Champagne Guide

There is always a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine chilling in our fridge, because you never know when a special occasion (or a Tuesday!) might bubble up. There’s never a bad time to enjoy a delicious glass of bubbles. While a glass of Champagne will always be my first choice, I have learned to appreciate other styles of sparkling wine as well for their differences.

Sparkling Wine Styles

The correct term to use for this broad category is “sparkling wine” as it includes Champagne (France), Prosecco (Italy) and Cava (Spain). These wines are from the three most recognized global regions for sparkling wine production. They can only derive their names from the regions they are produced and are protected by law, therefore any sparkling wines made outside these regions are called something else. However, not all of these bubbles are created equally.

  • Champagne is produced in the Champagne region of France. The growing region, referred to as “terroir” is among the best in the world and imparts a unique minerality from its chalky limestone soil to the grapes that is not replicated anywhere else. Champagne is always a blend of three grapes: Chardonnay (white grape), Pinot Noir (red grape) and Pinot Meunier (red grape). The method of Champagne production, méthode champenoise, is a highly involved process primarily distinguished by the fact that bubbles derive from fermentation in the bottle, imparting complex flavor notes and an elegant bubble structure. The finer and more consistent the “jettison” of bubbles in your glass of Champagne, or sparkling wine in general, the higher the quality. Champagne prices vary to the extreme, but most non-vintage bottles fall in the $30-$60 range. Vintage Champagnes, meaning a Champagne with grapes produced in a single, exceptional year can be much more expensive starting at $70 and into the hundreds of dollars.

  • Prosecco is made from the glera grape and must come from the Veneto region of Italy. Prosecco is named for the tiny town in this region where the wine was invented. The wine is produced in a more economical way than the méthod champenoise, known as the Charmat method. The fermentation process takes place entirely in a steel tank and is then bottled for sale. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is not made for aging, so it is meant to be enjoyed soon after production. Characteristically it is a lighter, more fruit-forward, sometimes sweet wine with fewer, larger bubbles. Because the aromas are less complex than Champagne, this wine is often more of a crowd pleaser, or perfect for blending in a Mimosa. Most bottles sell between the $10-$25 range.

  • Cava is a sparkling wine from Spain made primarily from macabeo, parellada, and xarel-lo grapes and is more similar to Champagne because it is produced in the méthode champenoise. Its name means ‘cave’ in Spanish, referring to the wine cellars where the bottles ferment. Because of the bottle aging, Cava is a more complex, good value wine that should not be overlooked. While the region produces wines that will vary wildly in character, Cava is generally floral in its aroma and possesses finer bubbles than Prosecco. You can usually find a good one in the in the $12-$25 range and because of their greater complexity, they are best enjoyed on their own and not mixed into cocktails.

Champagne Houses versus Grower Champagnes

You probably recognize the branding of many Champagne houses (the signature orange box of Veuve Clicquot, the red ribbon of G.H. Mumm). These large Champagne houses all purchase their grapes from independent growers across the Champagne region. Increasingly popular are “Grower Champagnes,” which are wines that are grown and produced by a single grower or a limited network of grower-producers. The grower becomes the Champagne house and effectively controls the entire winemaking process down to the label. Because of import restrictions and the high barriers of entry to the U.S., it has been only in recent years that these smaller Champagnes have shown up on the shelves stateside due to increased demand. In Épernay, Nathan and I were fortunate to taste from many of these grower-producers along the Avenue de Champagne and it is the experience of a lifetime! We spoke with one winemaker in particular whose family supplies grapes for the vintage-only label of Dom Pérignon!

Notable Sparklers

The above-mentioned wines are not the only sparkling wines in the world. Just outside of the Champagne region is another notable French sparkling wine, Crémant. Its bubbles are not as fine, and can be blended from grapes other than those used to make Champagne, but the minerality from the terroir is very similar and I have always found these bottles to be an enjoyable option. Additionally, many French Champagne houses have taken root in California soil, notably Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Chandon (Moët & Chandon), and Mumm Napa (G.H. Mumm). These houses do not seek to imitate their Champagne counterparts, but instead endeavor to make sparkling, American wines worthy of their names.

Served to Perfection

Often times sparkling wine is served too cold; it should be served chilled but not too cold since you won’t be able to appreciate the full array of flavors the winemaker intended. The accepted range of serving temperatures is 50-57ºF. One trick for enjoying sparkling wine at the correct temperature (if you don’t have a thermometer handy) is to chill your room temperature bottle in a bucket filled half ice and half water for 20 minutes. Interestingly, it is not only more enjoyable to drink chilled Champagne, but also safer to open a pressurized bottle when it is colder because CO2 pressure increases at warmer temps.

Ignore Everything I Just Said

…and drink what you like! Regardless of the price point, pay attention to what you enjoy tasting. Wine stores very often hold complementary tastings and you can take advantage of comparing a cross-section of wines, sparkling or not, that will give you more context in the vast array of aroma profiles. Or, try a blind taste test at home to compare Champagne to their American sparkling counterparts, or Cava versus Prosecco and try to identify based on bubble characteristics or flavor profile. I can think of worse things to do. Cheers!

Sources: Nearly all of my info came from my best college course of all time: Introduction to Wine Science. Thanks, University of Illinois!

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