There’s more than one way to make bubbly. Sparkling wine’s long history spans quite a bit in the way of trial and error and new technologies and techniques, making the preferred way of producing the stuff somewhat variable.
One of the oldest known ways is called, quite appropriately, the ancestral method. Being a formative technique, it’s a bit more crude, but proponents argue that it results in greater flavor and variation. Similar praises are sung for other related hands-off approaches, like native yeast fermentations or refraining from filtering or fining a wine — minimal intervention, maximum character, they say.
Like a lot of early approaches, the ancestral method is lacking a bit in the way of control. As such, it can be viewed as too much of a gamble in the modern era for some labels. Essentially, primary fermentation is stopped before the wine goes dry, leaving some residual sugar. A secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, assuming no hiccups arise, with the resident yeast chowing down on the leftover sugar from the first go-around (no sugar is added, per the “dosage” step in classic sparkling production).
There is no disgorgement phase to clean up the wine, which would normally tackle sediment of leftover lees. Subscribers like that this method is both relatively straightforward and not costly. And when the wines are well-made (or the producer just enjoys a stroke of good luck), they tend to be more expressive on the palate than bubbly fashioned out of more mechanized techniques.
How far back does it go? Many believe the first try occurred in the 16th century. In 1531, monks in the Limoux region of southern France started what would become a trend. The style also went by the terms “rurale” or “artisanale” and predated the classic approach to sparkling wine by a couple of centuries. The Blanquette de Limoux is believed to be what started it all.
While you may not always see “ancestral method” or “méthode ascestrale” on the bottle, you’re probably already familiar with the style. It’s this old approach that’s behind the recent resurgence of Pét-Nat wines. Winemakers and consumers alike are breathing life back into the 500-year-old practice and drinking in the often aromatic and lower-ABV results. They don’t always look clean and tidy, per the cloudiness that comes from the lees, but they can make up for that in terms of flavor. If the wide world of sparkling wine had a subcategory, this would be it.
Other methods include the soda approach, which involves pumping in CO2, and the Charmat technique (also known as the tank method), developed in Italy and involving pressurized stainless steel tanks. The traditional method is the one Champagne lovers tend to wax poetically about and is far and way the most involved. This is the méthode classique, laborious and expensive. Riddling, disgorging, and more take place and the whole process is extensive, requiring specialized equipment and lots of discipline.
Picture ancestral method wines in terms of beer. With less alcohol and a rustic streak, they’re almost like the wine equivalent of a session farmhouse ale. Such a style is doubly attractive right now as the pandemic has us drinking at hours when we need to be functioning, as well as looking for escapes by way of distinctive, place-driven flavors.
As consumers wise up to trends and the concept of terroir, it’s no real surprise that something like the ancestral method is again popular. It requires skill in the cellar and the byproducts can be tasty wines with a lot of personality.
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