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Home | Wine Tasting 101 | Sparkling Wines - Home for the Holid . . .

Sparkling Wines - Home for the Holidays

With the holidays fast approaching, what better time to explore the world of sparkling wines.  The phrase sparkling wine (historically reserved solely for Champagne, the original and some would say only true sparkling wine); today embraces dozens of quality wines from around the globe.

Sparkling wine is called sparkling because of the presence of millions of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide that sparkle in the light.  The gas is the byproduct of the fermentation process, where sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide in the presence of yeast.  Fermentation can take place in the bottle (Méthode Champenoise) in large stainless steel tanks constructed to withstand the pressure, or carbon dioxide can be injected into the wine once fermentation is complete.  Sparkling wines are usually a blend of several wines and are either white or rose, although there are well known red sparkling wines as well.

The aromas and flavors of sparkling wines range from very yeasty to fruity, and sweetness varies from bone dry to sweet.  The styles of three popular sparkling wines are reviewed below, but remember, sparkling wines can be found in nearly all wine growing regions.


– In order to be called Champagne, this sparkling wine must be produced from grapes grown and vinified in the Champagne region of France.  Champagne can be made from any combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes.  Individual or “base” wines are made from each variety and then blended.  After bottling a small amount of sugar and yeast called the "liqueur de tirage" are added to the cuvée, the bottle sealed, and placed into racks where a second fermentation occurs producing the millions of tiny sparkling bubbles.  Once this secondary fermentation is complete, the yeast is removed and a small amount of sugar called the “dosage” may be added to adjust the dryness levels of the finished Champagne. 

Champagne styles reflect the amount of each base wine and added sugar.  Chardonnay adds acidity and aging ability, Pinot Noir adds fruit flavors and Pinot Meunier is known for its floral and fruit aromas.  Champagne produced entirely from Chardonnay is known as Blanc de Blanc.  Similarly Champagne from the two Pinots is known as Blanc de Noir, or white from blacks.  The amount of sweetness (residual sugar) in the finished product can be ascertained by the designations below.

·       Natural (Brut nature) – very dry, no added sugar

·       Extra Brut – very dry, less than 0.6% sugar

·       Brut – dry, less than 1.5% sugar (noticeable to 50% of consumers)

·       Extra Sec – dry, 1.2% to 2% sugar (noticeable to most consumers)

·       Sec – medium sweetness, 1.7% to 3.5% sugar

·       Demi-Sec – sweet, 3.3% to 5% sugar

·       Doux – very sweet, over 5% sugar (good for dessert champagne)

Champagne is most often produced from a blend of vintages and therefor designated non-vintage or NV.  Prices for a bottle of Champagne range from $25 to over $200 depending on the Champagne House, the amount of aging, and quality of the grapes.  Finding true Champagne for less than $25 a bottle may take some serious sleuthing.  Ask your local wine shop for a recommendation on a ‘grower-producer" wine, typically a family run vineyard that sells its product to a one or a limited number of distributors. 

Some of the better known Champagne producers in several price categories are listed below.

Over $100

Charles Krug
Dom Perignon
Louis Roederer (Cristal)

$50 - $100

Veuve Clicquot (Yellow Label)

$25 - $50

Champagne Montaudon
Perrier Jouet (N.V. Grand Brut Champagne)


Cava – Cava is a delightful sparkling wine that hails from the Penedès region in Catalonia, Spain.  Cava is made using the same method as Champagne however with three different grapes – Macabeo (Viura), Xarel-lo (pr. Sha rel lo), and Parellada, all white, the most common.  Other permissible grape varieties include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Cava is most prevalent as a Blancs de Blancs; however Cava is also produced as a Rose when red grapes such as Pinot Noir, Garnacha or Monastrell are used.

In 1986 Cava received the D.O. (Denomination of Origin) designation and the grape varieties used, vinification processes, and origins of the grapes came under strict regulation.  This scrutiny has led to improved quality in Cava, and it is now enjoyed around the world, second only to Champagne in annual production of a traditional method sparkling wine.  When looking for a Cava in your wine shop, look no further than the label and the cork.  All Cava corks must be stamped with the maker's logo, and a four-pointed star on the base – an indication of quality Cava.

Like Champagne Cava undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle and the addition of sugar.  Cava classification from driest to sweetest are Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Seco (dry), Sem-seco (semi-dry) and Dulce (sweet).

Well-crafted Cava offers an affordable alternative to Champagne.  Many Cava wines are available for less than $25, and even the loftiest of producers rarely exceeds $50.

Producers to look for:  Rondel Brut Cava, Cavas Lavernoya, Sumarroca , Codorníu, Freixenet, Segura Viudas, Castellblanch.

Prosecco – In northeastern Italy lies the wine region of Veneto, home to many of Italy's Prosecco producers.  Prosecco is made from the Glera grape and since 2009, the term Prosecco can only be used in conjunction with an approved Geographical Indication (GI).  Wines produced outside this region must be referred to by the grape name, Glera.

Unlike Champagne, most Prosecco is produced using the Charmant method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in large, pressurized stainless steel or glass tanks.  This process results in a finished product that typically emphasizes the fruit and floral aromas, fresh acidity and low alcohol.  Tree fruit (apple, peach, pear, apricot) are common.  Since Prosecco does not ferment in the bottle, it is made to be drunk young, typically within two years of its vintage.  A potential challenge with such an early consuming sparkling wine is ensuring that it hasn't been stored in some hot warehouse for six months.  Some produces use coded bottles to date their vintages however good luck getting anyone to help use decipher the codes.  The best bet is to try before you buy at a wine tasting or wine shop.  If you can't, keep your initial purchase to a single bottle before you stock up for New Year's.

Prosecco is a very affordable sparkling wine with most bottlings less than $20.

Producers to look for:  Mionetto, Adami, Bernardi, Nino Franco, Angelo Ruggeri, Ruggeri, Zardetto.

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