Sparkling wine is surely one of the most misunderstood categories in the vinous universe. Since I started working in wine, not a week has gone by when I haven’t had some variation of the following exchange:
“Hi! I need to pick up a Champagne.”
“No problem! Did you want actual Champagne or a sparkling wine?”
I always feel obnoxious asking that question and I promise I’m not trying to parse words just to make some sort of snootified point. Champagne has become a byword for anything sparkling but it means something very specific, in style, region, price-point, and overall flavor. This isn’t to say non-Champagne sparkling wine is lacking. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just as Champagne has seen a renaissance in the last twenty years (more on why below), the range and quality of options when looking for bubbles not from the Champagne region of France has never been more impressive. With all those things in mind, and considering December is prime time for Bubbleheads, I thought I’d lay out the differences of the different options.
Ok, Obvious beginning. But Champagne is the mothersource. And, quite onestly, there has never been a better time to love France’s great contribution to celebration, N ew Year’s, and rap videos.
(Not So) Simple Truths:
Champagne is expensive. It’s an extremely labor intensive process which can and does yield near-magical results.
Champagne only refers to one region in France made in a very specific way (Méthode Champenoise). If it’s not made in the region of Champagne, and not made according to the exacting standards of the Méthode Champenoise, it cannot legally be called Champagne.
Most Champagne is classified as Non-Vintage. This is, in fact, a blend of many different vintages, usually towards the idea of creating a consistent house style.
Vintage Champagne comes from a single, presumably exceptional, vintage.
Tête de Cuvée is a Champagne house’s top wine, almost always from a single vintage.
Grower Champagne refers to Champagne made by the same people who farm the vineyards. Champagne has been, historically, dominated by large Maisons who own some land but mostly get their grapes from contract farmers (there are over 19,000 independent vignerons in Champagne). The 20th century saw the rise of a handful of vignerons turned producers, crafting often unique and compelling expressions of their particular terroirs.
10 out of 10 times, you’ll find me coming down firmly on the side of the farmer/winemaker. Across the wine world, small producers consistently produce at a much higher quality level than massive concerns. Champagne, however, is an interesting exception. There is a much smaller gap in quality between the big houses and the tiny, artisanal growers. If I were to list my top ten Champagnes, I’d bet it would be a split between large houses and small-scale vignerons, a statement I could never make for any other wine region.
Champagne, for me, is first and foremost about pleasure. The key question in selecting the right Champagne is what kind of pleasure are you looking for? Refined? Intellectual? Sumptuous? Decadent? Do you want the subtle, aristocratic leanings of a Pol Roger or the full fruit of a Charles Heidsieck? Are you intrigued by the cerebral complexity of a Jacques Lassaigne or the endearing largess of a Pierre Peters? A glass of good Champagne should light you up. My advice is don’t cut corners. If you don’t want to spend the money, there are a lot of other options out there (more on that below). In Champagne, you get what you pay for and the only thing you should absolutely insist is your experience is special.
Cremant (and Things like Cremant)
(Not So) Simple Truths:
Without getting into the confusing fact Cremant used to mean something different (it was a less fizzy style of sparkling wine), these days it means Sparkling wine made in the Méthode Champenoise in France but not Champagne. Thus, you have Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant de Loire, etc. It’s important to remember one of the factors which make Champagne so sublime is the use of noble varietals (aka grapes which possess the potential for greatness). In the case of Champagne, it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and, to a much lesser extent, Pinot Meunier. With Cremant de Bourgogne, you have Chardonnay and Pinot. With Loire, it’s usually Chenin Blanc. These are grapes which, in their still form, produce some of the most compelling wines in the world. It stands to reason the sparkling would be the same.
In Loire, in particular, there are some very compelling sparkling wines. Many of the top bottlings are in a style called Petillant. This, like Mousseux or the artist formally known as Cremant, are made with a lower atmosphere of pressure, thus are less aggressively effervescent. There is also an interesting sub-category called Petillant Naturel where the secondary fermentation (the process which makes the bubbles) is actually happening in the bottle, up to the moment of cork-popping.
There are also some high quality examples of American sparkling wine, many of which are made with the same cares as their French brethren.
Cremant (and Things like Cremant) are excellent alternatives to Champagne. The best examples sell for the price of the cheapest Champagne. The only Caveat Emptor is not all wines in this style are created equal. While there is no need to spend anywhere close to Champagne money, you should still be wary of suspiciously cheap Cremant.
(Not So) Simple Truths:
Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne….sort of. It is made in the same method as Champagne. This is to say it undergoes a secondary fermentation through the addition of yeast/sugar then the process of riddling (where the bottle is slowly turned so the dead yeast cells gather in the neck where it can be easily removed then quickly corked). This is where the similarities end.
Cava is not aged in bottle as long as Champagne. It is also not a specific geographic region but rather a style which can made in many, highly variable areas. There is, with a very few exceptions (Raventos being the most dynamic example), also not the tradition of quality or the same level of terroir. The grapes are also different. Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello pinch hit for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While there are certainly compelling attributes to the former, they can never match the potential of the later.
All this being said, it should be noted there is a movement, led by Pepe Raventos, to make a new appellation (Conca del Riu Anoia) meant to codify and elevate Spanish sparkling.
Cava is the sparkling wine for big parties. It’s great for all sorts of Brunch-related mixed drinks (Mimosa, Bellini, etc.). It is generally a very good value. Globally, there is a very wide range of quality levels (this is a nice way of saying there is an ocean of barely drinkable Cava in the world) but most of the Cava you’ll find in the United States is decent to good. Generally, expect straightforward, crisp, and very drinkable.
(Not So) Simple Truths:
Prosecco is made in a totally different style than everything else we’ve covered thus far. It is made in a method called Charmat. Instead of the secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle, it happens in giant stainless steel tanks.
Prosecco generally has a lower degree of alcohol and a softer effervescence. There is often, though not always, additional sugar present. Even when the wine is technically dry, it will often feel sweeter than other sparkling styles due to its fruitier nature.
While there are certainly advocates for more “serious” Prosecco, I, for one, relish its utter lack of self-regard. Prosecco should be light, easy, fresh, and fun. There are variations in quality, of course, but, like Cava, most of the Prosecco you’ll find in the States will be decent to good (though if you’re paying less than $10 for a bottle, be at least a little suspicious). Prosecco is perfect for gatherings. Throw Prosecco on a table and watch the bottles disappear.
Of course, there are number of sparkling styles I haven’t mentioned (Sekt and Lambrusco come immediately to mind) but I hope my little guide will help make your sparkling choices easier, now and in the future.