That effervescence! The vivacity of sparkling wine evokes thoughts of celebration, aperitifs, and long Sunday brunches. But is what we’re drinking called Champagne? Prosecco? Cava? Sekt? What are the differences? How can you tell them apart and how do those bubbles get in the bottle in the first place?
First off, it’s all sparkling wine! Yes, Champagne and Prosecco are both sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine are Champagne or Prosecco. It depends on where it comes from, how it’s made, and which grapes are used.
Let’s start with how it gets its fizz. In short, sparkling wine is wine with bubbles. It is potentially the most technical of wines as it goes through two different fermentations. The first fermentation is to make a still wine while the second fermentation produces the bubbles, ie carbonation. A little bit of chemistry: in the first fermentation crushed grapes are combined with yeast, the yeasts eat the natural sugars from the grapes, and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is done in open top fermenters for the carbon dioxide to escape, and a-ha: still wine! In the second fermentation more yeast and sugar are added to the still wine in a closed container. The carbon dioxide can’t escape and therefore is absorbed into the wine creating the bubbles and increased pressure.
The most common types of sparkling wine production are “Traditional Method” (termed Méthode Champenoise in Champagne) and the “Charmat” or “Tank method” popularized by its association with Prosecco.
The Traditional Method requires the secondary fermentation to occur inside the bottle and produces wines with more pressure (around 6 atmospheres). The wine then spends time aging on its lees (dead yeast cells) which imparts more aromas and flavors of brioche and nuts along with textural richness. The bottled wines are then disgorged (meaning the removal of the lees to leave a clear liquid) and receive their dosage – a blend of wine and sugar which determines the sweetness level of the finished product.
Around the turn of the 20th century the Charmat Method was developed, where the secondary fermentation happens in a large tank rather than in a bottle, causing the tank to pressurize (to around 3 atmospheres). The wine is then chilled to halt fermentation, filtered, and dosage may be added. As minimal lees contact occurs these wines retain more fresh fruit flavors and aromas.
Is one method better than the other? Not necessarily – it all depends on your preference!
What’s in a name?
Champagne and Crémant: Simply put, for a wine to be called Champagne it must come from the Champagne region of France, just an hour from Paris. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier are the principal grapes used in the region. That’s it: nothing else can legally be called Champagne. If it comes from another region of France, it may only be labelled Crémant. Crémants are made similarly to champagne by the “traditional method” so look out for this style from all over France. They can be great value and delicious. Pair with shellfish, anything fried, and, yes, popcorn!
Prosecco: Prosecco comes from northeast Italy near the town of Treviso, about thirty minutes from Venice, and is produced throughout the Veneto region. Glera is the name of the grape used (it actually used to be called Prosecco) and is a variety with flower and tropical fruit aromas – think melon, pineapple and honeysuckle. Generally, it’s produced via the Charmat method and leans more toward the sweeter end of the spectrum. Quality can vary so look for those with regional designations (DOCG on the label denotes a superior appellation). The best ones come from the hilly region between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Try Prosecco on its own, with cured meats, or with spicy dishes!
Cava: Cava may be made in much of Spain but most of the production is focused in Penedes, in the region of Catalonia, roughly an hour from Barcelona. Here the grapes used are Spanish white varieties Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo; although in Reserva bottlings you may see Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being used. Just like Champagne, Cava is produced by the traditional method, and the wines are required to be aged on the lees imparting toasty, nutty characters alongside the fruit characteristics of those indigenous varieties. The best examples represent a good alternative to Champagne but at a more modest price. Try it with salty and fried foods, and (naturally) Tapas!
Sparking wine all over the world: Almost every wine-producing country makes a sparkling wine. Most use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as in Champagne, but other grapes can be used such as Riesling in German Sekt or Pinot Bianco in Italy’s Franciacorta. Try examples from California and Oregon in the US, New Zealand, or South Africa. Even English sparkling wine is on the rise!
One final thought: bubbles aren’t just for special occasions, they are perfect any time!