More than any other time of year, the holiday season is the time for bubbly. The challenge is the terminology around sparkling wine can be confusing. For example, and bubbly labeled “Extra Dry” is actually sweeter than one labeled “Brut”, which is the standard for dryness in sparkling wine. And since retailers are heavily promoting bubbly during the holidays, the myriad of choices can be overwhelming. How do you know which one to pick? I’ve been tasting sparkling wines from around the world and blogging about it in my “TGIF Champagne…and the like” on weekly basis for the last 10 months. That’s a lot of bubbly! I’ve learned a lot about bubbly along the way. Here’s a quick primer to help you navigate the sparkling wine landscape before you head out to the store this holiday season.
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Types of sparkling wines:
Champagne – Sparkling wines are produced all around the world, but due to a legal treaty, the term “champagne” is reserved exclusively for sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France (although thanks to being grandfathered in to a trade agreement between France and the US, Korbel refers to their sparkling wines as “California Champagne”) Champagne is widely regarded as the best sparkling wine. Most champagne producers have an entry-level champagne that falls in the $35-$45 range.
Cava – Sparkling wine produced in Spain using the traditional method. Typically made from grapes indigenous to Spain. Good to very good Cava can be found in the $10-$20 range.
Prosecco – Sparkling wine produced in Italy typically using the Bulk Charmat method. Asti is another Italian sparkler produced in the Asti region of Italy. Good to very good Prosecco can be found in the $10-20 range
Cremant – Sparkling wine produced in France outside of the Champagne region using the traditional method. This is where you’ll find more budget-friendly bubbly from France. Look for Crémant from Loire, Rhone, and Burgundy for good value.
Methods of producing sparkling wines
All sparkling wines begin life as still wines. Then they go through a secondary fermentation. Unlike still wines, which go through one fermentation, sparkling wines go through two fermentations.
When a wine undergoes secondary fermentation in tanks or vessels, that is known as the Bulk Charmat method (a.k.a. Metodo Italiano). When a wine undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, it is known as the Traditional Method. The Bulk Charmat method is a less expensive method of producing sparkling wines. However, the wine produced using the traditional method can be more complex with smaller, longer lasting bubbles.
Styles of sparkling wines:
Non-vintage (“NV”) – Most sparkling wine is a blend of wine from multiple vintages. Most of the base for the blend will be from a single vintage with typically anywhere from 10-15 % being from older vintages. If a producer determines the grape harvest from a particular year is exceptional, then they may produce a “vintage” sparkler using grapes harvested in that year only. Most sparkling wine producers produce a non-vintage bubbly because blending enable production of a consistent taste from year to year.
Blanc de Noirs – Sparkling wine produced exclusively from black grapes, such as Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier.
Blanc de Blancs – Sparkling wine produced exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. If someone on your list is a fan of Chardonnay look for this style.
Rosé – A sparkling wine produced by either leaving the clear juice from black grapes to soak in the own skins for a brief period of time, or by adding the juice adding a small amount of red wine to the blend thereby producing a pink bubbly. Rosés tend to be the most food friendly (and expensive) style of sparkling wine, though you can find some good ones for less than $20. Rose bubbly makes a great gift, and is a perennial top seller during the holidays because if its attractive hues hint at cranberris, holly berries and other seasonal ingredients.
Prestige Cuvée – In Champagne, a producer’s top of the line sparkler.
Sweetness of Sparkling Wine:
The amount of residual sugar in sparkling wine determines its sweetness. There are well-established guidelines for this. Starting from the driest (least amount of sugar) they are:
Brut nature, or sans dosage – no sugar added
Extra brut – very dry
Brut – Dry; the most popular style and probably the most food friendly
Extra Dry – Off dry; meaning sweeter than Brut, but not as sweet as “Sec”. These make very good aperitifs
Demi-sec – Sweet; pair with desserts or fruit
For specific suggestions of sparkling wines to try, check out these posts:
Top 10 Sparkling Wines Under $20
And the winner is…