From grape to glass: how English sparkling wine is made

Nyetimber vineyards in West Sussex
Harvest season: all great wine starts in the vineyard Credit: Nyetimber

Explore the journey of how sparkling wine is made, from picking the grapes in the vineyard to the bottling of the wine

A glass of fizz heralds a celebration as the rising bubble stream brings palpable excitement to any occasion. As you savour the flavours and sensations of the first sip, have you ever wondered how the grape becomes a glass of English sparkling wine?

Sparkle that starts in the vineyard

Great wine always starts in the vineyard, and great sparkling wine even more so. Although sparkling wine could be made from any wine region in the world, some regions have a greater natural potential for top-quality sparkling wines. 

It is no coincidence that England’s sparkling wines are often compared to those of Champagne, as the English countryside shares some of these ideal climatic and geographical characteristics. “We have free-draining chalk and greensand soils, very similar to Champagne,” says Nyetimber head winemaker Cherie Spriggs. “This combination with the cool climate of England contributes to developing delicate flavours and making top-quality sparkling wine.”

Ideal conditions: England's cool climate contributes to making top-quality sparkling wine Credit: Nyetimber

Turning fine wine into fine bubbly

Once the grapes are picked at their optimum ripeness, they begin the intricate process of becoming sparkling wine. First, a base wine is made from the grapes. Both red and white grapes are used, sometimes as a blend (Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvee blends white chardonnay grapes with red pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, for example) or as a single grape variety (as in Nyetimber’s 100pc chardonnay Blanc de Blancs). 

A gentle press delicately extracts the juice and the first fermentation begins as yeasts convert the fruit sugar into alcohol. “The by-product of any yeast fermentation is CO2 [carbon dioxide] gas, but in this first stage we are looking to allow beautiful fruit flavours from our vineyards to express themselves without any other factors,” says Ms Spriggs.

The difference between wine and sparkling wine is that a second fermentation takes place afterwards, this time in the bottle. “The second fermentation is exactly the same process but the CO2 cannot escape as it is sealed in a glass bottle, and the gas dissolves in the wine, creating those beautiful bubbles.” Infinitesimal bubbles are suspended in the wine, making it sparkle. 

Retaining that sparkle

The yeasts are important for fermentation but also for flavour: typically the longer the yeast stays in contact with the wine, the richer it becomes with complex aromas of toast, pastry and brioche.

When the sparkling wine has aged to perfection, a careful process of riddling and disgorgement takes place. The bottles are gently rotated every two hours over seven days to gather and settle the yeast sediment at the neck of the bottle. 

This sediment is frozen solid in dry ice and pushed out from the pressure of the bubbles, in a process of disgorgement. The bottle is very quickly sealed again with a cork to capture and retain its fine bubbles until it is ready to drink. In that instant before resealing the bottle though, the winemaker adds a dosage. The dosage is often a highly guarded secret recipe of vintage wines that adds different flavours and a touch of sweetness to the wine. 

Nyetimber has a transparent approach. “Unlike other producers, we are not so secretive about our dosage,” Ms Spriggs says. “We don’t want to interfere with the beautiful flavours we already have from our vineyards, so our dosage is wine from that same vineyard. Our secret is not to have any secrets."

Perfectly British

This series of articles, brought to you by Nyetimber, is all about celebrating English sparkling wine.

Made in West Sussex, Classic Cuvee is created from a blend of the classic grape varieties chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Full of flavour, Nyetimber is considered one of the world’s leading sparkling wines.

To find out more about Nyetimber and to keep up-to-date with news and vineyard visits, sign up for the newsletter at nyetimber.com