‘Tis the season to imbibe bubbly! With so many holidays at the end of the year, late December is all about popping bottles and clinking glasses. Nothing says celebration like effervescent wines in pretty flutes, and though Champagne and its fizzy friends are enshrouded with an air of luxury, there are more affordable and accessible brands to enjoy than ever before.
As you peruse the aisles of your favorite wine and spirits shop, you’re likely to come across a number of varieties of sparklers, all dressed up in their handsome, heavy bottles and sealed with sturdy foil wrappers. Aside from sophisticated designs, these bottles’ labels offer helpful information, some of which may be familiar, and some that might be more enigmatic. Here are some tips on how to decode these bottles so you can choose the perfect sparkling wine for any occasion:
This is the most well known and, arguably, the most glamorous of the sparkling wine family. Any bottle that is labeled “Champagne” must by law come from the Champagne region in the northeast of France, about 100 miles from Paris. This area has had a reputation for fine wine production since the Middle Ages, and some of the brands that are still famous today, such as Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, were founded as early as the mid-1700’s.
Champagnes are primarily made from white Chardonnay, Pinot noir or Pinot Meunier grapes. Though you may think of the latter two as red wine grapes, the gentle pressing methods used to make Champagne does not allow their dark skins to enter the fermentation process. Traditionally, Champagne is matured for between 1.5 and 3 years before undergoing a process where the yeast is frozen in the neck of the bottles and forced out before corked and packaged for sale.
Other terms to know:
- Vintage: This is the year in which the grapes which make a wine, in this case Champagne, were harvested. French law states that any wine listed with a vintage must be made from at least 80% grapes from that year. Many more inexpensive Champagnes are non-vintage (often denoted as NV on the label), meaning they are comprised of a blend of vintages from two or more years.
- Brut: This refers to the level of dryness versus sweetness of the champagne. Champagne and other sparklers undergo secondary fermentation, meaning a bit of sugar is added to the wine (often right in the bottle) before it’s sealed, causing natural carbonation. Brut is a term that denotes less than 12 grams of sugar per liter. Extra Brut means less than six grams, Extra Dry means between 12 and 17 grams, and Sec denotes between 17 and 32 grams of sugar. There are also Demi-Sec and Doux, which are both extremely sweet, and are practically impossible to find in most wine shops in the U.S.
- Cuvée de prestige: This refers to a proprietary blend of wine that represents the best that the producer has to offer.
- Biologique: This is the French term for organic production methods.
Perhaps the second best known sparkler, Prosecco is Italian white wine made in the Veneto region. While there are non-sparkling versions of Prosecco, the fizzy version is typically what you’ll encounter in wine shops and restaurants, or at gatherings. Prosecco is made from Glera grapes, sometimes blended with a bit of another variety, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Grigio. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco does not age well and should be enjoyed as fresh as possible. While Champagne is often praised for a complex bouquet of aromas and flavors, Prosecco is usually more straightforward, with a clean, light taste that works well in punch and sparkling cocktails.
Other terms to know:
- Col Fondo: This is a customary practice which is being revived by some Prosecco winemakers. Prosecco Col Fondo is fermented in the bottle, but the spent yeast (or “lees”) is not filtered or thrown out. The yeast leaves a sediment in the bottom of the bottle and imparts a more complex taste.
- Charmat method: Also called the tank method, this refers to the way Prosecco is transferred to large steel tanks to undergo secondary fermentation. This is an efficient and inexpensive practice, which helps to keep the price of Prosecco reasonable.
- Perlage: This word refers to the bubbles in Prosecco. There is spumante, the bubbliest, frizzante, with medium bubbles, and tranquillo, which has no carbonation.
Cava (which means “cave” or “cellar”) is a sparkling wine produced in the Catalonia region of Spain, primarily in the Penedès area. It’s most often made from macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo grapes varieties. A common brand of Cava is Freixenet. To be labeled as “Cava,” these wines must be made using the traditional method, or méthode classique, where yeast is added directly to the bottle for the secondary fermentation process.
Other terms to know:
- Rosé: Cava comes in either white or rosé versions. Rosé, light pink in color and a bit softer in taste, is made with the addition of a small amount of still red wine, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Garnacha, added to the white wine. While old fashioned pink wine was often sickly sweet, modern sparkling rosé can be tart, fruity, balanced and extremely drinkable.
- “Aerated sparkling wine“: This refers to wines that are force carbonated, like soda, to produce CO2. Instead of pleasantly light and sparkling bubbles, this method produces large, volatile bubbles. This method is usually associated with very cheap sparkling wines and we recommend avoiding those when possible.
- Cava can range in sweetness from very dry to syrupy sweet. The terms used are brut nature (dryest), brut, brut reserve, seco, semiseco, and dulce (sweetest).
Portugal is famous for its refreshing white wine, Vinho Verde, but the country also produces a fair amount of Espumante, Portuguese sparkling wine. The level of quality can greatly vary; look for bottles from the Bairrada region and the Távora-Varosa sub region for top quality. Also, be on the lookout for the phrase ” VEQPRD” which stands for Vinho Espumante de Qualidade Produzido em Região Determinada. This means the wine has been certified as a quality Espumante by the DOC Bairrada, an organization which regulates wines from that area.
What are your favorite sparkling wines? Let us know in the comments!