It’s the season of holiday soirées, family celebrations, and New Year’s toasts—in other words, sparkling wine season! Maybe you, like us in the Test Kitchen, already know and love this category of wines, but do you know the difference between Champagne and Prosecco? Whether you’re shopping for a wine and cheese spread for a holiday gathering or just want to learn some bubbly basics, prep yourself for that party with our lowdown on sparkling wine.
What is sparkling wine?
Most of the time, in order to make a sparkling wine, you need to start with a still wine, which has already been fermented once, and ferment it again. That second fermentation is what traps carbon dioxide in the wine, and can contribute to all sorts of exciting flavors (we’ll get into that in a minute). Most sparkling wines are made using one of two methods: the méthode traditionelle (aka “méthode Champenoise”), and the Tank Method (or “Charmat Method”).
As you may have guessed, the méthode traditionelle is how Champagne is made, as well as French Crémant, Spanish Cava, and Cap Classique in South Africa. In this process, the secondary fermentation happens in the wine bottle itself. As the wine ferments again, carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle and dead yeast cells (called “lees”) accumulate; then, the wine is aged anywhere from months to years. “Dead yeast cells” might not sound so appetizing, but trust us, lees are special, giving the finished bubbly a rich, creamy texture and flavors of toast, pastry, brioche, and nuts.
For sparkling wines made using the Tank Method, the second fermentation happens not in the bottle but in sealed, pressurized tanks. Carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine; then, the wine is filtered to remove sediment and bottled under pressure to preserve the bubbles. In comparison to sparkling wines made using the méthode traditionelle, tank fermented sparkling wines are usually more fruit-forward. Some classic examples are Italian Prosecco and and German Sekt.
What are a few examples of sparkling wines?
Sparkling wines are made in winegrowing regions throughout the world. Each region has different rules that dictate the grapes that can be used, the amount of aging required, and other winemaking practices that impact the style of the wine. You can find sparkling wines of all sweetness levels, from bone-dry to lusciously sweet dessert wines, as well as rosé and red sparklers. We won’t get into all of them here, but a few popular options include…
Arguably the king of sparkling wines, Champagne can only be made with the méthode Champenoise from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. Champagnes made with just Chardonnay grapes are labelled “Blanc de Blancs,” while wines made with just Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a combination of the two are labelled “Blanc de Noirs.” If you’re a rosé fan, you can find plenty of options in Champagne as well.
Because Champagne is name-protected, sparkling wines made outside of that region are required to call themselves by different names. Crémant is a category of French sparkling wines made using the méthode traditionelle in any region outside of Champagne in the country. Some examples to look for include Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, and Crémant de Jura. Each uses different grapes and has a slightly different style, but because all spend time aging on the lees, they share some of Champagne’s coveted flavors and creamy texture, making them excellent value-minded options for the price and quality.
Cava is a sparkling wine from Spain, most often Catalonia, that is typically made with three main grapes: Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello. Like Crémant, it is also made using the méthode traditionelle, making it a popular value alternative to Champagne. Typical flavors of this wine include citrus, apple blossom, pear, and almond.
A popular sparkling wine option, Prosecco comes from the Veneto region of Northern Italy and is made from Glera grapes. Made using the tank method, which is faster and cheaper than the Champagne method, Prosecco is often a very budget-friendly pick, with a classically crisp, clean taste and flavors of green apple, pear, honeysuckle, and cream.
What do “brut,” “demi-sec,” and “doux” mean on a wine bottle?
This refers to the sweetness of the wine. Sparkling wine with a “brut” label on the bottle means the wine is relatively dry (not sweet). You can also find “extra brut” sparkling wines, which have even less residual sugar. A “demi-sec” label means the wine is somewhat sweet, while “doux” indicates a sweet wine.
What is vintage and non-vintage sparkling wine?
Vintage sparkling wines are made from grapes harvested in a single year, which will be listed on the bottle. These wines aren’t necessarily better quality, but they are more expensive—vintage Champagnes, for example, are only produced every few years and require more aging than non-vintage bottles. Non-vintage sparkling wines are blended from grapes of multiple vintages, or years of harvest. These wines are often less expensive than vintage wines, but can still be very high quality.
How do you open a bottle of sparkling wine?
If you love hosting parties, one skill to master is the art of opening a bottle of sparkling wine.
First, remove the foil wrapping around the cork, then carefully untwist and remove the wire cage surrounding the cork. Then, grab a kitchen towel and place it over the cork, grasping the bottom of the bottle with one hand and the draped cork with the other hand. Tilt the bottle slightly at an angle (being sure to point it away from yourself and your company), then gently twist the base of the bottle (not the cork!). As you do this, you should feel the cork begin to loosen until it pops away from the bottle. You can control the volume of the “pop” by putting some gentle pressure back against the cork as you twist the base of the bottle.
How should you serve sparkling wine?
Sparkling wines are typically best served well-chilled, so be sure to store the bottle in the fridge several hours before you plan to serve it. When it comes to glassware, opt for Champagne flutes or regular white wine glasses to preserve the aromas, flavors, and fizz of the wine.
This article is intended for individuals 21-years-old and over. Please drink responsibly.
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