit. We now need time to observe, listen and taste. Time will reveal the profiles of the wines that will be born from the 2022 harvest,” she says.



Bruno Colomer: "Each stage in the elaboration of a Cava is different.”



Acid test
In the UK, the mercury hit a record high of 40 degrees during the July heatwave, but despite the challenging growing conditions, Nyetimber in Sussex is headed for a record harvest, and is set to produce over a million bottles of fizz from the 2022 vintage. Chief winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, is excited by the quality of the fruit, which “looks fantastic”. Holland of Gusbourne is equally gung-ho about the 2022 crop, and the high sugars and breadth of flavours the prolonged sunshine provided. Lindo of Camel Valley admits that growing grapes destined for sparkling wine is “a lot easier” than it is for still wine, as the goalposts are wider. “The picking window is much bigger and more forgiving and the range of acidity and sugar levels is broader to achieve the same outcome,” he says.


For Cava king Bruno Colomer, chief winemaker at Codorníu, everything starts in the vineyard. “Each stage in the elaboration of a Cava is different, depending on the type of Cava we want to create. From the characteristics of the grape and the type of harvest to pressing, vinification and ageing. In order to achieve excellence we have to control each of these stages,” he says. When it comes to picking, the longer he wants his Cavas to age, the higher the acidity he seeks in the vineyard. One of Spain’s finest sparkling producers, Xavier Gramona, has made it his mission to push the limits of Cava and explore how the fizz develops with long lees ageing. Key to the longevity of his Cavas is his use of native Spanish grape Xarel-lo in the blends. “Xarel-lo has the highest levels of resveratrol of any white grape, which makes it the perfect grape for sparkling wines designed to age. Xarel-lo makes it possible to extend the ageing period and assimilates the autolytic notes of evolution in an excellent way,” says Gramona, who believes the key to quality sparkling wine production is extended lees ageing, as the wines get much of their flavour and character from being in contact with the yeast.


For Gramona, who farms his vines biodynamically, the most crucial moment in sparkling wine production is the pressing. “Whole cluster pressing gives us the chance to classify the musts from the same plot into different qualities,” he says. “We’re focused on creating wines with high acidity and low pH, which means working our vineyards with medium-high yields; otherwise it increases the alcoholic concentration. We never want our wines to lose their personality and freshness, even after a long period of ageing. Gramona’s signature is its acidity, and we work hard to preserve it.”


The freshness paradox
With temperatures on the rise, the common practice of malolatic fermentation in Champagne and the UK, to convert tart malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid, is being shunned or only partially used in sizzling years like 2018 and 2022 to keep the wines fresh. “We have always been in the habit of using only the first pressing of the juice, which is more acidic and less vegetal, and fine-tuning the malolactic fermentation to adjust the sensation of freshness in the finished wine. Over time, we’ve been avoiding it more often, but we never acidify artificially with tartaric acid as a matter of principle,” reveals Philipponnat, who believes sparkling winemakers are caught in a Catch 22 situation in hot years like 2022, when dry conditions shrink grapes, bringing out a bitterness that requires full ripeness to overcome, which, in turn, decreases the acidity levels.


Holland of Gusbourne partially blocked malolactic fermentation in 2018 to keep his wines’ acidity levels in check. Cyril Brun, chef de cave at Charles Heidsieck in Champagne, uses the same trick when he wants to “capture extra freshness” in his wines. In order to have greater control over the house’s flagship fizz – Brut Réserve – Brun recently upped the percentage of reserve wines in the blend from 40% to 50%, made up of equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from up to 12 vintages. This unusually high percentage of reserve wine, coupled with five years’ lees ageing, gives the fizz a level of richness and complexity you normally only find in much older Champagnes.


“It’s a paradox in Champagne that you can bring extra freshness to a young wine with reserve wines that are 15 years old. These wines were selected based on their high acidity and great ageing potential, so even after a long ageing period they are still more acidic that the most recent wines impacted by the global warming,” reveals Brun, who says a flexible approach is imperative now weather patterns have become so erratic. “I need to be open-minded to any new approach that will reinforce the identity of our wines: innovation is the fuel of consistency in a changing world,” he says.


A question of balance
While achieving the correct sugar concentration in grapes used to be the biggest preoccupation in Champagne, the focus has shifted towards nailing the acidity levels and phenolic ripeness. “It’s all about finding the sweet spot of balance. For a sparkling winemaker, priority will always be given to freshness, which is the identity of any sparkling wine, and a lack of bitterness – the worst enemy of bubbles, since sugar can be corrected through chaptalisation and alcohol levels can be corrected at the beginning of the fermentation process,” says Brun.


Achieving this desired balance at bottling is rarely possible. Instead, Brun has to be able to project into the future to assess how the wine will level out during the ageing process. “Most of the time I bottle unblanaced wines that achieve their balance through ageing,” he says. In addition to his tasting panel of trained noses, Brun uses chemical analysis data during the blending process to help save time. Building up his database of samples each year is a useful tool in the decision-making process, but he ultimately relies on his nose, palate and intuition. For Holland, before the blending process begins he and his team conduct a vertical tasting of the fizz in question. “It means I’m fully calibrated and dialled into the style before I sit down to blend. It’s a moving target but it’s fun,” he says.


Working with over 250 elements, it takes Brun around six months of daily tastings to come up with his Brut Réserve blend each year. “I need to take the necessary time to understand the current harvest style and how close or far it is from my target. Then I need to consider which reserve wines to involve to reach the Holy Grail,” he says, admitting that the final blend requires a few “beta versions” before it’s ready to bottle. “I become the conductor of an immense orchestra of tanks that will need to play, in complete harmony, an impeccable yet complex symphony for a discerning audience.” Such alchemy deserves applause.

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