Imagine you pop open a nice bottle of red wine for dinner, but there’s a slight fizz. You check the label. Nope, you did not buy sparkling wine. You check the wine in your glass and take a sip. Yup. It feels carbonated, and there are tiny bubbles!
So, why do some red wines feel carbonated? (Or bubbly or fizzy?)
The top four reasons your red wine might feel bubbly are:
- It was bottled a little too young, so now the process continues in the sealed bottle.
- The temperature of the wine during bottling fooled the winemaker into thinking fermentation was complete.
- Particular types of acidity can give the impression of your wine being carbonated.
- Your wine has gone bad, and you’ve unintentionally created a terrible version of sparkling wine.
We’ll look at the scientific reasons why carbonation happens before we pop the cork on when carbonation in your red wine is okay (hint: it’s not because it’s a sparkling wine). We’ll also investigate when carbonation in a wine is a bad sign and if it’s best to discard the wine.
How Does Carbonation Happen?
Let’s quickly go on a short detour, shall we? Bubbles. Effervescence. Carbonation. Call it what you will; it can be alarming if you open a bottle of ‘still’ or non-sparkling wine.
However, carbonation is a natural process in winemaking (mainly when producing Champagne and other sparkling wines) and a natural byproduct.
When winemakers produce wine, they add yeast to the raw grape juice to turn the grapes’ sugars into alcohol. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a natural process that occurs during fermentation. In non-sparkling wines, CO2 is released into the atmosphere from the fermentation vats.
Sometimes, when the weather doesn’t play along during the aging process, CO2 remains suspended in the wine when it enters the aging barrels. However, as the wine ages inside the barrel, the CO2 is expelled, and the resulting wine is still or non-sparkling.
In the case of Champagne, the yeast isn’t allowed to gobble up all the sugars. Instead, it continues this critical job under the watchful eye of the producer, who feeds it more sugar.
The yeast continues its work in a sealed environment, and the CO2 gas is under pressure, dissolved, and suspended in the liquid. When you pop the cork, the suspended CO2 is released as bubbles.
This was Carbonation 101. Next, we’ll investigate why and when some red wines feel carbonated.
When Carbonation Is Okay
You didn’t unintentionally buy a bottle of sparkling wine at the shop. Whew! But how can it feel carbonated? Let’s pop the cork and find out.
‘Young bottling’ isn’t a technical wine term; we just use it to make sense of how some red (and white) non-sparkling or still wines can feel carbonated.
Usually, when your still red wine feels carbonated, it might have undergone a second, unintentional fermentation. Champagne producers count on second fermentation, but ‘still’ red winemakers never do.
The winemaker may have misjudged the fermentation process and thought it stopped, bottling the wine too ‘young.’ Unfortunately, the yeast didn’t finish its job and slipped into the bottles and continued to ferment and produce carbon dioxide (CO2).
Other times, too much residual sugar slipped through, and opportunistic yeast used this opportunity to consume the rest of the sugar and produce CO2. In both these cases, there’s not much to worry about. Technically, a little bit of carbonation won’t hurt you.
However, if some extra residual sugar slipped in, the active yeast fed on it produces some fizz. The wine will probably also have a slightly elevated alcohol content level. Thank you, microorganisms!
When you notice your wine doesn’t taste the way it should, those adorable little yeast microorganisms might have ruined it. We’re sorry, but it can happen.
Suppose you’re okay with a slightly altered wine. In that case, you can safely drink it, but the moment you feel sick, stop drinking immediately and get to a doctor or the hospital. If you can, take the bottle of wine with you because they can send a sample to the lab to identify the intruder that made you sick.
If it was an expensive bottle of red wine, you can close it up and speak to your wine store’s owner for a replacement or refund—depending on how reasonable they are.
Of course, you can send the bottle back if you are at a restaurant. Their sommelier will thank you for picking up on a wine flaw potentially hiding in their cellar.
This is a ‘baby’ wine. Some people think Beaujolais Nouveau is a scam, a sneaky marketing ploy, while others think it is absolutely fabulous.
All the reservations set aside. Producing and shipping 30 million bottles of wine within six to eight weeks from grapes that were still spending time in the vineyard takes some doing!
Let’s start at the beginning before we get too excited about this one… Initially, Beaujolais Nouveau was enjoyed by vineyard workers as an early-release wine to celebrate the end of the harvest and the next vintage being in production.
Gradually it appeared in Lyon at local cafés and restaurants and spread to other towns in the Beaujolais region. Then Paris caught on to this young wine. It became a competition to see which winemaker could deliver the first bottle to Paris.
It is a fruity red wine made from Gamay grapes and produced through carbonic maceration (you can read more about the process here). The wine Is bottled between six and eight weeks after harvest, so there’s a good chance it will have bubbles.
This is not a flaw but part of the process. Here’s a guide to finding the best bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Cool Temperatures During Bottling
Unfortunately, winemakers cannot order the weather when they get to the bottling stage. Occasionally, the spritz is a byproduct when wines, like German Rieslings, are bottled at cold temperatures.
The CO2 gas is temperature-sensitive, and when it is warmer, it turns into a gas much easier when compared to colder temperatures.
When winemakers bottle their wines in cooler, autumnal temperatures, the CO2 that was supposed to be released during fermentation does not reach its gaseous state. It becomes trapped in the bottle, and you might end up with a slight carbonation in your red wine.
Trapped CO2 is also a quirk of traditional winemaking processes and regions with cool, autumnal climates in countries like Germany.
The subtle fizziness isn’t necessarily a flaw—it can give the wine a more lively mouthfeel and help cut through fattiness in certain dishes. It is a matter of personal taste, and up to you whether you like it or not.
Special Types of Acidity
Sometimes, you can feel carbonation in the wine, but no bubbles are present. Sounds like magic, right? Some forms of acidity in red wine can create a sensation on the tongue that the wine was carbonated.
We’ll need a lot of terabytes of data and some chemists and biologists to explain this phenomenon, and we cannot do the subject justice here. Nitrogen sparging is sometimes used to remove residual CO2 from the wine and eliminate possible carbonation.
The result is richer, fruitier wines. Thank heavens for scientists in the wine industry!
When To Avoid Wine That Feels Fizzy
As we’ve seen earlier, sometimes an unintentional second fermentation happens inside the bottle due to poor winemaking. An open bottle of red wine will still be fine to drink within a week or two, but a bubbly one won’t be safe.
You might also notice a yeasty smell, or in worse cases, a sharp smell like nail polish remover or a sour smell like vinegar. Anne Puckette, from Wine Folly, writes that these odors are caused by “chemical reactions from the wine being exposed to heat and oxygen which causes bacteria to grow that produce acetic acid and acetaldehyde.”
The tiny bubbles are also a sign that your wine isn’t drinkable any longer. When an open bottle of wine is exposed to air, wild yeasts can start colonizing the wine and cause a second, yet unplanned, fermentation.
Of course, you’ve just created your own sparkling wine, but it ain’t Champagne, and it’s going to have a sour taste. The best advice in this scenario: chuck the wine out.
But before you throw the spoiled wine out, taste and smell it and take note of the taste and aromas. A little bit of spoiled wine won’t hurt you, but drinking it might send you to the ER with food poisoning.
The reason we encourage you to taste and smell is so that you can pick out the tell-tale signs of a wine that’s gone wrong. You’ll be able to identify it more accurately next time. It won’t hurt you, so why not use this learning curve to your advantage?
Here are some other signs that your wine has gone bad.
Sometimes when a wine feels fizzy and bubbly, it is because the yeast was enjoying its job so much that it ended up in a sealed bottle of wine and continued its work.
But all jokes aside. A slight carbonation in your red wine should not be something you need to worry about if the wine still tastes and smells like it is supposed to.
Young bottles of wine that tricked the winemaker into thinking that fermentation has completely stopped before bottling can sometimes have a slightly carbonated feel to them.
Nouveau Beaujolais is a prime example of a young wine that can still have residual sugars and the fermentation process carried on in the bottle.