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Making an Italian Wine Sparkle – The Differences Between Still and Sparkling Wine Production

Where do the bubbles come from?

Almost everybody who’s ever enjoyed a sparkling Italian wine has asked themselves this question at some point in their lives. And if they decide to explore that train of thought a little more, they start questioning other things about wine as well.

What makes a sparkling wine so different from a still one? How do producers manage to create each of these types of wine? Is it the grapes? Or does it come down to the production techniques that they use?

Of course, it is the latter. And in this article, we’re going to look at some of the key differences in the ways that still and sparkling Italian wines get made.

It All Comes Down to Carbon Dioxide

We so often see carbon dioxide as some harmful gas that’s destroying the Earth’s atmosphere. And in the context of greenhouse gases, that’s certainly the case. However, carbon dioxide serves many important functions beyond wearing away the planet’s atmosphere. And one of the most important, at least to Italian wine lovers, is that it’s the reason why your sparkling wines have all of their bubbles.

That’s right.

Those bubbles come from carbon dioxide that is essentially dissolved into the wine to create a completely different drinking experience. And Italian wines aren’t alone here. Carbon dioxide is also the reason for the fizz that you find in carbonated beverages, such as soda. 

So…how does it get into the wine.

It’s all due to a process known as secondary fermentation, which is the main difference in the way that sparkling and still wines get produced.

What is Secondary Fermentation?

We’re sure you know that all wines go through a period of fermentation. This occurs once the grapes have been pulped and it’s the process that the juice from those grapes has to go through in order to become alcoholic. Fermentation often involves adding sugar and yeast into the wine mix in order to achieve a certain alcohol level. Of course, this is a simplified explanation of the process. Each producer has its own way of fermenting its wines, with even the barrels in which fermentation occurs leading to differences in the wines produced.

But here’s where the key difference in production comes in.

For a still wine, that first go through fermentation is enough. The grape juice gets turned into wine and, barring a few small processes to remove pulp and preserve the wine, it gets bottled up. The producer may choose to age the wine for a little while longer, be it in the barrel or the bottle, but the wine doesn’t undergo any further fermentation.

But for a sparkling wine, that first fermentation is only the beginning. From there, it undergoes a second period of fermentation, which is responsible for the bubbles starting to form.

Now, here’s where it gets complicated.

The exact way that this second fermentation takes place will differ depending on the method that the producer’s using to create their sparkling wine.

For example, let’s say that the producer is using the Traditional Method, which is the one used to make Champagne as well as a number of Italian sparkling wines. In this case, the second fermentation takes place inside the bottle itself. Typically, this involves adding yeast to the bottle and leaving it to stand. Eventually, the yeast leads to an increase of about 1.3% in alcohol volume, as well as the creation of the carbon dioxide that gives the wine its bubbles.

And don’t worry about the yeast. It dies during the process as the wine basically uses all of it up.

Now, contrast this with the tank method, which Prosecco producers favour.

In this method, the wine goes into a large tank for secondary fermentation, rather than going into the bottle. The still wine gets combined with a yeast and sugar mixture that the producers call Tirage. It then sits in the large tank, with the sugar and yeast adding to the alcohol volume and creating the bubbles that you get in the wine. Again, carbon dioxide is at play here. As more of it gets producer, the tank becomes pressurised. The producer will then bottle the wine and make it available for sale. Unlike with the Traditional method, it’s not a requirement for ageing to take place in the bottle itself.

So you see, it’s not just a simple question of sparkling wines having a different production method to still wines. You will also find that there are different production methods for varying sparkling wines as well.

There are also variations based on what the producer wants to achieve with their sparkling wine. For example, a producer who wants to achieve a fruitier flavour may use a different method to another producer who wants to achieve something that’s more grounded.

Are There Any Other Differences?

It depends on the winemaker.

Generally speaking, this secondary fermentation, and the small processes that come after, is the only difference between a sparkling wine and still wine. However, this changes if the producer wants to add some other fruits into the mix. 

Typically, this isn’t a possibility for still wines, where the initial fermentation involves grapes alone. However, an enterprising producer could add pears, apples, and any number of other fruits to a secondary fermentation to give a sparkling wine a more unique flavour.

Traditionalists will tell you that this isn’t an ideal way to create a bottle of sparkling wine. However, those who do it will claim that it is the best way to introduce new flavours that the grapes alone can’t create.

The Final Word

So, the big difference between sparkling and still wine production lies in the secondary fermentation process that the former undergoes. It is this that’s responsible for the creation of the bubbles that make sparkling wines such a delight.

After that, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. Do you like still or sparkling wines? Whatever your answer may be, you can find plenty of both in the Xtrawine store.

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