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A Guide to Sparkling Wine

‘Tis the season to toast with Champagne!

When you’re selecting that bottle of bubbly for your celebration there are many options besides the traditional French sparking wine.

Not sure what the differences are among all the varieties of bubbly? This guide will help explain why all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne.

Champagne

Champagne is sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. By national law and international treaty, only sparkling wines from this appellation may be called Champagne. There are more than one hundred Champagne houses and 19,000 smaller vine-growing producers in Champagne.

Champagne is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. With the dark skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the lack of skin contact during fermentation produces a white wine.  “Blanc de Blanc” Champagnes, meaning white from white, are made from 100% Chardonnay. “Blanc de Noir” Champagnes, meaning white from black, are made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or a mix of the two. Rosé Champagne is produced either by leaving the the skins of the black grapes in the juice for a brief time or by adding a small amount of still Pinot Noir red wine.

Champagne is made in the traditional method (Méthode Champenoise) where the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to give it carbonation. After at least a year and a half of aging (during which time the bottle is manipulated so the lees settle in the neck of the bottle), the neck is frozen and pressure forces out the ice containing the lees. After a small amount of syrup is added to maintain the liquid level, the bottle is quickly corked.

Most of the Champagne produced is non-vintage. Champagne houses will only make vintage Champagnes during exceptional years; these can generally age longer than non-vintage Champagnes and cost more. Vintage Champagnes must be composed of at least 85% of the grapes from that year.

Champagnes range from dry to sweet, as indicated on the label with the following terms: Brut Natural or Brut Zéro, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec or Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux.

Crémant

Crémant is sparkling wine from France that is not made in the Champagne region. There are seven appellations which include this designation in their name: Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant du Jura, Crémant de Limoux and Crémant de Loire.

Like Champagne, Crémant is made in the traditional method. It may contain one or a blend of several grapes, as not all grapes grow in all regions. The most common grapes include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

By French law, Crémant must be harvested by hand with yields not exceeding a set amount for each AOC. The wines must be aged for a minimum of one year.

Cava

Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine from the Penedès region in Catalonia. It is made in the traditional method with one or a blend of three Spanish varietals: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Subirat may also be used. Cava can be dry or sweet, as indicated by the term found on the label: brut nature, brut (extra dry), seco (dry), semiseco (medium) and dulce (sweet).

Prosecco

Prosecco is a sparking wine from the Veneto region in northeast Italy. It is made from the Prosecco grape and can be both fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante). Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is produced using the Charmat method in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks. This makes the wine less expensive to produce. Prosecco is labeled brut, extra dry or dry, depending on the level of sweetness (with dry having the most residual sugar).

Asti Spumanti

This slightly sweet sparkling wine comes from the Asti province in Piedmont, in northwest Italy. It is made from the Moscato grape and is low in alcohol (around 8%). This can be made in the traditional method, though usually Asti Spumanti is produced using the Charmat method. Moscato d’Asti is a lightly sparkling version of Asti. Both are often served with dessert or as an after dinner drink because of their sweetness.

Franciacorta

This sparkling wine comes from the Lombardy region in north central Italy. It is made in the traditional method predominantly from Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), and may contain a small amount of Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Non-vintage Franciacorta is aged for at least 18 months on lees, while vintage Franciacorta is aged for at least 30 months on lees. The sweetness is designated on the label using the same terms used for Champagne.

Sekt

Sekt is sparkling wine from Germany. About 95% is produced using the Charmat method, with just a small percentage made using the traditional method. Sekt is made from Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. Sometimes the wine used is imported from other western European countries.

New World Sparkling Wines

American sparkling wines may be produced in the traditional method or the Charmat method. California sparkling wines tend to be made from the Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are no minimum requirements for aging in the U.S. unlike in Champagne. Due in part to the state’s favorable climate and growing wine industry, several Champagne houses set up wineries in northern California including Moët et Chandon’s Domaine Chandon, Louis Roederer’s Roederer Estate and Taittinger‘s Domaine Carneros.

Australian sparkling wine is produced using either the traditional or Charmat method. It is made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, though sparkling Shiraz is gaining popularity.

Cap Classique is a South African sparkling wine produced using the traditional method. It is made most often from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, and less often from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Tips for serving sparkling wines:

Sparkling wine should be served cold (between 45 and 48 °F), and in a Champagne flute. The shorter and wider Victorian coupe is not as ideal because it lets the aromas escape and over-oxygenates the wine.

To open a bottle of sparkling wine without spillage, place your thumb on top of the cork, wrapping your fingers gently around the neck.  Hold the bottle at a 45 degree angle.  Using your other hand, twist the bottle to ease out the cork.  Make sure the bottle isn’t pointed at anyone in case the cork shoots out unexpectedly.