Charmat sparkles

Recognising a potential market, two Charmat method wines made from British grown grapes, were launched in 2017. Leading the charge are Flint vineyard in Norfolk and Fitz, a brand based at a winery in West Sussex. Vineyard finds out why the success of these two products has tempted more brands – some with significant volumes – to explore this exciting sector increasing the footfall of English wine drinkers.

The Charmat method, also known as ‘cuve close’ or tank fermented, is widely associated with the production of Prosecco in Italy and Sekt in Germany. It is also used for sparkling wines in other countries around the world – and increasingly in England. The Charmat method dates back to the late 18th century when it was developed by an Italian, Federico Martinotti, but it was a Frenchman Eugene Charmat who refined the process and gave it its name.

Charmat is generally a quicker sparkling wine production method and usually undergoes less lees contact, resulting in wines that are fresh and aromatic, retaining their fruit flavours. It has been commented that Charmat wines are often suited to the varieties that are considered less popular nowadays – but have historically done well on UK soil, and these often produce better yields. There is also a view that the new interspecific hybrids, or PIWI varieties, may be well suited to Charmat production. Charmat wines undergo a second fermentation and should not be confused with aerated wines where carbonation is done artificially from a cylinder. 

The Charmat story so far

One of the first Charmat sparkling wines to be launched was by Flint Vineyard in Norfolk. “We wanted to test the market and it was a bit of an experiment using grape varieties that I wasn’t familiar with but knew to be very aromatic and perhaps suited to a Charmat style. I thought that it would be a fun and interesting idea and allow me more flexibility with blending options for my more premium wines. Thankfully it worked very well. In 2017 we produced 4,000 bottles, we have now increased production to 9,000 bottles annually – but will be increasing this again,” commented Ben Witchell, Winemaker. “The base wine is made here at Flint Vineyard, using predominantly Rondo, Reichensteiner, Solaris and Cabernet Cortis. The secondary fermentation in tank and the bottling is done by BevTech in West Sussex,” Ben added.

Divergent Drinks is the producer of Fitz, a white Charmat sparkling made by winemaker Gareth Davies using Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Madeleine Angevine. Also a rosé sparkling from Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Madeleine Angevine, Pinot Noir and Rondo. Fitz only retails in a few independents, normally around £19.99 as it’s mostly distributed into on-trade. Prince Charmat is their new retail brand which sells from £12.99.

“Not only did we want to have a point of difference and unique offering to the consumer, but we were also determined to create a truly affordable wine, whilst not compromising on quality,” explained Gareth. “We are now producing over 100,000 bottles a year – and still trying to keep up with demand!” Gareth added. 

MDCV Ltd, who own Kingscote Vineyards, Sedlescombe Vineyards, and have extensive new plantings across the country which brings their total area under vine to around 700 acres. MDCV produce a Charmat wine under the Kingscote label. “We are always looking to experiment with different wine styles, including sparkling wine, to test the market and see what appetite there is from the consumer,” explained Emma Clark, Marketing Manager. “Our first vintage of Charmat was 2018, and we are producing 90,000 bottles of the 2020 vintage, which will be split between brut and rosé. Both the brut and rosé 2019 are made from Bacchus, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The brut retails for £18 and the rosé, £20,” Emma added. 

“Following the very large 2018 harvest, when grapes were both plentiful and cheap, a brand called Angel & Four produced a tank-method sparkler using 50% Reichensteiner, 25% Madeleine Angevine and 25% Seyval blanc grapes. This wine appeared under two labels: Angel & Four selling for around £14.99 and under the Masterstroke label, for one supermarket, selling at £10,” commented Stephen Skelton MW, viticulture consultant and author of Wine Growing in Great Britain. 

Other Charmat producers include Chet Valley Vineyard in Norfolk who include Phoenix, Seyval Blanc and Regent in their Skylark range, Wolstonbury Vineyards ‘Chalk’ from Reichensteiner and ‘Orchid’ from Bacchus, and the soon to be released ‘Boco by House Coren’, made from Reichensteiner, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“It’s like a little bit of vineyard in the bottle,” describes Wolstonbury vineyard owner Ivan Weightman. “Charmat is so suited to our style of wine, its fresh, easy drinking and reflects the wonderful aromas. We currently produce 4,000 bottles which we retail at £24.95, but it’s very popular so we plan to increase production,” Ivan added.

William Coren, Managing Director of House Coren vineyard in Sussex was inspired to create his own Charmat method sparkling in the UK after spotting a gap in the English wine market both in terms of price point and branding. “The brand is vibrant and fresh just like the style of wine – it lends itself to UK viticulture, preserving the primary fruit and fresh acidity. Also, we wanted to do something new and a bit disruptive both in terms of the wine and how we are marketing it. We launch the wine early in July from our cellar door and online. It’s called Boco by House Coren – as we are a Sussex vineyard and it’s an old Sussex word meaning ‘lots of/much’. Our modern interpretation of this is how Boco is all about living life to the fullest and a toast to adventure. 

“We whole-bunch press the Chardonnay and crush and de-stem the Pinot Noir to capture the red fruit flavours, resulting in good complexity, body, and length – and plan to retail at £26.00. We will also make a traditional method wine in the future,” added Will. 

The Charmat production method

Unlike the ‘traditional method’, also known as ‘classic method’, where the second fermentation takes place in bottle, the Charmat method second fermentation takes place in a closed pressure tank. “The winemaking starts in a similar way, with a primary fermentation to create the base wine, but usually with the emphasis on retaining primary aromas and fruit flavours. The classic method of whole bunch pressing, and separation of juice fraction creates the potential for a very long ‘ageing curve’. However, for Charmat, the base wine is usually made from crushed fruit and so a different winemaking approach is needed,” explained David Cowderoy, consultant winemaker and owner of contract facility BevTech.

The Charmat base wine is then enriched with sugar and inoculated with yeast – as for traditional method wines – but the wine is not bottled at tirage and the second fermentation takes place in specially designed pressure tanks. “In the tank method the winemaker has more control over the fermentation, unlike bottle fermentation. Fermentation usually takes a few weeks, and the sparkling wine can then be left in the tank on its yeast lees for maturation over several months. The winemaker also has the option to use ‘battonage’ or lees stirring. Dosage adjustment is also done in tank,” David added.

“Riddling and disgorging is not required for Charmat method as removal from the dead yeast after fermentation and maturation can be as simple as racking – or may involve sterile filtration, depending on winemaking and marketing decisions. Bottling is more challenging as the sparkling wine is under pressure in the tank and so must be carried out using a counter-pressure filler, which is a costly and more complex piece of equipment, which is why most producers use a contract service,” said David.

Quality and style

The Charmat method usually creates wines that are more aromatic, fruity and often considered more approachable, and attractive to a younger market – especially with the lower price tag. 

The English Charmat category is emerging and both WineGB Awards and the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC) are seeing entries. “We are open to and open-minded about English Charmat wines, and we have received entries in the past, but really just the odd one,” commented Tom Stevenson, Founder and Judge of the CSWWC. “It is not a matter of the process being inferior or superior, it’s a matter of what is put into a closed fermentation tank and how long it is kept on yeast,” added Tom. 

“If a wine tastes great I will write it up and the method of production doesn’t matter – it’s all about the wine,” is the view of Matthew Jukes, wine writer. “I’m not a snob and will not consider a wine negatively if I know it’s a Charmat. Conversely, I don’t automatically think that a traditional method wine will be superior either. Charmat has been around for years and this method makes great wines that are generally balanced, fruit-driven and fresh. They may be quicker to the market, but there is still a lot of skill needed in their production. It comes down to only two things – the quality of the grapes and the talent of the winemaker. The method of production is largely irrelevant.”

“It is a common misconception that the quality of Charmat sparkling wines is inferior to that of bottle fermented wines as for both, quality is dependent on the quality of the base wine. If you were to take a base wine and perform secondary fermentation by both methods, the quality of the final wine would be almost identical at any given point in time,” explained David. “The time on lees is where the two different methods differ most significantly. A pressure tank capable of five to six bar pressure is more expensive than a standard wine tank. So, keeping the wine on yeast lees in a pressure tank for more than a year – long enough for yeast autolysis to take place – would tie up an expensive tank. For this reason, most Charmat wines generally have less than three months in tank, to enable several production batches,” he added.

According to Stephen, “the question surely is – are Charmat wines value for money? In my limited tasting experience of them – I say they are. At up to 50% of the price of traditional method sparklers they offer value for money and many wine consumers don’t get the differences between traditional and non-traditional method anyway.”

The advantages

The Charmat method is generally a less expensive and quicker method of sparkling wine production. The technique is considered to retain more primary aromas and preserve the freshness from aromatic grape varieties – whereas the traditional method will tend to favour more autolytic complexity from lees ageing. 

“Although Charmat is more economical when compared to traditional method on a large scale, this is not necessarily the case on a small scale because expensive tanks are required for the secondary fermentation. I don’t necessarily think it’s a case of advantages or disadvantages between the wines as they are very different and yield different results. But one significant advantage of Charmat is that it allows producers to reserve their cuvée press fractions for premium stills and traditional methods – and use the later pressings or taille blended with some cuvée for the Charmat itself. The taille fraction of the press is more aromatic and less acidic making it more suited to Charmat. So, in effect, for a producer making both Charmat and traditional method wines, the production of Charmat can actually contribute to a greater flexibility in holding back reserve wines and also directing other press fractions to the most appropriate blends,” commented Ben. 

The market 

Prosecco has shown dramatic growth and reports suggest that it is an easily quaffable, more approachable, affordable, fun drink and now a popular Friday night fizz, but will English Charmat wines capture a corner of the market? 

“Sparkling wines made using the Charmat method currently represent only a very small percentage of total sparkling wine production in this country at present, with over 95% being made using the Classic Method. So, the market, to a large extent, is untested,” is the view of Simon Thorpe MW, WineGB Chief Executive. “But we certainly want to embrace producers of Charmat method wines and go along the journey with them,” Simon added. 

In Tom Stevenson’s view, “the question is not about Charmat per se, but really concerns only the most popular expression of Charmat today: the quick in and out process of Prosecco and, yes, of course it is a different market. This shortened version of Charmat preserves the freshness of primary aromas, which Prosecco drinkers adore. Most Prosecco drinkers do not like yeast-complexed aromas, the acidity or the structure of Champagne to the point that if you offered them, blind, a glass of DP, Cristal or Rare, and a glass of any Prosecco, they would prefer the Prosecco every time. This is not a case of who is right or wrong, any more than consumers who love parsnips, but dislike turnips. It’s a matter of personal taste.” 

“I think there is definitely a market for English Charmat wines, I also think there is a market for carbonated wines, especially in single serve formats for functions, events, picnics, parties. Charmat, carbonated and traditional method are right for different occasions – and not necessarily different customers,” commented Stephen Skelton MW. 

Flint Vineyard in Norfolk have found a local target market. “It is an even split of trade and direct customers within our region. We are finding a very positive response from restaurants who want to have an English wine on a pouring list. We hope our Charmat is an approachable alternative to the traditional English sparkling wine, and we have deliberately packaged and marketed it to make it obvious that it is a different product.” 

The regulations

As with all wines, there are regulations concerning the labelling, packaging and promotion of the wine and all producers are wise to undertake their own due diligence before bringing a product to market. “It is important to keep in mind all regulations, to provide clarity for the consumer,” commented David. “It is advisable to have labels checked by the FSA (Wine Standards) to ensure they comply.”

The evolution

It is early days for English Charmat, so it will be interesting to watch their development in the market and how they are received by consumers and buyers alike – wines at different price points may well be a positive attribute for the industry. 

“In some ways it is a natural progression for producers to explore the possibility of making sparkling wines using the Charmat method and is an example of the innovation and development taking place in the industry. If you think about the market for Charmat method wines, it’s a great deal larger than for premium sparkling at over £20. The UK consumes in the region of six times as much Prosecco as Champagne each year, and so Charmat wines could well provide an excellent entry into the English and Welsh sparkling wine categories,” commented Simon.

“What we need to do is ensure that we clearly differentiate them from the traditional, or Classic Method, wines upon which our industry has developed its burgeoning reputation and growing demand. It’s important to protect the very premium positioning of the Classic Method wines, hence the development of WineGB’s ‘Great British Classic Method Hallmark’, to establish and champion classic method sparkling wine as the hero style of our industry. The hallmark provides a tangible term and visual device to enable consumers to identify those wines produced using the Classic Method,” he continued. 

Tom Stevenson’s view is that there could be a significant market for English Charmat, “but the product has two major hurdles to clear before that can be achieved,” he explained. “First, the wines are intrinsically too acidic and, from those tasted, I doubt the quality (real quality) of the base wine (who would sacrifice grapes good enough for a £20-£30 wine to make Charmat?). As Charmat is a wine that has to be sold on style, not grape variety, I would seriously suggest looking at soft, low acid hybrids. Second is about marketing: how do you communicate what you are selling to consumers, especially when the target is a Prosecco drinker? Certainly not with “Charmat”. Even though Prosecco is produced by the Charmat (aka Martinotti) method, most Prosecco drinkers are completely oblivious to that. English sparkling wine does not need a name, but if you want to create a market, Charmat does. It needs to convey a clear impression of the Prosecco style, not its method of production,” he added.

“Grape prices have to fall given the recent plantings and I think that lots of producers, including some of the ‘only traditional method’ producers, will reduce stocks and create markets with these cheaper-to-produce wines,” commented Stephen. “For producers without vineyards, and therefore dependent on buying their grapes from others, much will depend upon yields, availability and prices. With yields like those in 2018 and 2019, and with the large number of vines planted between 2017 and 2019, maybe these producers are just what the market needs?” Stephen added.

“I think Charmat has a place in English wine as it is unique. It is not a threat to quality as long as it is seen and respected as a separate product which can be of equal validity as traditional method. Customers absolutely love it and so we are having to increase production by about a third every year to meet demand,” said Ben.

“Despite the misgivings of some producers and commentators, who view these non-traditional method wines as somehow debasing ‘proper’ sparkling wines, it would seem, judging by the rapidity with which they have appeared, that they are here to stay. Their future will surely depend on the availability of grapes at the right price, and how low prices on the high street for traditional method wines will fall,” said Stephen.

Advantages: 

  • It is simple to stir the lees with built in mixers to add texture during secondary fermentation
  • Blending, adjustments and corrections can be done relatively simply to the tanks before bottling
  • At bottling, the wine can be sterile filtered to ensure zero microbial count, which is next to impossible with bottle fermentation
  • It is easy to change bottle formats and sizes and so rapidly respond to market demand 
  • Crushed fruit can be used, which can increase juice yields
  • Machine harvested fruit can be used
  • Lower wine losses – as each bottle disgorged in the traditional method needs the dosage also to replace lost volumes. 
  • Consistency of quality – every bottle from the tank batch will be the same
  • Economies of scale
  • Any problems during secondary fermentation can be easily addressed
  • Cold/tartrate stabilisation can be done post-secondary fermentation, giving more reliable results

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