There’s more than one way to Fizz a Wine!

22nd May 2017


French Ancestral Method is alive and well in Spain.

Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine. Adding sugar to a bottle of still wine, thus provoking a second fermentation, was in fact first performed by an Englishman, Mon Dieu! Indeed Christopher Merret’s experiment occurred some years before the much vaunted Dom P had entered the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, which was, 40 years later, laying claim to being the inventors of Champagne!

However, we speak here of what is now referred to as the traditional method, previously known as the Methode Champenoise, the Champagne method. Only, this was not the first method by which sparkling wine was made. Stay in France, but rewind over a century to, 1531 in fact, when sparkling wine was being made in a different Abbey, in Carcassonne. However, the method of production was also different. This method, over the centuries, has had several names: e.g. the ‘rurale’ method and ‘gaillacoise’ method. Nowadays it is generally recognised as the ‘Ancestral Method’.

With such a history you can imagine my excitement when I heard that there are a few winemakers here in Spain making wine by the Ancestral Method. You can imagine my delight when I heard that the Bartra family located inland from Sitges in Cataluña started making their wines just nine years after the first recorded reference to wines made by this method!

Firstly, some facts about the three methods by which sparkling wine is made. Our friend Dom Pérignon and ‘his’ method, termed ‘Méthode Champenoise’, though now universally referred to as the traditional method, involves a base wine being made, bottled and then a small amount of yeast and sugar (the amount depending on the sweetness of the sparkling wine required). The yeast gets to work on the extra sugar and the sugar that is already in the base wine and a second fermentation occurs.

Since the bottle is capped the bubbles produced by this second fermentation cannot escape and are therefore absorbed into the wine. Bingo, sparkling wine!

The Charmat method of making sparkling wine, used incidentally for the vast majority of Prosecco, is the same as the above except that this second fermentation, provoked by the addition of sugar and yeast, takes place, not in bottle, but in the tanks where the base wine was first fermented. This sparkling wine is then bottled.

The Ancestral Method is wholly different in that there is no second fermentation. Grapes are harvested and pressed. The resulting juice is then fermented as if making normal still wine, however, before the fermentation finishes, the wine is gently filtered to remove any impurities and then placed in bottle and sealed. This initial, as yet unfinished, fermentation then continues in the bottle. The bubbles are of course trapped and, well, Bingo again – sparkling wine is the result!

Bodegas Vega de Ribes has been making wine since 1540, on the land that has been farmed since the 12th Century – incredible, isn’t it! Their vineyards, certificated organic for over 15 years now, are alongside the Garraf Natural Park. The farm also has carob trees, olives, and almonds. The family wines won their first prizes in the 19th century and they have continued to make quality wines right through to the present day, boasting a presence in the markets of the EU, USA and Japan.

Enric kindly sent me two of his Ancestral Method sparkling wines, which I found fascinating. I tasted the first, a brut fizz made exclusively with Xarel.lo grapes, live on my radio show, and the second, a sweeter style, with a dessert at home. It’s clear that the wines are well made and there is also a sense of history when tasting them. For my own personal palate I preferred the Brut, dry style, though I know that those who have a sweeter tooth are bound to like the sweeter style, which did go exceptionally well with dessert.

Whilst readers now know something of the way these wines have been made, there’s more to it than that – and this is why I am so fascinated by them. The first part of the fermentation is done in barrels, not the ‘traditional’ oak, to which we are all so accustomed, but in Chestnut barrels!

This chestnut wood has made, firstly a contribution to the colour of the wine, it’s a pale amber, most unusual, though inviting nonetheless. Plus there is a, well it has to be said, a certain nuttiness to the flavour of the wine. For me, there was a touch of hazelnut on the nose, but more so, blanched almonds, both of which combined rather nicely with the yellow peach and citrus fruit with a passing note of grapefruit.

As one would expect from a Xarel.lo based wine it has a certain presence, a weight on the palate with some body and, for a sparkler, a long finish. I’d like this wine with smoked foods, fish and also chicken where the chestnut barrel will complement the smokiness. I think it will also be rather good with Chinese cuisine and indeed some Asian styles – Japanese, for example, so no surprise that sales in Japan are good!

The sweeter style fizz is made from 100% Malvasia de Sitges. The amber colour is similar to the above, but the nose and flavour is altogether different. There are raisins on the nose and palate and there is a quite a perfume that tells of some sweet delights to come. A wine that would complement custard dishes, trifle, and crème brulee where the wine’s slight acidity would nicely underscore the rich flavours.

So, something completely different – sparkling wine made by the oldest method, the Ancestral Method!

Written by Colin Harkness

Glass of Bubbly

Executive editor of news content for the website Please enjoy the articles that we share - We hope you find our love for Champagne & Sparkling Wines both interesting and educational.