From champagne to prosecco: A guide to sparkling wines

Lifestyle

When it’s time to celebrate a special occasion, like an anniversary or promotion – or Friday, or any day ending in a Y, really – nothing beats a bottle of bubbly.

While even amateur champagne aficionados understand that to truly earn the moniker of “champs,” the sparkling wine must hail from the Champagne region of France, that body of common knowledge gets a little fuzzier when you begin asking how champagne compares to cava and prosecco, let alone cap classique or espumante.

Lucky for you, we’re breaking down some of the world’s most popular regional bubbly wines.

Champagne

Champagne in glassesChampagne in glasses — Photo courtesy of iStock / Onzeg

Made in: The Champagne region of France

Primary grapes used: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay

The Kleenex of sparkling wine, so to speak, champagne is so closely tied to the identity of the entire category that we use the word to refer to products that aren’t necessarily true champagne.

Authentic champagne isn’t just made from the three specific grape varietals grown within France’s champagne region; it also must be prepared in the traditional méthode champenoise, which sees the wine undergo a second fermentation after the addition of sugar and yeast to the bubbly brew.

Although we associate champagne with the French for good reason, the product (and entire industry) would never have been made possible without the contributions of the English.

It was the English scientist Christopher Merret who pioneered the production techniques that are today known as méthode champenoise, and it was English glassmakers who successfully created the first glass bottles that were strong enough to stand up to the enormous pressures of the contents within.

Fun fact: Due to the tendency of bottles to explode at random, champagne was commonly referred to as “the devil’s wine.”

Cava

Cava from SpainCava from Spain — Photo courtesy of iStock / frantic00

Made in: The Catalonia region of Spain

Primary grapes used: macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo

Although cava production is technically identical to the méthode champenoise, that protected term only refers to winemaking activity within Champagne itself. In Spain, where cava is dreamt up by winemakers, the methodology is instead called traditionnelle. Like champagne, cava undergoes in-bottle fermentation, though the wine within is stored at lesser pressures.

Cava may not have been the first European sparkling wine developed, but cava makers left their mark on the industry just the same with the invention of the gyropalette, a device that automates the removal of fermented yeast from bottles toward the end of the winemaking process.

Fun fact: Even though it’s not legally allowed to be called champagne, cava is commonly referred to as champán and champaña across Spain.

Prosecco

Pouring prosecco — Photo courtesy of E+ / knape

Made in: Nine provinces in Italy, most notably in the Veneto region

Primary grapes used: glera, though up to 15% volume can come from verdiso, bianchetta trevigiana, perera, glera lunga, chardonnay, pinot bianco, pinot grigio and pinot noir grapes

While champagne and cava align quite closely, despite their differing countries of origin, prosecco deviates a bit from the formula. Italy’s chief sparkling wine is created using the Martinotti method, in which fermentation of the grapes takes place in stainless steel tanks instead of glass bottles.

This ultimately makes prosecco a less costly sparkling wine to produce than cava and champagne, and makes for lighter, frothier bubbles when corked. A good quality bottle of prosecco will often cost less than half that of a comparable champagne.

Fun fact: All the world loves a deal, making prosecco, and not champagne, the world’s best-selling sparkling wine.

Espumante

Find espumante throughout PortugalFind espumante throughout Portugal — Photo courtesy of iStock / YES BRASIL

Made in: Throughout Portugal, as well as parts of Argentina

The country that brought us delicious green-tinged vinho verde has its own take on sparkling wine, espumante. Though much of the small country produces sparkling wines, the very best of the best espumantes hail from the winemaking region of DOC Bairrada, to the south of Vinho Verde.

Sekt

Sekt is Germany's version of sparkling wineSekt is Germany’s version of sparkling wine — Photo courtesy of iStock / etiennevoss

Made in: It’s complicated, but let’s say Germany & parts of Austria

Primary grapes used: riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir

You’re forgiven if you’re less familiar with Germany’s take on sparkling wine, owing to even the own country’s reliance on Italy, France and Spain for winemaking.

As much as 90% of the grapes used in Sekt-making come from those three countries, though in the homegrown all-German iteration of the sparkling wine called Deutscher sekt, the familiar German riesling grape takes center stage.

Fun fact: Sekt is so highly pressurized that bottles are rarely ever sold without protective metal cages.

Cap classique

Made in: South Africa

Primary grapes used: Chardonnay and pinot noir

South African sparkling winemaking closely mirrors that of champagne, but the results of those efforts are quite different. The dramatically warmer winemaking region of South Africa, compared at least to the more temperate zones of Europe’s top spots, makes for exceptionally fruit-forward, candy-like sparkling wines.

Sparkling wine (U.S.)

Sparkling wine in the U.S. is made using the méthode champenoiseSparkling wine in the U.S. is made using the méthode champenoise — Photo courtesy of E+ / AzmanL

Made in: USA

Primary grapes used: Take your pick – chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, pinot blanc, riesling, muscatel, traminer, chasselas

U.S. sparkling wine may not have a fancy name unto itself a la champagne or prosecco, but the country produces plenty of the stuff just the same. Production generally falls into two groups: expensive champagne rivals hailing from California and the Pacific Northwest made using the méthode champenoise, and inexpensive “mixing” sparkling wines like André and Cook’s that are made via the Charmat method.

The jumpoff for American quality sparkling wine occurred way back in 1892, when the Korbel brothers (yes, those Korbel brothers) began experimenting with the méthode champenoise after immigrating to California from Bohemia.

Fun fact: As U.S. sparkling wine’s reputation ascended, some of France’s top champagne producers invested heavily in California. Moët et Chandon created Domaine Chandon, Louis Roederer set up Roederer Estate, and Taittinger begat Domaine Carneros.

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