Wine Language - The Many Degrees of Fizz
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Wine Language - The Many Degrees of Fizz

I have a real respect for French Champagne, not just because of the enormous amount of trouble it takes to manufacture, but for the sheer physical power inside the bottle; at about five atmospheres, there is twice as much pressure inside a bottle of Champagne as in a properly inflated automobile tire, which leads me to want to invent a device I can attach to a Champagne bottle just in case I get a flat in the middle of nowhere; talk about impressing your friends! The French term for this powerful level of carbon dioxide content is mousseux. Another French term for similar in-bottle pressure is crémant, a quick nickname for most French sparkling wines manufactured according to the méthode traditionelle though not under the Champagne appellation.

The Spanish used to call their sparkling wine Champaña, but changed the name several decades ago to Cava, literally “cellar,” to avoid offending the French. The Spanish use the terms método tradicional or método clásico to describe the process they are no longer allowed to call, using French, the méthode champenoise. The Spanish term for this full level of tire-popping carbonation is espumoso; Italy uses the well-known spumante. The Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, in addition to imposing crushing financial obligations on the Germans, forbade them from ever calling their sparkling wine “Champagne;” the German bubbling equivalent is called Sekt. The German term Schaumwein (the word Schaum means “foam”) is usually reserved for low quality products. Qualitätschaumwein is equivalent to Sekt.

Many fine sparkling wines weigh in at lower levels of fizziness (such that they do not require the protective wire retainers so familiar in the Champagne opening ritual). The delightfully fruity Moscato d’Asti, at about 1.7 atmospheres, is merely frizzante (or frizzantino); it is understandably often confused with Asti Spumante, a fully sparkling offering from the same famous wine town in Piemonte. The French adjective for this type of light sparkle is pétillant, while the Germans use the term spritzig.

Not to be outdone in linguistic precision, the French employ the term perlant for an even lower level of fizziness; German Perlwein brings the same point across. The Spanish term aguja refers to a slight natural effervescence in the wine. The Italian vivace connotes a pleasant light sparkle.

The European Community considers a wine sparkling if it has pressure of more than three atmospheres, semi-sparkling if it is between one and 2.5 atmospheres. American regulations (promulgated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco) are not as scientifically specific. According to the ATF

“Sparkling grape wine” (including “sparkling wine,” “sparkling red wine” and “sparkling white wine”) is grape wine made effervescent with carbon dioxide resulting solely from the fermentation of the wine within a closed container, tank or bottle.

“Crackling wine,” “petillant wine,” “frizzante wine” (including cremant, perlant, reciotto, and other similar wine) is sparkling light wine normally less effervescent than champagne or other similar sparkling wine, but containing sufficient carbon dioxide in solution to produce, upon pouring under normal conditions, after the disappearance of air bubbles, a slow and steady effervescence evidenced by the formation of gas bubbles flowing through the wine.

It is clear that even the ATF shies away from precise English-language terms apart from “sparkling,” because other than “fizzy,” that's all we've got.

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In addition to my food and wine writing, I act as North American representative for Dialogue language schools. If you've always wanted to do an intensive session in French, Spanish, Italian or German in Europe before your wine tour, here's more information.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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