It’s time for another edition of Wine WTFs! In this series we explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about. Last time we figured wtf structure is all about.
This time around we learn about a term that gives you no help learning what it is. It sounds stodgy and snobby, exactly aspects of the wine world I try to avoid.
Still, once you know (or, better yet, taste) what this term means it’s hard not to fall in love.
Seriously, wtf does ‘traditional method’ mean?
What’s so traditional about it, anyway?
It might sound obtuse, but traditional method sparkling is just that – the most traditional way to make sparkling wine. It’s not the oldest (that honour goes to the method ancestrale, which has a fascinating story in its own right), but it’s the one with the most caché, on account of being the method of choice for Champagne makers.
Here’s how a traditional method sparkling wine gets made:
- A base wine is made, usually in steel tanks. This is called the first fermentation.
- In most cases, wines are then blended in to a house style. In particularly good years a vintage will be announced, and the finished sparkling wine will have a year on the label.
- The blended base wine is then put into bottles, given a little sugary/yeasty boost, and closed with a crown cap. The wine then undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. (This is the most special aspect of traditional method sparkling wine. All sparkling wine methods have two fermentations, but traditional method is the only one where the secondary fermentation takes place in bottles.)
- After the secondary fermentation, the wine hangs out in its bottle for a while. Sometimes it’s six months, sometimes it’s six years – it depends on the whim of the winemaker.
- When the wine is ready for sale the crown cap is replaced with a cork and sealed. It’s now ready for you!
It’s all about the
Benjamins lees, baby
The thing that makes traditional method special – that really makes it stand out from the other ways sparkling wine is made – is the lees.
What are the lees, you ask? It might sound kind of nasty, but lees are dead yeast cells.
I know, I know. Stay with me.
Yeast is the stuff that turns sugar into alcohol, allowing wine to exist. During that process the yeast turns into lees. Most of the time, as soon as a wine is finished fermenting the lees are filtered out of the wine through a process called fining. But sometimes winemakers let the wine mingle with the lees for a while – this is what traditional method winemakers do (it’s also what sur lie means when you see it on a wine label).
Remember before when I told you about the wine hanging out for a while in the bottle after the second fermentation? Lees are why winemakers do that. The longer a wine spends ‘on its lees’, the more flavour the lees will impart on the wine. Lees give wine a few distinct flavours that many wine drinkers (myself included) love like toast, bread and biscuit.
In old school Champagne houses the wines can spend months or even years on its lees, being gently turned, or riddled, every so often so that the lees eventually sink down into the neck. When the wine’s crown cap is switched for a cork the wine is also disgorged, meaning the lees are taken out of the bottle.
Thanks, lees, you were helpful while we needed you, now – be gone!
Where to find traditional method sparklers
By far, the most famous kind of traditional method sparkling is Champagne. That region has spent centuries perfecting this method and it has certainly paid off.
I don’t know about you, but my bank account is not conducive to keeping me in Champagne, regardless of how much I love it. Luckily, there are a couple other, cheaper, traditional method sparkling wines out there, just waiting to be enjoyed.
One example is Cava, aka the Spanish version of Champagne. Made predominantly with native Spanish grapes, Cava is made in the traditional method and usually spends at least 9 months on lees. I find the bubbles to be a bit bigger than Champagne but similar in flavour – and much easier on your wallet.
New world regions can vary (they just love playing with tradition) but labels will usually say when a wine has been made in this method – after all, if you made something in the same way as the most well-known version, wouldn’t you want people to know? Make sure to look out for phrases like traditional method, methode traditionale or cap classique.
My favourite non-Champagne traditional method sparkler is a Crémant. Crémants are the great secret of the sparkling wine world, mainly because they’re made in the exact same way as Champagne but are from elsewhere in France. Especially in Champagne-adjacent regions like Burgundy and the Loire, you can find delicious sparklers made in the same way as the expensive stuff but sold at a fraction of the price. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like something you want to check out.
Do you like traditional method sparklers?