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Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Bubbly Biography - The Story of Sparkling Wine - Part 3: Sekt and the Future

January is Sparkling Wine Month on!

My trilogy on the history of sparkling wine concludes here. Part One: France and Spain was about the emergence of intentional carbonation, the creation of methode champenoise, and the people who made it happen. Part Two: Italy and The New World was about the charmat method, partial fermentation, and the people who spread sparkling wine to new places. Part Three: Sekt and the Future is about what lies ahead.

France produces the most sparkling wine in the world but what country comes in second? Spain? Italy? America? Nope, nope, and nope. It's Germany and they call their sparkling wine Sekt. The Germans also consume the most sparkling wine in the world per capita, whether it be champagne or prosecco or sekt or what have you.

The Romans brought vitis vinifera vines to Germany in the first 200 or 300 years of the Common Era and it's been a wine wonder ever since. Never mind that it takes a special grape to work in Germany; we're lucky that wine can be made there at all. It's so far north and the climate is so cold that it's a friggin miracle. But the German's were blessed with the right soil, topography, and vines to make some of the best wines in the world. Riesling, for example, is a high acid and high sugar producing grape. It was a match made in heaven with their cold climate and longer growing season.

Vineyards are grown on dangerously steep slopes leading down to the rivers. You know in The Princess Bride when Wesley is tumbling and screaming AS YOU WISH? Yeah, it's like that but you'd probably die or have to go to a Krankehaus to have yourself put back together. These vineyards are almost always on the north-ish side of the river so the slopes face south, giving the vines the best sunlight possible. The rivers are important too because they moderate the climate and reflect sunlight and heat up to the vines. The blue slate of the Mosel river/region and the red slate of the Rheingau river/region absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

It's like Jack Frost wanted wine so he moved to a place he knew could handle his antics.

Georg Christian von Kessler was born in the city of Heilbronn, in the state of Württemberg, Germany in 1787. At the age of 14 he left school, whether forced or voluntarily, and entered the work force as an apprentice. Dear old dad wanted that apprenticeship to be for a silversmith but Georg thought a career in retail was more up to his speed. The store he worked in sold dyes, spices and leather, and he spent his days listening to clever comments like "It must be free!" when something wasn't ringing up and explaining to customers why last week's newspaper ad sales are no longer valid this week.

During that apprenticeship he met a priest that had emigrated from France during the revolution, and the priest became his French teacher. That second language and his experience with leather found him a greater opportunity and, after three years working at the store, he moved to Mainz as a merchant at 17 years old. Mainz is located in the Rhineland, which at the time was property of France and known for its leather goods. Two years later an even better opportunity came knocking.

Ludwig Bean was an old classmate of Kessler's, and was now an accountant and representative for the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot in the city of Reims. Bean traveled a lot for his job and he needed a clerk so for some random reason he chose his old friend. Kessler arrived in Reims in July of 1907, two years after Madame Clicquot took over from her dead husband. From there things escalated quickly. In July of 1810 he was appointed power of attorney and in January of 1815 he became partner at 28 years old. Madame Clicquot really liked this German kid and is on record as calling him "intelligent but ambitious and cunning." Kessler lead the Champagne house to its greatest prosperity in its history, but his wife died during childbirth in 1825 and all he really wanted to do was take his newborn daughter and head back to Germany.

Sparkling wine map of Europe

At this point it's said that the name Sekt came into being. In 1825 the famous German actor Ludwig Devrient was getting his drink on in a Berlin bar. He started reciting lines from various plays and spat out "Bring me a cup of sack, boy!" to his waiter. Apparently the waiter didn't know that sack was a white fortified wine, and he wasn't familiar with Shakespeare's Henry IV, so he didn't know what the hell the guy was talking about. So he brought him Champagne. Somehow, whether it really happened or not, the story spread and Sekt became the German slang word for sparkling wine.

Kessler broke off his Veuve Cliquot partnership in May of 1826 and went back home. Only a few months later he bought an old wine press house in Esslingen am Neckar, Württemberg, to use as a sparkling wine factory and established G.C. Kessler & Compagnie. For the good enough reason of three long wars, one after the other, it was tough to find grapes in the area good enough to make a base wine for quality sparklers. And he only wanted the best.

Luckily for him, he managed to purchase Clevnar, AKA Pinot Blanc, that met his standards and he used that. His first bottles were simply labeled "sparkling wine from Württemberg" and it was the first German sparkling wine. He used methode champenoise, of course, but he wasn't looking to recreate champagne. Rather, he wanted Germany to have its own thing. It was so beyond expectations that by the end of the decade he had sold half a million bottles and was exporting to Russia, England and the United States. The success of Kessler's bubbly began a movement in Württemberg to plant better vines suitable for fine wine, and to take care of them appropriately.

In 1832 he bought a vaulted cellar in Esslingen am Neckar that was built in 1213, and that is where the winery remains today. Towards the end of his life, an incurable spinal cord disease limited the use of his extremities and it forced him to retire in January of 1841. He deteriorated quickly and died in December, 1842 at 55 years old.

His successor was his good friend Carl Weiss. No, not the senator-assassinating-physician Carl Weiss. Even though Kessler made the first German sparkling wine, this Weiss aggressively took the reigns of the winery and in 1850 launched a new brand he labeled "Kessler Cabinett". It's now the oldest sparkling wine brand in Germany and was under ownership of the Weiss family until 2004.

Sekt is no longer a slang word and it's officially defined by the European Union. The majority of German sekt, and I mean 90%, are made with the charmat method and aren't even from grapes grown on German soil. They take still wine from France or Italy or wherever and carbonate it in Germany. The ones that are from 100% German fruit are labelled Deutscher sekt. The higher-end fine sekt is made from German-grown Riesling, Pinot Blanc (AKA Clevnar or weissburgunder), and/or Pinot Gris (AKA ruländer). They're made in the traditional method, like Kessler's original and Weiss' reboot, and are usually vintage specified. Sekt in general, on all levels of quality, are crisper and cleaner and more acidic than champagne. Overall quality is increasing rapidly and German sekt is among the future prospects to take the wine industry by storm.

Fitz-Ritter Riesling Extra Trocken Sekt from Pfalz was my wine pick for January 2014. Read my review:

Sekt is the term for sparkling wine in other German speaking countries such as Austria. It's also part of the name of the sparkling wine made in Crimea and certain regions of Ukraine.

Spurts of growth and setbacks litter Ukrainian and Crimean wine history, with badly timed raids and wars and phylloxera to slow it down, but it has a long history of winemaking going back to the 4th century BCE. Grape presses and amphorae from that time have been discovered in Crimea, a peninsula to the south of Ukraine, with viticulture and winemaking probably introduced by the Phoenicians. Even though it's almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea, Crimea has a continental climate with the exception of the subtropical southern coast.

Prince Lev Golytsin
Their sparkling wine, which they would later call Krimsekt from German sekt influence, was first made in Crimea in 1799 exclusively for Russian tsar Paul I to enjoy... but it took a prince to industrialize it seventy-nine years later.

Prince Lev Golitsyn entered the world in 1845 via one of the most noble houses of Russia. He earned a Bachelor's degree in law at the age of 17 in Paris and continued to study the subject for two more years in Germany. After a short stint working for the Foreign Ministry of Russia he decided to pack up yet again and move to Crimea.

He promptly started banging with a woman that owned half of a wine estate, and that began another love affair with wine. He bought the other half of the estate and surrounding land to create Novy Svet Winery in 1878. His krimsekt titled Brut Paradiso was the first wine with the Russian Empire emblem on its label. It won the gold metal for Best Champagne at the 1889 Paris Exposition and then took the Grand Prix at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. Right off the bat it was internationally famous and would continue to collect the hardware in competitions all over the world.

Golitsyn was obsessed with wine, travelling to France often so he could learn everything about it. He believed that just by looking at a leaf from a grapevine he could guess the varietal, region, weather of the vintage, and the characteristic of the wine it would produce. He built massive collections and owned cellars in Moscow, Paris and Bordeaux. One night while hosting company at Novy Svet, including a Duke that was quite wine savvy himself, he asked his guests what wine and vintage they would prefer. The group of jerks jokingly named the rarest wines they could think of... and were quickly shut up when their requests were presented to them.

Golitsyn also received authority over the viticultural land and practices of the Imperial properties in Crimea by Emperor Alexander III. In the end, his obsession was too expensive even for him and he had to give up properties and part of his wine collection to avoid bankruptcy in 1912. He died of pneumonia in 1915 and is remembered as a totally awesome, optimistic dude.

United Vacations

Krimsekt nowadays is made with the traditional method and comes in both red and white. The grapes used don't have to be grown there but the wine has to be made in Crimea or certain areas in Ukraine. The varietals allowed for the white version are Aligoté, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling. The red can use Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Madresa and Saperavi. Whites are aged for nine months, high quality ones for maybe two or three years, and the reds for nine months to a year.

Anton Frolov-Bagreyev
During the days of the Soviet Union, Crimea supplied most of the wine used for Sovetskoye Shampanskoye. That's Russian for Soviet Champagne. After taking power in 1903, the new communist government banished brands but soon after realized the fault in doing so with certain products. By 1920 they were looking for a cheap, Soviet-made sparkling wine that was easy and quick to make.

It wasn't until 1936 that chemist Anton Frolov-Bagreyev invented a method using a new form of fermentation tank that accelerated the process of producing sparkling wine to super-fast Nintendo speed.  Frolov-Bagreyev was born into aristocracy in 1877 and graduated college with degrees in Physics and Mathemantics. He travelled to Bordeaux, Porto, and Madeira before coming back to Russia to work for the Imperial winery, Abrau-Dyurso, managed by none other than Prince Lev Golitsyn himself.

During the Russian civil war he was ordered to be killed by the rebels because he refused to hand over all of the wine stock from the cellar. Coworkers hid his ass among the massive amount of barrels and called the authorities, saving his life. After the revolution succeeded, Frolov-Bagreyev was sent to Siberia for supporting the Empire but came back soon enough to start working again. And here he was, inventing a new form of fermentation tank for the same people that wanted him dead. He won a Stalin Prize in 1943 for his contributions.

When you really get down to it, Soviet Champagne was, and still is, just a high-yield low-quality built-for-speed sparkler made from Aligoté and Chardonnay. Frolov-Bagreyev was a really smart guy but you can't rush quality and I'm sure he knew that better than anybody. The Soviets never asked for quality to begin with.

So where do we go from here? Where do we even start to look ahead to the future?

If you recall in Part One, the English were turning imported wines into sparkling ones way back in the late 1600's. During the Norman conquests southern England had vineyards all over the place but by the Doomsday Survey of 1086 there were only a handful. After that some people experimented and had their own personal vineyards but there was really no English wine industry.

In the mid-20th century, chemist Ray Barrington Brock and writer Edward Hyams thought that was bullcrap. Brock made his own research station and worked for 25 years to find the right grape varieties, yeast strains and growing techniques for making wine in English conditions. Hyams returned from the Navy and, with his wife, planted a vineyard. Having the same contacts and even collaborating together, Brock and Hyams found that Müller-Thurgau, a white vinifera, Reichensteiner, a cross of Müller-Thurgau and Madeleine Angevine, and Seyval Blanc, a white hybrid, were the best candidates for the job.

Hyams wrote and hyped the potential of English wine and released his book The Grape Vine in England in 1949. Hyams' and Brock's wines were both praised in the Daily Mirror a year later, with the end of the article calling out for sparkling wine in the next ten years. When Brock hosted a tasting of his juice in 1960, his sparkler was being poured. Other wineries and vineyards popped up, and in the late 60's they too were making their own bubbly. The varieties of champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier) weren't used until the 1980's. The "meh" quality of English wine and even the mere thought of its existance has been slammed by wine professionals forever but you gotta hand it to them; they kept to it.

English sparkling wine by traditional method, especially from Sussex, is supposedly shockingly good now. All it needs is experience and revenue and it has the potential to be even better than champagne... thanks to climate change. As it gets warmer in Champagne the conditions are too hot to keep the acid level high and the sugar level low, so harvest is starting to be done before the grapes are fully ripened. Harvest in England has gone from late October to early October and is creeping towards September. This means that English grapes are ready to pick sooner and they're now harvesting fully ripened grapes, a feat it could barely squeak out before, and its climate is making its way to where Champagne wishes it could stay. I've never had the opportunity to taste an English sparkling wine but I can't wait to try it.

Mughal Princess with companions and wine
I don't know what comes to mind for you when somebody mentions India, but I think of a magical agricultural and culinary place that we all owe tremendously. I mean, you like food, right? An insane amount of the herbs, spices and fruits that are grown all over the world now, and that we use everyday, are native to India. But nobody would ever really think of them as being a winemaking country.

Turns out they've been in the viticulture business for a very long time. The Persians invaded in 550 BCE and they brought grapevines with them. Until recently, Indian wine was sweet and maderized and it stayed in the country. Today the modern and dry sparkling kind is bringing them some surprising recognition.

Yes, it's really hot in India and that's why the best spots are at high elevation. Also, the combination of everything else going on, like the humidity levels and the amount of rainfall, actually make it a great place for grapevines. 90% of the grapes grown in India are table grapes and those are grown almost everywhere, while wine grapes are grown in just a few areas. In the north there's the Himachal region and in the south there's the Bangalore region. Central India has a cluster of regions: Sangali, Solapor, Pune, Nasik, and Ahmednagar.

Back in 1984, Chateau Indage was founded near Pune and it would spark the interest of making quality wine in India. Their vines were planted on limestone slopes, their equipment was imported from Champagne, and their sparkling wines labeled Omar Khayyam and Marquise de Pompadour were killer. I guess that's what happens when you've got the Champagne house of Piper-Heidsiek advising you. Grover Estates started up near Bangalore in 1988 but their goal was, and still is, of the Bordeaux breed.

Sanford student Rajeev Samat returned home from Silicon Valley and opened up Sula Wines in 1996 near Nashik. It was just the third Indian fine winery established and now it's the top wine producer in the country. They make everything you can think of, including India's best selling sparklers. Nashik is now known as "the Napa Valley of India". 

There are lots of wineries in India today. Their Bordeaux varietals, Shiraz and Chenin Blanc are supposed to be fantastic. But again, it's the traditional method sparkling wines that the world will, and is beginning to, have interest in.

Moët Hennessy made big news in 2013 by creating Chandon India. In search for new places to make wine, they traveled to several non-traditional countries before they arrived in India. Of course, Moët's a big operation and they've done their research on making quality sparkling wine in different conditions... and they were drooling from what they saw in Nashik. So they bought some land and started doing what they do. But here they use Chenin Blanc, like the rest of India, instead of the traditional champagne grapes.

So I know that I passed right over Tasmania in Part Two with a quick sentence about it but I've got a good excuse. I was going to write up that portion of the article the night before release... and then we lost power at my house. But that's okay because it fits here as well. Tasmania is making waves in the wine world and is expected to be a major player in the future of top quality sparkling wine.

A vineyard in Tasmania covered in netting
The island is one of the coolest viticultural areas in the world, but it has a crazy amount of different soils, terroirs and micro-climates. Even with big differences in the wine produced according to location, there's still no wine regions other than just "Tasmania". The birds down there have a taste for grapes so vineyards covered by netting is a common sight when the grapes have ripened.

Pinot Noir is successful everywhere but for one area on the east coast. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling have also been very succesful varieties. I bet you noticed that I mentioned Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and connected the dots yourself to where we're going here.

Tasmania was one of the first places in Australia to make wine at all, and the first sparkling wine of Tasmania was produced in 1826. But then sparkling wine wasn't really made much after that until recently. In 1984 the Champagne house of Louis Roederer saw potential in Tasmania's cool climate and joined forces with the Tasmanian winery Heemskerk. Together they released the first commercial Tasmanian sparkling wine in 1991. Of course Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and methode champenoise were used. Today the Jansz Tasmania winery, owned by Yalumba, uses the phrase methode tasmanoise.

After it was established how well the island did with bubbly, it became a great source of grapes for wineries on the Australian mainland to produce and/or add into their sparkling wines. One example of that is House of Arras by Hardys, which now carries Tasmania on its label. And that's what happened to many of them; they eventually became Tasmanian rather than just Australian. Their grape production is still mostly used as a grape source for general Australian wine, however.

Tasmanian sparkling wine is one of those things that everybody is raving about these days but nobody they're raving to about it can actually get their hands on it. There's so little wine produced from the island, comparatively to other places in the world, that it's really not that easy to find. But as vineyards pop up and money flows in, expect it to become more widely available. Winds do keep yields pretty low so it's almost a guarantee that it won't explode too much, either.

And now it's time to top off this trilogy that has taken months of my life to research and write. And because I'm kinda glad it's over, I will leave it on a sweet note: The sparkling wine of Brazil.

Back in 1500 CE the Portuguese king Emmanuel I ordered Pedro Álvares Cabral to sail to India for trade. He made it to India but looped out a bit too far into the Atlantic and ended up discovering Brazil along the way. Soon after it became a Portuguese colony and the first grapevines were planted in 1532. Fine wine wasn't made until the 1970's and it wasn't commercially made until the 1990's.

So the still wines aren't that great but the big shining star of Brazilian wine is the Asti-like sparkling wine from the Moscato grape. The best of them are from the region of Serra Gaúcho down by the border of Uruguay. Southern Brazil became a popular place for Italian immigrants in the 1860's so it's no surprise that the most intriguing wine there has a heavy Italian influence.

Brazilian sparkling wine has the potential to be a popular party starter, like its daddy Asti, but at an even better price point. It's sweet, low in alcohol, fun and quaffable. Like anything unfamiliar, it just needs one good PR moment in pop culture to take off. Moët Hennessy is also in Brazil... maybe they could hire Pitbull to make a song about it! That would work!

In closing:

No matter how you feel about sparkling wine it certainly has a history full of people and stories that you can't help but admire. I really wanted to write about those instead of focusing on rules and appellations and things that would make the average wine lover fall asleep. I hope you enjoyed reading these three installments as much as I enjoyed writing them. Thanks for reading!

- Joey Casco, CSW

Thank you to @ZinThePhoenix on Twitter for suggesting this topic!

Part 1: France and Spain
Part 2: Italy and the New World
Part 3: Sekt and the Future

Exploring Wine: Completely Revised 3rd Edition
The Oxford Companion To Wine, 3rd Edition
The World Atlas of Wine
Certified Specialist of Wine Study Guide
The Wine Bible
English Wikipedia & German Wikipedia
Kessler at Esslingen: Oldest Champagne Cellar in Germany
Education: What is Sekt?
Prince Lev Golitzyn and Novi Svyet
Soviet Champagne History
Climate Change Seen Bringing Bonanza for English Wine
The History of English Sparkling Wine
The BRIC's: Surprising Wines of India
Wine Review: Brazilian Sparkling Wine
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