Sparkling Wine 101 – Bubbly for Every Budget

Sparkling Wine 101
The holidays are upon us, and we have lots of opportunities to celebrate with family and friends. What better time to have plenty of sparkling wine on hand. No matter your budget, there is a delicious sparkling wine for you; read on! (It’s rare to find something worthwhile for less than $10. Most are large scale commercial product and most are carbonated by CO2 injection (just like Coca-Cola). Best advice: buy cider or beer.)

Skip the reading, I’m in the wine shop and need help.  Click on the link below!

Sparkling Wine Cheatsheet

Sparkling Wine Fast Facts

  • 2nd Fermentation: Sparkling wine comes from a 2nd fermentation. Start with a low alcohol, high acidity wine (usually white or rosé), add sugar & yeast in a sealed container. The yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wine Folly has a nice, graphic overview.
  • Process: Two main processes for producing sparkling wine: Charmat Process and Traditional Method
  • Charmat Process: 2nd fermentation is in a big pressure-tight stainless steel tank. This method is quicker and less costly. Wines are fresh and fruity, usually less complex. And less expensive.
  • Best known Charmat Method wines: Prosecco, Lambrusco, Moscato d’Asti
  • Traditional Method = Methode Champenoise = Methode Traditionelle. The second fermentation happens in the bottle. Wine made and bottled, then sugar and yeast are added and the bottle is capped with a beer bottle cap. 2nd fermentation occurs in the bottle. After the 2nd fermentation and aging, the yeast is disgorged, the wine is topped off and the champagne cork and muselet (cage) is installed.
  • Best known traditional method: Champagne, Cremant (France), Franciacorta (Italy), Cava (Spain), most sparkling wines from the US.

Key Sparkling Wine Terms

Sweetness – sparkling wines come in a range of sweetness from bone-dry to dessert sweet. The level of sweetness is on the bottle label, but you need to know the code. Here are the levels of sweetness ascending from bone dry to sweet

  • Brut Nature / Non-dosage – no added sugar at all, can be austere
  • Brut – very dry (but can have a little sweetness) – the most common and most popular
  • Extra Dry – off-dry, starting to taste a bit sweet
  • Dry – noticeably sweet
  • Demi-Sec – sweet
  • Doux – dessert sweet

Sparkling Wine for Every Budget

Prosecco wine labels

Prosecco is fresh, delicious, and affordable. Look for the DOC or DOCG (even better) sticker.

Italy- Prosecco $10-20 per bottle in the US
Prosecco comes from northeastern Italy in the Veneto region. Look carefully for the sweetness level as Prosecco often is produced as Extra-Dry with a bit more sweetness than Brut. Flavors are refreshing with bright fruit. Prosecco carries the DOC designation, with Prosecco from a few select regions qualifying as DOCG. Look for Prosecco from Valdobbiandene for DOCG. Even the best Prosecco is usually available for less than $20.

Cava is affordable and made in the traditional (Champagne) method. Great everyday budget sparkler!

Spain – Cava: $10-20 per bottle in the US
Cava can be produced in a very large area in Spain. The grapes are different from those grown in Champagne, as the climate is much warmer in Spain, but the wine is produced in the traditional method, like Champagne. The aromas may include some yeast related notes, as the sparkling wine is aged on the lees (spent yeast) before the final steps of disgorging and cork placement.

US – Methode Traditionnelle: $15-35+ per bottle (US)
Most sparkling wines in the US are made in the traditional method and usually use the same grapes as those used in Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Since the climate is warmer and drier, you might find American sparkling wines a bit more fruit forward and generous than their French cousins. The conditions in the US are so good, several French Champagne houses bought land and produce sparkling wines in the US. Of course, they aren’t labeled Champagne!

France – Crémant: $20-30 per bottle (US)
Crémant is the name for a Methode Traditionelle sparkling wine made in France, but outside the Champagne region. They are available from many regions, indicated in their name: Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, etc… The method is the same, but the grapes will be the typical grapes of the region and not necessarily those used in Champagne.

Bottles of grower Champagne

Champagne only comes from the region of that name in France. It remains the reference for sparkling wines worldwide

France – Champagne: $30+ per bottle (US)
Champagne is the classic point of reference for sparkling wines worldwide. The grapes used for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. After making the base wine, the secondary fermentation is done in the bottle. Champagne regulations require the secondary fermentation aging is at least 12 months before the yeast is disgorged and the cork is installed.

Pet-Nat is a very popular style today. A little wild and unpredictable, but certainly fun!

Extra Credit – Pet-Nat: $20-30 per bottle (US)
Petillant Naturale is an ancient method experiencing a recent resurgence in popularity. The wine is made start to finish in one single fermentation. The wine starts fermentation as usual, but it is bottled and capped before fermentation is complete. The wine finishes fermentation in the bottle. The end result is a bit unpredictable. Will it ferment to dryness and full sparkling? Or will it stop while still a bit sweet and only lightly sparkling? Still, it’s delicious and fun. Not inexpensive, as it’s typically a small production affair.

Food – Sparkling wines are super food-friendly. Open a bottle when your friends arrive and it’s a party! Even though they seem fancy, they go great with fried foods like chips or fried chicken. Seafood of any sort, spicy foods, all are fair game.

Download the link below to your phone. Voila! You have a quick reference to use when in the wine shop or restaurant.

Sparkling Wine Cheatsheet

Homework Assignment
Before your New Years celebration, go to your favorite local wine shop and pick up a bottle of sparkling wine to enjoy. If it’s in your budget, pick up a bottle of Charmat Method wine like Prosecco and a bottle of Traditional Method wine like Cava, Cremant or one of the others listed. Then you can compare! Report back here in the comments section. Could you discern a difference? Which did you like better?

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