California Winemaker Rethinks Wine Carbonation

Champagne, cava, prosecco, sekt: all the familiar methods for creating bubbles. But a California producer is trying to reinvent the wheel by introducing a new type of carbonation to wine.

Libby Sparkling Wines recalibrates carbonation, introducing a new process that delivers high-octane, low-calorie, ABV bubbles for everyday occasions.

“I’ve been playing with carbonation for a long time,” says Libby winemaker Grant Hemmingway. “There is all this magic and chemistry of carbonation that amplifies flavors and aromas – understand the difference between 1600 and 1900 PPM?”

To make Libby, he injects CO2 at precise levels instead of secondary fermentation, coaxing the lush, vibrant bubbles of still wine. Their custom carbonation method takes the guesswork out of the production side – they can adjust and adjust carbonation levels, and zero in on the exact level of boil to suit the varietal or blend.

What’s wrong with the old method of bubbles? Absolutely nothing. “We’re not trying to compete with champagne,” says Hemmingway. While Champagne demands the occasion, Libby does not; it’s a cheerful, homemade alternative to a weekday glass of wine. Low in sugar, high in pleasure. “The occasion for sparkling wine needs to extend beyond this celebratory time. It can be a Tuesday night!

The brand is launching with two references: a blended white (with 56% Chenin Blanc and 44% Riesling) and a rosé (43% Syrah, 41% Zinfandel and a touch of Moscato and Grenache). The white mix contains 6300 PPM of CO2, while the pink calls for 6375 PPM of CO2.

All grapes are sustainably grown and sourced from multi-generational growers, who focus on methods that minimize water consumption, waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions. “While grapes are important, they are only one of our inputs in our supply chain,” says Hemmingway. “Are we buying post-consumer glass? Are we giving up aluminum foil to avoid waste? Everything has to be measured vertically in the supply chain these days. Sustainability doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a mandatory understanding.

The bottles will be rolled out via an omnichannel approach with a particular focus on digital. “The realities of buying wine are slowly changing, and the direct-to-consumer shift and the impact of the pandemic have brought e-commerce to the fore,” says Hemmingway.

Bubbles fall in line with some trends. Sessionability, for one – at lower proof (7.7%), makes it much easier to pace your drinking. As drinkers become more mindful of their consumption, low-alcohol beverages are becoming more appealing.

Recently, we’ve seen an increase in sales of products like pet pecks and nats; sparkling, whimsical bottles of naturally fermented wines that drop to a lower ABV. But products like these are difficult to scale, in terms of consistency.

“These products are part of a larger trend, but the variability in their production makes it difficult to do so on a commercial scale,” says Hemmingway. “With our blend, we realized we could deliver at commercial scale consistently and cost effectively.”

And while champagne and cava and other traditional bubbles take time to achieve precision, Hemmingway’s methods are faster – he can nail bubbling, hyper-accurate bubbles in a fraction of the time.

“The sparkling wine industry is huge. It’s on fire. Sales data and consumer insights back that up,” he says. “We wanted to try to optimize the category.”

It’s democratization, in a way. “You look at the sparkling wine category and it’s traditionally topped with a cage, leaf and bottle in a heavy, decorative bottle.” Libby bottles are closed with a crown cork.

“From market observation and consumer research, we found it alarming that the general consumer does not know how carbonation occurs and which grapes are in prosecco,” he notes. “We’ll tell you exactly how we gasify and at what levels.”

Ultimately, they entertain format expansions and experiment with different varietal blends, but for now Libby is focused on making bright bubbles for the everyday occasion.

About Michael Brafford

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