Super Sparklers: Sparkling Wine and Champagne

By Michael Schafer / Photography By Amy Zambonin | November 01, 2016
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Champagne Flutes

Tiny bubbles
In the wine
Make me happy
Make me feel fine

These lyrics from a hit song sung by Don Ho in the 1960s ring just as true today as they did back then. Sparkling wine is festive, fun and flavorful. Perfect for your holiday entertaining or paired with pizza on a Tuesday night.

Bubblies are produced in a vast range of flavors and levels of sweetness, complexity and price. They are the most versatile wines made, pairing with just about everything on your holiday table. And delectable all by themselves.

Sparklers are made just about everywhere, from Australia to Spain, Germany, Italy and, of course, the Champagne region of France. (For a sparkling wine to be properly called "Champagne," it must come from Champagne, France, and must be produced in a very specific way from very specific grapes. The French are quite particular about this.)

We also make some wonderful sparkling wines right here in Northern Michigan. We'll delve into where they come from, how they're made and great ways to pair them with festive foods.


The Greeks and Romans made wine, lots of wine. Some of that wine fermented for a second time all by itself. Ancient wine writers thought that the bubbles represented phases of the moon. Many folks believed spirits caused the effervescence. In France during the 1700s many references were made to "wine with air."

A popular story about the origin of sparkling wine is of a French monk and cellar master named Dom Pérignon tasting a bottle from the cellar of the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers, France, and exclaiming "I am drinking stars." Whether there is truth to that tale or not, Dom Pérignon did pioneer techniques that truly improved wine. Around 1670 he introduced corks (replacing wood) and attached them to bottles with oil-soaked hemp string, thus keeping the wine much fresher and bubblier. He also used thicker glass, which lessened the number of exploding bottles caused by the pressure of the CO2 (effervescence) in the wine.


"Still," or non-sparkling, wine requires just one fermentation. To make sparkling wine we need two fermentations: one to make the wine and the other to make the bubbles.

There are two basic ways to produce quality sparkling wine. The first method is called the Champagne method, methode champenoise, also known as the traditional method, methode traditionelle. The second method is the tank method, called Charmat method or Cuvée Close. Let's learn about these two methods, starting with the traditional method.


Grapes for the base wines are picked a bit earlier than usual to preserve their acidity. The first fermentation creates the initial base wines. These are dry wines. The winemaker blends them together into a cuvée.

The second step is tirage. Sugar and yeast are added to the cuvée to start the second fermentation in the bottle. This second fermentation creates CO2, which is trapped inside the bottle and creates the effervescence. The dead yeast, called lees, remains in the bottle. A crown cap is attached to the top of the bottle.

The third step is aging. The longer the wine ages on its lees, the more interesting and complex it becomes.

Next comes riddling. This clarification process places the bottle upside down so the dead yeast cells collect in the neck of the bottle. Bottles are then placed upside down into freezing liquid, causing the yeast bits to freeze in the neck of the bottle. The crown cap is removed, causing the frozen chunk of lees to fly out of the bottle. This is called "disgorging" the wine.

Last and definitely not least, the dosage is added to the wine. This mixture of wine and sugar (called liqueur d'expédition) is added to fill the bottles. It determines the final sweetness of the wine. The bottles are then corked, wired and labeled.


The primary difference between the traditional method and the tank method is the container used for secondary fermentation. Instead of bottles, the base wines go into a large tank with the sugar and yeast mixture. As the yeast "eats" the sugar, the CO2 released from the second fermentation creates pressure in the tank, causing the carbonation. The wine is filtered, dosed and bottled without additional aging.

This process is much less expensive than the traditional method. These sparkling wines are usually fruitier and "fresher" than sparkling wines aged in their bottle.


A sweetness scale helps you choose your preferred style of bubbly. Brut is the driest, followed by Extra-Dry, then Dry and then Demi-Sec. Confused? Don't be, these French terms are used worldwide. Sec is French for dry, and Demi-Sec (half-dry) is actually pretty sweet. The best way to determine your favorite style is to get together with friends, each bringing a bottle (or two) of a different style. You'll have a lot of fun along the way.


We're lucky to have some wonderful local sparklers available to enjoy. Larry Mawby of L. Mawby and M. Lawrence wines is the master, the Yoda of Michigan sparkling wines. Larry has been crafting only sparkling wines since 2000. A pioneer of Michigan winemaking, he is legendary not only for his winemaking skill, but also for his wit and willingness to help other winemakers. His L. Mawby wines are made using the traditional method. The flagship, Talisman, is a blend of handpicked grapes blended with reserve wines. Complex, intriguing with a lingering finish, it's delectable.

His craft is "like looking into the future, using experience to determine what the wine will taste like years down the road," says Mawby. "The growing enthusiasm for sparkling wines is great. Folks are much more knowledgeable than in the past and are really interested in trying different types of bubbly." His range of Champagne- method wines is a treasure trove of pleasure.

His M. Lawrence wines, on the other hand, are made using the tank method. Requiring less aging than the traditional method, M. Lawrence brand wines are less expensive and more widely available than the L. Mawby wines. Fruity, quaffable and fun (the most popular is named Sex!), eight different selections fall under the M. Lawrence moniker.

On Old Mission Peninsula, Two Lads Winery is producing sparklers made using the traditional method. As winemaker Cornel Oliver puts it, "while it's more time consuming, takes more effort and is harder to produce, Champagne-style wines are well worth our efforts. We make only the traditional-method sparklers because I like the tinier bubbles, the richness and the elegant mouthfeel." Their 2012 Reserve is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. "We've got a lot of sparkling wines aging in our cellars," Oliver says proudly. "We're fortunate to sell out of our small production."

Another Northern Michigan veteran winemaker, Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley, loves bubblies. He started making sparkling wine in 2009. His 2011 Gitali from Pinot Noir grapes is made using the traditional method.

"We aged the wine in the bottle, and after four years we knew it was ready to disgorge. It's ready now but will gain complexity for a few more years," says Ulbrich. He agrees with Larry Mawby that "one of the most interesting aspects of sparkling wine production is making decisions a few years out and then seeing how the wines progress."

Mike Laing, winemaker at Big Little Wines loves making sparklers from unusual blends of grapes. He and brother Peter Laing created a bubbly from a blend of three Pinot varieties: Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Playfully named C-3 Pinot (Star Wars, anyone?), it's made in the traditional method. Scrumptious!

These are but a few examples of the many fine choices of local sparkling wines available for holiday festivities–or any time. Try three or four different bubblies and decide which one(s) you enjoy most. It's tough work but someone needs to make these challenging decisions!


Chill your sparkler in a bucket filled halfway with ice and water. When opening the bottle please be very careful. Most bottles have 75–99 psi (pounds per square inch) pressure, more than what is in your vehicle's tires! After removing the cage and cap, hold the cork and twist the bottle. It's much easier and safer than the other way around.

Glasses: It's traditional to enjoy sparkling wine from a tall, thin flute because the bubbles dissipate more slowly than in a broader wine glass. However, many aficionados use traditional white wine glasses because it's easier to enjoy the aromas and flavors of the wine. Some sommeliers recommend Burgundy glasses for bubbly. Try them all!


Sparklers are the easiest wines in the world to pair with foods. The effervescence "cleans" your palate and works well with most holiday dishes. For a fabulous pairing anytime, try your favorite bubbly with popcorn or potato chips. They also go perfectly with all kinds of rich little hors d'oeuvres, like those that follow.

Michael Schafer, Esq., is a sommelier and wine educator. He lives in Michigan and offers his services as the Wine Counselor to entertain and educate at all levels.


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