Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on February 25, 2017 0 Comments Bubbles. They’re wonderful things, aren’t they? From early childhood, we’re captivated by them, and their appeal doesn’t merely end when we enter second grade. Indeed, their fascination continues well into adulthood — after all, are there many luxuries in this world finer than a steaming bath full of bubbles, or a tall glass of effervescent sparkling wine? The world of wine is an oddly conservative one, given that there are over 10,000 wine grapes in production at this very moment, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of unique wine styles and blends out there. People tend to stick with what they know and what they think they like, leading to certain wine styles or names rising well above the rest in terms of spread, influence and popularity. If the wine world in general is conservative and stuck in its ways, then the sphere of sparkling wine is doubly so. Think of bubbles in wine, and what comes to mind? Champagne, certainly — so much so that the name of this French wine region is literally synonymous with almost all sparkling wine, not matter where it has come from. It’s been a good decade for Prosecco, too, although people are beginning to turn away from the principal Italian sparkler again. Cava has also been doing well recently…but that’s about it, if we’re honest. Relatively few other sparkling wines, or sparkling wine styles get a mention. However, there is a whole family of wines which are almost criminally overlooked, especially in countries like the US. Not quite table wines, not quite fizzy enough to be considered truly “sparkling”, these “slightly sparkling wines” are beginning to gain in popularity all around the world, as more and more people seek out authentic, traditionally made wines which have something new to offer. The latest generation of wine drinkers is a discerning one, keen to separate their wine drinking habits and preferences from those of their parents. Slightly sparkling wine seems to tick all their boxes, so expect to see plenty more of it soon on the shelves of a wine store near you. What’s the Difference? Slightly sparkling wine is exactly what you would imagine it to be — a wine which takes away the harshness of the fierce bubbles associated with Champagne etc, and instead presents a mild, gentle touch of fizz which doesn’t interrupt the flavor or texture of the wine itself. Think of the kind of bubbles you get in a nice glass of European lager, and you’ll get the idea. Slightly sparkling wines are just lovely: more expressive and rounded than a normal sparkler, and — dare I say — much more fun and less stuffy. The main difference between these wines and the traditional sparklers comes down to the way in which they have been fermented. Champagne and Cava and their shelf-mates go through two fermentation processes. The first takes place in large, temperature controlled vats, and the second within the bottle, after extra yeast and sugar have been added for an extra kick of fizziness. Slightly sparkling wines go through a similar two-step procedure, except considerably less yeast and sugar are added in the final stages. This leads to less carbon dioxide being created in the bottle, and thus less pressure beneath the cork, and a far subtler, gentler, arguably more pleasant level of carbonation. Although there isn’t a whole lot of research on the matter, it’s likely that these sort of semi-carbonated wines vastly pre-date Champagne. If legend is to be believed, the supposed inventor of Champagne, Dom Perignon himself, was clearly aware of slightly sparkling wine as this was a style he was apparently trying to avoid making when he “accidentally” created the more famous fizz which bears his name. So, it’s possible the appeal of bubbles goes back at least several hundred years. What’s So Good About Them? Slightly sparkling wine is one of the best answers to an age old question: which wine pairs with everything? While proper sparklers like Champagne and Prosecco are usually held up as the solution to every food and wine pairing conundrum (and it’s true — they do go well with pretty much all of it), does anybody really want to drink Champagne all the way through dinner? I mean, I like the stuff, but all those bubbles, that acidity and all that dryness can make it a bit of a challenge when you’ve got a big meal to get through. Wines which tone down the fizz, however, are absolutely gorgeous to drink alongside a wide range of foods, as they seem to achieve a fine balance of everything you need and they’re a breeze to drink from the starters, through the main course and out the other side. They tend to cleanse the palate well, and also have enough flavor and body to stand up to a wide range of different ingredients, spices and food characteristics. They’re a joy to drink alongside fish (just ask the Portuguese!), they sit well with duck and poultry in general, as well as vegetables, cheeses and even many desserts. Their delicate effervescence makes them ideal as aperitifs, too, as they will stimulate the appetite and delight the senses. Global Spread, Unmissable Examples Once you start looking for slightly sparkling wines, you’ll begin to find them everywhere. There are plenty of great examples in the US, and several of the more hip American wineries are beginning to play around with this style. However, for the real classics in this category, you have to look overseas to Europe, and in particular, to the southern European countries of Spain, Italy and Portugal. There, the midday sun gets pretty extreme, and slightly sparkling wine becomes the ultimate sunny day drink, to be knocked back with a few light snacks before a siesta. Make no mistake about it, these are easy-drinking, easy-going, relaxed wines. Not much to write home about in the way of complexity, but when your wine is as refreshing as these are, it really doesn’t matter. Most southern European wine regions have their own versions of this wine style, but the finest probably come out of Portugal’s Douro Valley. There, we find Vinho Verde, the famous green wine of this fascinating country. Crisp, elegant, full of finesse and fresh, grassy flavors and only a tiny hint of fizziness, the Alvarino grapes it is usually made from always manage to capture a touch of the sea air, making these wines the perfect summer holiday tipple. Italy has dozens of wines in this category, where they’ll be referred to as “frizzante”. The most famous Italian examples would be Lambrusco, which has slipped in and out of fashion pretty reliably over the past couple of decades, and yet it’s a great picnic wine, and possibly the best pairing with charcuterie and cured meats I can think of. However, for me the real star of Italy’s slightly sparkling wines is the brilliantly named Sangue di Giuda (“Judas’ Blood”) from Lombardy. Low in alcohol, with a fascinating sweetness from a unique blend of grapes, it is said that this wine style was banned in times past for its aphrodisiac effects. Whether that’s the case or not, I couldn’t possibly say…but this is definitely one to look out for, and thankfully, it’s exported internationally so isn’t too hard to get your hands on. Spain’s efforts tend to come out of the Basque Country, where the most highly regarded of the slight sparklers is the difficult-to-pronounce Txakoli wine. Acidic, lean and fantastic with the sort of seafood the denizens of Northern Spain do so well, it’s another real treat to add to list.