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Sparkling Wine Guide

Too often Champagne and other sparkling wines are relegated to weddings and holidays, and otherwise ignored. While their festive, bubbly deliciousness certainly augments those occasions, they also make a fantastic everyday libation that is a great match with food. In this guide to sparkling wine, we’ll review the most common types of sparkling wine and the differences among them, starting with the consensus champion of them all, Champagne.

All Things Champagne

For a very long time U.S. labeling laws were quite lax about regulating the use of European place names on American wines. Terms like Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne were commonly implemented, even though the wines thus described were often nothing like the originals. This oversight has been somewhat corrected, but habits were created, and habits can be hard to break. That’s why so many people casually use the term Champagne to refer to any sparkling wine at all. But that definitely is not accurate.

What Is Champagne?

Champagne is sparkling wine made in the traditional method (often called the Champagne method), in which the second fermentation takes place inside a sealed bottle. CO₂, one of the primary byproducts of fermentation, has nowhere to go and so becomes dissolved in the wine. This of course is how the bubbles form. But production method is not the only criterion for what can legally be called Champagne; location is also vital.

What Does Champagne Taste Like?

Have you ever noticed that Champagne smells like fresh baked bread? This distinct quality and delicious flavor occurs because it is made in the Traditional Method. In the Traditional Method, the secondary fermentation (in which bubbles are created) takes place inside the bottle and allows the liquid to have more contact with the yeast (aka the "lees"). This subtle nuance differentiates Champagne from many of the other types of sparkling wine, giving it a creamy luxuriousness not found in other bubbly.

Where Is Champagne Made?

Champagne can only come from the region of the same name in northern France, and it is only made from one or a combination of these three grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (as a geeky aside, four other grapes of historical relevance are also permitted, but their use is very rare).

If 100% Chardonnay, the Champagne is a blanc de blancs (white of whites); these can show great elegance and finesse. A blanc de noirs (white of blacks) is white Champagne made exclusively from one or both of the red grapes. These are often richer and more full-bodied than blanc de blancs. Rosé Champagne is produced by adding red base wine to white until the desired color is achieved. This occurs before second fermentation and is one of very few times in the world of winemaking that any type of Rosé is made this way.

The vast majority of a Champagne house’s production is non-vintage, or NV, meaning the base wine (the term used to describe the wine before the second fermentation) is a blend of lots from multiple vintages, principally from the past three years or so. The immense skill of the winemaker is evident in the remarkable consistency these NV versions display from year to year. In very good years, which may occur a few times a decade, the houses “declare a vintage” and set aside certain lots for the purpose of making a vintage Champagne, with all of the juice coming from that same year. Additionally, producers will utilize the best fruit from the best vineyards for their finest offering. These are called a prestige cuvée or tête de cuvée, and they most often are also a single vintage. A well-known example is Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon.

Another key differentiator in Champagne production is aging. By law NV bottles must age for a minimum of 15 months before release, with at least 12 months resting on the spent yeast cells (aka lees) left in the bottle after that second fermentation. This is known as sur lie aging, and many houses significantly exceed that 15-month requirement. The effect of this practice is profound. The lees impart wonderful flavor and textural complexity to Champagne, lending bready, biscuit-like notes and a creamy mouthfeel that provides delightful counterpoint to Champagne’s high acidity. For vintage Champagnes the minimum is three years aging, although once again most houses exceed that number.

Before bottling, of course, the lees have to be removed for the sake of clarity. This is called disgorging, and since a bit of Champagne is lost in the process, the bottle must be topped up with reserve wine, called liqueur d’expédition. The winemaker will add enough sugar (called dosage) to the liqueur to reach the desired level of sweetness for the final product.

Champagne Sweetness Levels

  • Brut Nature: 0.3% sugar
  • Extra Brut: 0 to 0.6% sugar
  • Brut: less than 1.2% sugar
  • Extra Dry: 1.2 to 1.7% sugar
  • Sec: 1.7 to 3.2% sugar
  • Demi-Sec: 3.2 to 5% sugar
  • Doux: 5% sugar or more

Champagne Prices

Champagne is the gold standard of sparkling wine. True, it can be pricy, especially as compared to some of the other bubblies we will discuss. Production is meticulous, labor-intensive and time-consuming, and therefore expensive. Plus, there is the prestige factor; these wines are some of the biggest “rock stars” of the wine world. But Champagne can be absolutely sublime, whether on its own or on the dining table, and in fact is one of the most flexible food wines you will find. Champagne has major real estate value, so you may notice a higher price tag when compared to other sparkling wines throughout the world. Don’t let that hold you back – the magical combination of soil, climate, grape and traditional winemaking promises to delight your taste buds in a way no other sparkling wine will.

When to Drink Champagne

Champagne is the classic for toasting big events, but don't discount its ability to be a partner in a meal. Champagne, especially as it gets older, pairs perfectly throughout a meal of many courses and flavors. Keep up your Champagne toasts, but also try making this a partner at your dinner table.

OTHER TRADITIONAL METHOD SPARKLING WINES

Many other sparkling wines are made using the traditional method, with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle. These are common examples:

Cremant

These are French versions made in regions other than Champagne. In the most basic terms, Cremant is sparkling wine made in France outside of Champagne. Widely available examples include Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Loire, and Cremant de Bourgogne. These can be quite tasty and often represent terrific values. These sparkling wines are also made in the Traditional Method but from grape varieties grown in their respective regions. Cremant de Bourgogne, for example, is made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (the same as Champagne), making it a perfect substitute. Best of all, Cremant are a great value!

Cava

Cava is from Spain, and unlike Champagne and Prosecco, Cava is not just one appellation. Cava refers to all of the sparkling wine in Spain. This type of sparkling wine also ranks high on the value scale. Cava, like Prosecco, is budget-friendly. This is because it is produced all over Spain (and not restricted to one, small region). Many of the best are made in Penedes, near Barcelona. While not as complex or elegant as Champagne, Cava’s delightful drinkability and sheer bang for the buck is hard to beat.

Cava is made by the Traditional Method, like Champagne. But given the different climate, and the use of local Spanish grape varieties, Cava has its own unique taste. Relative to Champagne, Cava typically has less bready-notes and less acidity. Relative to Prosecco, Cava has a bit more body. This makes for a balanced and easy-drinking sparkling wine. Cava is ready to drink whenever you are. Because of its balanced profile, it pairs well with food and also drinks well on its own. Make it your new weekday sparkler or party opener.

Cava is ready to drink whenever you are. Because of its balanced profile, it pairs well with food and also drinks well on its own. Make it your new weekday sparkler or party opener.

Franciacorta

A terrific sparkling wine from Lombardy in Italy that is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sometimes Pinot Blanc.

Other fine examples can be found throughout the world. California, Oregon, South Africa, Australia and others produce delicious traditional sparklers of their own.

TANK METHOD SPARKLING WINES

A far more cost-effective production process is the tank method, also called the Charmat method, in which the wine goes through secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks. Such wines receive far less lees influence and therefore have very little of that classic bready quality. While less complex, they carry an appealing fruitiness and are a fine choice for mimosas and bellinis. Here are a few:

Prosecco

Prosecco is an appellation in the north east corner of Italy. Similar to Champagne, only wines made there can be called Prosecco. The most famous sparkling wine example, made from the Glera grape in Italy’s Veneto region. Usually dry to off-dry. The best examples, often from Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, are delightful. Prosecco is produced in the Tank Method, meaning it's literally made by the tank (rather than by the bottle, like Champagne). This reduces the contact that the liquid has with the lees, and instead of creating bready-notes it enhances the fruit flavors. People often confuse the fruitiness with sweetness, but most Prosecco actually has a similar amount of sugar as Champagne. If you do want a sweeter bottle, look for "Extra Brut" on the label (which is sweeter than just "Brut").

Prosecco is significantly less expensive than Champagne because of the way it's made. Much of the Prosecco production process happens in bulk, allowing for economies of scale - but that doesn't mean Prosecco is of lesser quality! Look for Prosecco Superiore for the extra-fine bottles.

Prosecco's light and fruity flavors pair well with spicy foods and warm days. It's also the classic mimosa-mixer due to its friendly price.

Asti Spumante

From Piedmont, on the other side of northern Italy. These tend to be sweeter, lower in alcohol and more aromatic. As with Prosecco, tasty and inexpensive versions can readily be found.

Sekt

Inexpensive versions of this German bubbly are made via Charmat, although a few premium examples do rely on the traditional method.

New World Sparkling Wine

The best quality sparkling wine made in "New World" regions are made with the same grapes and in the same method as Champagne. Top producing regions include California (Sonoma, Napa and Anderson Valley in particular), Australia (Yarra Valley and Tasmania) and a few gems in South Africa and Oregon as well! While they are not actual Champagne, they are often a value version with their own unique sense of place.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Whatever your budget, palate or occasion, there is a sparkling wine for you! Practically a requirement for special occasions, sparklers also make a fine aperitif and match up wonderfully with more dishes than we have space to list. Grab some friends, open some bubbles and raise your glasses. Cheers!

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