There is something magical about the sound of a popping cork and then the fizz as the delicious liquid makes its way into your glass. It typically signifies a celebration of some sort — an engagement, a wedding, the beginning of the New Year — or even a Tuesday night at home! Sparkling wines are fun to drink any time, and add a festive feel to whatever you are doing.
We all casually use the word Champagne to describe the bubbly beverage, but have you ever stopped to think about what Champagne really means? Is it different than sparkling wine? Are they the same? The simple answer is that Champagne refers to one type of sparkling wine, but there are a world of other options, all with different names – and price tags. You’ve probably heard the saying that “all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne,” and now it’s time to find out why.
Champagne is probably the most well known (and the most misunderstood) of all sparkling wines. There are strict guidelines that must be followed in order to call a sparkling wine Champagne. True Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. It can only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes. It also must be made only by the Methode Champenoise process. The easiest and quickest way to explain the Methode Champenoise process is that it is a secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle. A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the base wine and then capped with a bottle cap similar to one on a beer bottle. The yeast acts on the sugar and the resulting carbon dioxide remains trapped in the bottle. At the end of this process (which can last a few months or even years) the cap is removed and replaced with the traditional cork and wire cage. There are less expensive ways to create sparkling wine, including carbonating wine after it is made in a manner similar to carbonating soda and other methods, described below. Methode Champenoise is considered the highest quality, and is usually indicated on the bottle.
There are two main styles of Champagne, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs. The difference being that Blanc de Blancs is made from 100% Chardonnay, where as Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two. Champagne has several different levels of sweetness. From driest to sweetest they are: Ultra Brut (no added sugar/dosage), Brut (dry with no perception of sweetness), Extra Dry (off dry and slightly sweet), Sec (noticeably sweet), Demi-Sec (sweet) and Doux (super sweet). Brut is by far the most common style of Champagne that you will find. Typical flavors and aromas of Champagne are citrus, peach, white cherry, bread dough, toast and almond.
Crémant is sparkling wine that is made outside the region of Champagne in France, but is still produced using the Methode Champenoise. There are seven regions in France that can produce crémant. A few notable regions are Alsace and Limoux. Crémant can be made with more than the three required grape varietals of Champagne, however, each region has its own rules and regulations on what grapes can be used. Given the variety of grapes that can be used, it is a little difficult to find a standard flavor profile for crémant.
Prosecco hails from the Veneto region of northern Italy. It must be made from 100% Glera grapes and in a process that is called the Charmat method. The Charmat method is similar to Methode Champenoise except that the secondary fermentation occurs in a stainless steel tank and not in the bottle. This is what allows the fruitiness of Prosecco to shine as well as keep the cost significantly lower than Champagne. Prosecco typically ranges from dry to slightly sweet. Look for aromas and flavors of green apple, pear, honeysuckle, honeydew melon and cream.
Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine. According to Spanish law, cava may be produced in eight wine regions, with Catalonia being the most popular. It can only be made with Macabeu, Parallada, Xarello, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Subirat grapes. It must also be made using the Methode Champenoise process. Cava remains relatively inexpensive in price because of the technology used during the production process. Cava is not usually as fruity as Prosecco, or as yeasty as Champagne, falling somewhere in between the two.
American Sparkling Wine
There is a bounty of American sparkling wine out there. California, New York and New Mexico are just a few of the states producing sparkling wine. With no legal definition of a specific production process or grape varietals that must be used, it is a challenge to describe what you should expect to find in the bottle. French owned sparkling houses tend to stick to the methods used in France, as do other, higher end brands. It’s best to read the label and get as much information as possible from it. In the end, you can always ask your Oliver’s Wine Department specialist for advice.
How to Open and Serve Bubbles
Opening a bottle of bubbly can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Untwist the bottom part of the wire cage, but do not remove it completely. Place one hand over the cork and cage and press down firmly while you slowly twist the bottle with your other hand. The pressure from the carbonation will loosen the cork and slowly start to push it out. Slowly let the cork come out so that the pressure releases with a sigh. You can also place a napkin or dishtowel over the cork for extra protection if desired.
Make sure your bottle of bubbly is properly chilled for maximum enjoyment. Pop it in the freezer for about an hour, the refrigerator for three hours, or a bucket of half ice and half water for about a half hour before serving.
There are two types of stemware that are most ideal for serving sparkling wine, though any nice wine glass will do. The skinny Champagne flute, or a tulip shaped flute are the most popular options. The only real difference is that the tulip shaped flute will allow you to better smell and taste the wine.
There is a perfect sparkling wine out there for any occasion and budget. Now that you know the basics of bubbly from around the world, it’s time to pop a cork and enjoy some!