The Serious Eats Guide to Sparkling Wine
There's no rule that you can't sip on sparkling wine throughout the year (in fact, we encourage it!) but the holiday season practically requires a little bubbly. Once upon a time there was only Champagne, the king of bubbles, to consider, but now there are so many great options that we wanted to give you the run-down on the who, what, where and why. Sparkling wine is made all over the world, and all of the different regions, grapes, and methods of production can be a bit daunting, so we have endeavored to bring you a quick and easy guide to the differences between bottles of bubbly. Let's start popping corks!
How to Open Sparkling Wine
Step one: don't be afraid! The worst thing that can happen is a little fizz overflow, so take it slow (and don't be embarrassed to open a bottle over the sink or to have some glasses nearby to capture any errant bubbles).
Most sparkling wines have a metal wire over the cork to hold it secure against the pressure in the bottle—this is called the cage. Start by untwisting the bottom part of the cage, but do not remove it completely. Put one hand over the top of the cork (and cage) and press down firmly while you slowly turn the bottle with your other hand. The cork will loosen and the pressure from the carbonation will begin to push it out. Keeping cool, slowly let the cork come out so that the pressure releases with a sigh.
By the way, don't point the bottle at anyone at any time during this procedure, unless you really don't like 'em.
The skinny Champagne flute might be the obvious choice, and it is specifically designed to keep the bubbles flowing prettily in your glass. Pretty is as pretty does (and we do like the sensation of the bubbles (or mousse, as the wine-snobs call it) in our mouths), but a tulip-shaped wine glass or dessert wine glass with a slightly larger bowl will allow you to better smell (and taste!) the wine.
That super-cute coupe cup? Unless you are recreating Coppola's Marie Antoinette, skip it: the bubbles will disappear almost instantly and it's just begging for spills.
Stop It Up
We are all for bubble on special occasions and sharing bottles of fizz with friends, but if you're craving a weeknight glass or just want a single glass before dinner, go on ahead and do it, because you don't need to finish the bottle. Champagne stoppers (like this one) lock into place using the fat lip on the rim of the bottle to keep the pressure—and the precious bubbles—in place. Sparkling wine can keep at least a week this way in the fridge.
Some people may use the word Champagne to mean any sort of fizzy wine, but it is actually a specific region in France east of Paris. Champagne can be made from three grapes: the white chardonnay and the red-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier. The grapes won't be named on the label, but you may see the terms "blanc de blancs" which means that the wine is made exclusively from white grapes, or "blanc de noirs", indicating that the Champagne is a white wine made from the dark pinot noir and pinot meunier varieties.
Three different grapes used in different quantities means that Champagne varies widely. Chardonnay makes crisp, elegant base wines for Champagne, sometimes with hints of lime, lemon, and tropical fruit. Pinot noir adds structure and delicious red-berry flavors (yes, even in white-colored Champagne), while pinot meunier rounds it all out with richness, earthiness, and herbal flavors.
The Champagne region is notorious for cool weather that makes it difficult for the grapes to get fully ripe, but this is actually perfect for making sparkling wine in the traditional method (also known as the méthode champenoise), which is a labor-intensive, multi-step process. (This is part of why Champagne's so pricey.) The somewhat underripe grapes are first fermented to make a normal still wine with pretty low alcohol—around 10%. This wine then is bottled and undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle (the very bottle that comes home with you from the store). At this point, a little yeast and (generally) a small amount sugar is added to each bottle of still wine to get a second fermentation started. The bottle is closed with a crown cap (like a beer cap). The yeast converts the added sugar into alcohol, and since the bottle is capped, the carbon dioxide that is naturally produced is captured and remains in the wine as bubbles.
The Champagne bottles are stored upright during the fermentation, but afterward, they have to go through a laborious process called riddling. Over the course of several weeks, the bottles are slowly, gradually turned and lowered until they are turned upside down. The goal is to get all of the spent yeast into the neck of the bottle so that it can be removed (otherwise, your Champagne would be cloudy and yeasty.)
But riddling doesn't happen right away—the longer the wine rests on the dead yeast (called the lees), the more flavor it will draw from them—the lees add richness and sometimes flavors that might remind you of bread or pastry. So sometimes the bottles are stored without riddling for years...better have lots of cellar space if you're a Champagne maker!
Riddling gets the yeast into the neck of the bottle—then it has to be removed. The necks of the bottles are frozen and, in a moment of organized chaos called disgorgement, the crown cap on the bottle is popped off and the pressure that has built up in the wine pushes out the frozen yeast deposit. The bottle is topped off with some wine and sugar (the dosage) before being corked and muzzled with the wire cage.
Whew. It's a long process. See why Champagne is so pricey? That said, Champagne offers one of the best, most delicious and complex wine experiences you can have. If you're looking for a good value, look for Champagnes from smaller producers who grow their own grapes. These grower champagnes are marked with a small RM on the label. Don't expect to make out much under $40, but if you want a splurge, the growers will get you the most bang for your buck.
One more tip: That last bit of sugar and wine dictates how sweet the final Champagne will be. Want to know what you're getting? Look for these words on the labels:
Brut Nature/Brut Zero: Bone dry. Generally this phrase means that no sugar has been added.
Extra Brut: very dry
Brut: very dry to dry
Extra-Sec or Extra-Dry: off-dry to medium dry
Sec: medium dry
Doux: luscious, super-sweet
A few recommended small producers: Pierre Moncuit, Pehu-Simonet, Gaston Chiquet, Joël Falmet, Pierre Peters.
More Widely Available: Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Charles Heidsieck.
For more on Champagne, check out our guide to the best value in NV Champagne here.
Spain's contribution to the sparkling wine scene, Cava is a fresh, dry wine from grapes such as Xarel-lo, macabeo, parellada and occasionally Chardonnay. It is mostly produced in the Catalan region, but can come from other areas in Spain, too. Cava is made using the traditional method like Champagne, except than instead of hand-riddling as described above, most Cava producers have a fancy machine to do it for them and cut down on the cost for you, making it much less expensive. Cava tends to be drier and less fruity than the similarly priced Prosecco. Expect flavors of green apples with a hint of smoke if you're lucky.
A few recommended bottles: Elyssia Gran Cuvée Brut, Cellar Vilafranca "Casteller" Cava Brut, Jaume Serra Cristalino.
For more on Cava, check out our Amateur Wine Taste-Along.
Prosecco has earned a reputation as an affordable alternative to Champagne. But this Italian bubbly is generally not made the same way as Champagne and Cava.
Instead, it's generally made using the tank (or Charmat) method—the second, bubble-producing fermentation takes place in large tanks and the finished sparkling wine is then bottled under pressure. The tank method is less labor-intensive (no riddling, no flying ice pellets) and thus less expensive, but the bubbles tend to be bigger and can attack your tongue harshly. The tank also doesn't encourage complex flavors, making Prosecco a better choice for casual sipping.
Prosecco is made from the prosecco grape and has a fruity, even sweet flavor. The amount of residual sugar (that is, sugar that is not converted into alcohol during fermentation) is usually mentioned on the label. You'll usually see Brut (dry to off-dry) and Extra-Dry (off-dry) in your local store. There are plenty of inexpensive Prosecco options around, but they aren't always up to par. Ask for advice to make sure that your bottle remains both cheap and cheerful.
Recommended Producers: Col Vetoraz, La Marca, Nino Franco.
Get more on prosecco and more picks in our Prosecco guide.
Moscato d'Asti and Friends
The Asti region in Piedmont, Italy is home to sparkling wines usually made from the moscato grape using a variation of the tank method. Moscato d'Asti isn't full-blown bubbly. Instead, it's frizzante—softly bubbly and frothy, with a pleasant sweetness and low alcohol maxing out at 5.5% (less than half of what's in Champagne). The wine is known for its peachy aromas, and the delicate sweetness makes it perfect for pairing with treats such as cookies or cheesecake.
Asti, formerly known as Asti Spumante, is also made with the moscato grape. It has more bubbles and slightly higher alcohol than Moscato d'Asti, but is still quite sweet and not as complex.
For the basic Moscato, we enjoy the Maschio Cadoro Muscat Puglia IGT. The mild, frothy bubbles and sweet confectionary taste is easy to drink and not at all cloying.
Another Italian export, Lambrusco is the name of both the grape and the wine found primarily in the Emilia-Romagna region. There are about 60 sub-varieties of the grape, each adding their own character to the finished wine. Lambrusco is perhaps most famous for its red bubbly, but can also be found in white and rosé forms. Most are made using the tank method like Prosecco, but some producers stick to the traditional method for a higher quality wine.
Lambrusco can be dry with a pleasant bitter tinge or have some sweetness, but labeling doesn't always make this clear, so check with your salesperson or use the magic of the internet to figure out what you're looking for. The sweeter versions are delicious as pre- or post-meal treats, or sipped along with dark chocolate desserts. A dry Lambrusco is especially delicious with a hearty ragu.
Recommended Bottles: Lini Lambrusca Rosso Emilia IGT, Lini 910 In Correggio Lambrusco Scuro Emilia IGT, Tenuta Pederzana Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC.
For more on Lambrusco, check out our Amateur Wine Taste-Along.
Sekt and other Austrian Sparklers
Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine. The vast majority of the wines are made using the tank method, but some traditional method wines can be found. Many different types of grapes can be used, particularly Riesling and pinot blanc in Germany, with local varieties like grüner veltliner and zweigelt being featured in Austria. These sparklers can sometimes be really good values, but they are few and far between on the American market and can have a higher price because of their rarity.
Bottles We've Tried: Nigl 2008 Brut de Brut rosé is a little pricey at $30, but it has delicious strawberry and crisp mineral flavors. Another of our favorite Austrian producers, Schloss Gobelsburg, makes a Brut Reserve has a nicely yeasty baked apple scent, but the bubbles are a little harsh for $36, so we might just stick with their delicious non-bubbly.
Crémant is the official term for sparkling wines from around France that are made the same way as Champagne but are not actually from the Champagne region. The different areas use local grapes to produce their wines, but they must follow strict rules about how the wines are made. The crémants that make it to our shores tend to float around $20 and offer great value for the price.
Crémant d'Alsace features local grapes like pinot blanc, pinot noir, pinot gris, riesling, auxerrois, and chardonnay to make aromatic sparklers with white peach and pearr flavors that have a particularly delicate bubble. The Blanc de Blancs Brut from Lucien Albrecht has sweet peach flavors up and a food-friendly salty side. The smooth bubbles makes this a steal for around $19.
Crémant de Bordeaux has very small production, and there are only a few producers coming stateside. The wines often include sémillon and sauvignon blanc. If you run into one it may be fun to try, but this is hardly the place to look for great sparkling wine.
Crémant de Bourgogne hails from Burgundy, right next door to Champagne, and features many similar grapes, making it a good alternative to its fancy neighbor. The JJ Vincent Crémant de Bourgogne Brut is made from chardonnay and has delicate flavors of buttered bread, holiday spices and quince paste, and runs around $19.
Crémant du Jura can offer some fun and wacky bubbles from local grapes like savagnin and poulsard, but many of the best are steely, mineral wines made with chardonnay and pinot noir.
Crémant de Loire comes from the Loire Valley regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, and frequently features the delicious but under-loved chenin blanc for fresh and affordable wines. We were quite impressed with the Langlois Brut Crémant de Loire (the house is owned by Bollinger from Champagne). Made with a mixture of chenin blanc, chardonnay and cabernet franc, the wine has silky bubbles and a hint of sweet candied lime rind. At $20, it's rockin'.
Crémant de Die is made in the southeast of France and can be a little tricky to find in the US. The basic crémant is a simple dry wine made from clairette. You are more likely to encounter—and perhaps more likely to enjoy—Clairette de Die Tradition, which is made primarily from muscat (the same grape as in the Italian Moscato) for a frothy, lightly sweet wine.
Crémant de Limoux is from the southern French Languedoc region. The bubbles are made from chenin blanc and chardonnay, with both pinot noir and the local mauzac grape allowed as well.
Other French Sparklers
Other French regions produce lovely sparkling wines that for various legal reasons do not fall under the Crémant category. Places such as Vouvray in the Loire Valley use their local grapes, particularly chenin blanc, for crisp and aromatic wines that are a terrific deal worth seeking it. For example, the Vigneau-Cheverau Vouvray Pétillant Brut NV is a refreshing sparkler made from organic chenin blanc grapes that we love with small bites and cheeses. It's around $19.
The Jura is also home to some wacky bubbles. The Bornard Tant-Mieux Vin de Table Pétillant Naturel Rosé is like adult soda with some sweet cherry and funky herbal notes from the local poulsard grape. It's around $26.
American Sparkling Wine
American sparkling wine is generally Champagne-inspired and can be everything from gross to great. Many of the top producers, particularly in California, were actually founded by Champagne houses (Domaine Carneros hails from Tattinger, Domaine Chandon from Moët et Chandon, Roederer Estate from Roederer). Many producers use the traditional, bottle-fermented method and will place "méthode traditionelle" or "méthode champenoise" on their labels.
Gruet, founded in New Mexico by a family from Champagne, makes a lovely traditional method NV Blanc de Noirs that smell like fresh-picked strawberries and sells for around $16. (And we actually prefer it over their more expensive vintage Blanc de Blancs.)
The NV Domaine Chandon Brut Classic from California has a fresh apple tangy flavor with a hint of sweetness on the mid-palate. It sells for around $17. From another California producer, the 2007 Domaine Carneros Brut has a rich white peach flavor, fine silky bubbles, and pleasant dry style. (It's around $23.) We've also long enjoyed the wines from Schramsberg in California, and though these tend to be a bit pricier, they're delicious.
On the other side of the country, Hermann J. Wiemer in the New York Finger Lakes region made a tasty traditional method Blanc de Noirs from pinot noir. The 2003 is still hanging around store shelves and offers fresh berry flavors with some lovely yeasty notes. It's a great excuse to try Champagne-style wine that's been aged a little bit.
Recommend Your Favorites!
Are you a fan of Cava or Prosecco? Have you tried Cremant or Sekt? Do you save your pennies for real Champagne? Got any favorite bottles you'll be sipping as this year comes to a close? Share them in the comments.
About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a winemonger and writer living in
Brooklyn Napa. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has contributed to Foodista, Palate Press and WineChap. Follow her on Twitter @chapsholic.