Rendell Thomas led the seventh class of the WSET Intermediate Level course, The topic for this session – Sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines! Admittedly, I have a weak spot for Champagne and sparkling wine so this was a particularly fun class for me. The addition of the sweet dessert wines made for a fun night!
Rendell started the evening with a brief rundown on the history of sparkling wine and its origin, now believed to be from southern France (What? It wasn’t invented in Champagne?!). We also received a primer on the proper terminology with regards to sparkling wine and its production.
Many times we hear the terms Champagne and sparkling wine used interchangeably. This has always been a point of contention, especially for the French who guard the term Champagne like it was their first born child, and rightfully so. For centuries, France has pioneered and perfected the methods used to make Champagne. From the vineyard to the cellar, painstaking and labor intensive process are used to make the so called “drink of kings.” They have the right to protect what they have worked so hard for. Just to be clear, if it’s not from the Champagne region of France it is a sparkling wine. There are many alternate terms used around the world. In Spain, they call it Cava. In Germany they call it Deutscher Sekt (or just plain Sekt in rest of the European Union). In Italy you’ll hear it called Proseco or Asti. Within France it’s called Crémant when it comes from outside of the Champagne region. In the US and most of the English speaking countries it’s called sparkling wine with just a few legal exceptions.
The primary grapes used to make sparkling wines are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, especially in France. However there are variations, such as, muscat, riesling, macabeo or shiraz, just to name a few.
The labor intensive process used to make Champagne and top quality sparkling wines is called the méthode champenoise (“Champagne method”) or méthode traditionnelle (“traditional method”). Even this terminology is closely protected by the French AOC laws and can only be used sparingly. There are other processes that are less labor intensive, such as the tank method or transfer method, that create lower quality sparkling wines, but the upside is that they are more affordable for the average consumer.
The last part of the evening was spent discovering sweet wines, such as Eiswein and Sauternes, just to name a few. There are so many different types of sweet wines (and I’m not talking about white zinfandel) it’s hard to describe them all. To make things simple, Rendell broke them down into three broad categories:
- Interrupting the fermentation process (Vin Doux Naturels, etc.)
- Adding a sweet component to the blend like unfermented grape juice (Oloroso sherries, etc.)
- Concentrate the sugars in the grapes, either through drying or noble rot (Tokaji Aszú, Sauternes, etc.).
The styles vary greatly but you can guarantee they are all very rich and decadent. Like Champagne, the processes used to create many of these liquid treasures are laborious and expensive. Luckily many sweet wines, like late harvest rieslings and gewürztraminers, are affordable and easy to enjoy as or with any number of desserts.
Jessica Bell returns next week for our final class…Fortified wines & spirits!
Wines Tasted (Class 7):
- Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV (New Mexico)
- Jaillance Crémant de Bourgogne NV (Burgundy, France)
- Marqués de Gelida Cave (Catalunya, Spain)
- Taittinger Brut NV (Champagne, France)
- Robertson Winery Special Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2008 (Breede River Valley, South Africa)
- Château Haut Mayne Sauternes 2006 (Bordeaux, France)